Prof. Dr. Melissa Zeiger (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire): "'Less than Perfect': Negotiating Breast Cancer in Popular Romance"

Wednesday, 11.12.2013, 10:15 - 11:45 a.m., U5/01.18

In a rapid reversal from the relative absence of breast cancer narratives of any kind, let alone those geared to a popular audience, a huge body of romance novels whose heroines are recovering from treatment began to emerge in the mid-1990s and continues into the present. Usually in breast cancer romances, the heroine has lost a breast (and sometimes hair) to cancer, feels unattractive in her altered body, and fears she will never be loved or desired again. Often, she also imagines that her uncertain life span makes her unacceptable as a life partner. But the change in her appearance generally preoccupies her most. She may or may not have chosen reconstruction; her prognosis is usually good, but sometimes she is at high risk for a recurrence.

I will suggest over the course of my talk that the emergence of this animated, engaging, diverse sub-genre reflects a shift in what is acceptable to say about breast cancer, and that the novels also participate in that shift, contributing to breast cancer’s status as something to talk about rather than hide. I will talk about the contradictory movements, some promising, some counterproductive, that have accompanied greater freedoms in discussing breast cancer, and I will argue that feminists can find in romance novels—a never unproblematic genre—nonetheless a powerful site, supplementary to feminist theory and activism, for resisting the debasement of public breast cancer discourse.

Melissa Zeiger is Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth College the author of Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy (1997). She is a distinguished teacher with a special interest in contemporary poetry, AIDS and Breast Cancer Literature, women’s fiction and Feminist Criticism, but has also published on Victorian and Modernist poetry. Her current research projects focus on the garden/gardening in American literature and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.