Disability Studies scholars have long been invested in identifying various "models" of disability. From early critiques of the medical model to ongoing challenges to the social model's short comings, the field continues to question and complicate its object of study. Perhaps of equal interest to those in Literary Studies are the ways in which these understandings are, as Martha Stoddard Holmes puts it in her contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, "expressed, reinscribed, and challenged" by literary representation (71). As students and scholars of literature, we might ask: how does literature model disability? How does thinking with and through literature allow us to imagine new models and reconsider existing ones?
These questions are at the heart of the essays collected in Clare Barker and Stuart Murray's Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability. The diverse entries invite readers to consider both how texts document culturally sanctioned understandings of disability as well as literature's capacity to circumvent these paradigms. Barker and Murray, both professors of Disability and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds in the U.K., have assembled an impressive collection of essays by leading scholars of literary and cultural Disability Studies. The volume offers concise introductions for newcomers to the field while also inviting seasoned Disability Studies scholars to stretch the parameters of the field and reimagine its possibilities.
Barker and Murray introduce the collected essays by surveying the historical development of literary and cultural Disability Studies. They begin in the mid-1990s, tracing the landmark texts and core academic journals that have emerged in the years since. To conclude their introduction, the editors generatively reimagine the idea of a "companion" text such as theirs. By situating "companion" alongside crip conceptions of care as a collective practice of "recognition and justice," the editors signal the political stakes of Disability Studies' intervention into literary history and theory (11). Positing their volume as a transformative "companion" in this sense to existing English department curricula, the editors have arranged the essays into sections that reflect the organization of literature courses.
The entries in the first section, with their emphasis on context, are easily mapped onto period-based courses taught in literature departments and offer clear roadmaps for reading for disability within each framework. A volume devoted to Anglophone writings, nearly all of the essays in the first section, "Across Literatures," describe texts by authors from England and the United States. Barker's essay, however, highlights postcolonial literature's work of decentering western notions of health and ability. This attention to what Barker calls "the relativity of normalcy" is in fact at the core of every entry in the collection, as each works to situate disability within a specific cultural context (111). What Alison Hobgood and David Houston Wood refer to as the "problem of models," or the futility of retrofitting modern notions of disability to early modern texts, is varyingly taken up by a number of authors (34). While some introduce field-specific understandings of disability, such as the religious and moral models reflected in medieval and early modern literatures, others, such as Martha Stoddard Holmes, highlight the ways in which literary texts themselves model disability by "organiz[ing] complicated feelings" about bodies and minds (65).
The second half of the collection, "Across Critical Methods," questions the prevailing model of Disability Studies itself by considering how the field interacts with other fields of study. The first of these essays, co-authored by Alison Kafer and Eunjung Kim, poses a cogent challenge to Disability Studies' tendency to privilege disability as the ultimate site of oppression and most generative critical lens. The authors call instead for a self-reflexive intersectional scholarship that grapples with "gaps" in disability theories through the lenses of race, gender, class, and sexuality (123). Kafer and Kim effectively set the stage for the essays that follow. Entries by Robert McRuer on queer cultural productions, Michelle Jarman on race in the U.S., and Sami Schalk on women writers offer apt demonstrations of the critical approach Kafer and Kim describe. Each offers accessible insight into disability's entwinement with other forms of difference. These essays also serve as useful entry points into Disability Studies for students of Queer, Critical Race, and Feminist theories of literature.
As a curricular companion that caters specifically to literature departments, the volume is unique in its investment in how diverse textual forms shape disability's representation and reception. Ria Cheyne addresses this issue head on in her essay on romance, crime, and other genre fictions, as does G. Thomas Couser in his piece on disability life writing. Questions of form surface elsewhere in the collection as well, from the early modern stage to the modernist manifesto. While many of the approaches to disability detailed in the volume will be of use to scholars outside Literary Studies (especially those in History and Cultural Studies), this recurring question of form highlights the particularities of literature's relationship to disability.
The vast possibilities for literary compositions reflect, as The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability demonstrates, the futility of identifying a single dominant model of disability. As Petra Kuppers eloquently puts it in her Afterword: "literary engagement offers a space of open play…revisiting the givens of our disabled lives, and seeing ourselves in other narratives, frames, tones, and rhythms" (231).