Deployed in fiction, disability provides an infrastructure for ideological, aesthetic, and as Ria Cheyne demonstrates in Disability, Literature, and Genre, affective "freight" to move between reader, character, and author (11). Cheyne's ambitious investigation of five types of genre fiction – horror, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and romance – reveals a network in which storytelling's key stakeholders are distinguished by their expectations, agency, and openness to development. Yes, disability representation in some genre fiction may be problematic, suggesting an uncritical audience that seems strung along by predictable stereotypes, but the genre fiction that deserves attention relies on what Cheyne terms "reflexive representation." This essential work makes visible readerly feelings towards disability so that these might be evaluated and reconsidered. Reflexive representation puts the reader in transit, shuttling them to unexpected understandings of both difference and discourse.

Whether they be students or critics, readers with varying affinities for particular genres will find at least a few textual touchstones. Staples of the popular cultural canon (e.g., Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels or George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice) are read alongside of yet-to-be-adapted serial fiction like Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga or Joe Abercrombie's The First Law. Tacitly acknowledging that each genre provides more than enough material for a monograph-length project, Cheyne includes an annotated bibliography with more than 200 entries mapping disability representation in the work of writers ranging from Robert Heinlein to P.D. James. Similar bibliographic projects have long found a home in the study of literature and disability – see Peter L. Hays's The Limping Hero (1971) or Frances King's "Treatment of Mentally Retarded Characters in Modern Fiction" (1975) – but Cheyne's invitation for future work is preceded by a lucid demonstration of how such work might be done.

In bringing into conversation two distinct strands of criticism, disability studies and genre theory, Cheyne populates her scholarly context with recognizable names from each field. Many readers, however, will observe that the central claims of her work bear a trajectory that lands them in the much broader terrain of literary studies in general. Considering the aim of Disability, Literature, and Genre, one might recall, for example, the genre-centric focus of Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), specifically "the rhetorical resources available to the writer of the epic, novel, or short story as he tries, consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader" (xi). Cheyne, thankfully, shows that imaginative literature involves far more than unilateral "imposition." Authors construct the narratives of genre fiction knowing that readers dynamically receive them. The affirmation of convention may satisfy or disappoint, just as the frustration of convention may delight or disaffect. Thoughtful, active readers find company in a number of thoughtful, active disabled characters who prove well aware of the constraints and opportunities presented by the narratives that circumscribe them.

Revaluating character and reader through the lenses of affect is the central, and effectively realized, aim of the book. To take just one example, Cheyne reveals how George R.R. Martin, in focalizing A Song of Fire and Ice partly through the socially and self-labeled "dwarf," Tyrion Lannister, does not just open up channels of "affective connection between reader and character," but also enacts a narrative experience in which disability meta-narratives can be "denaturalized," "subverted," and "short-circuited" (117). Fictional work becomes a project of solidarity. Martin arranges narrative constituents in a way that allows Tyrion, the youngest son in a preeminent political family who is speciously brought to trial for murdering his nephew, to operate as an agent who is ultimately recognized by a reader open to retooling their existing understanding of, feeling towards, and engagement with disability.

If there is a limitation to Cheyne's project it has less to do with its framing and argumentation and more to do with its sheer scope, not just in terms of her corpus of primary texts but also the critical methods they might demand. Genre fiction presents a horizon that cannot be taken in with a single glance, and this challenge should remind critics to be cautious of advancing straightforward claims about how a genre typically functions and engages disability, or just as tempting, how a given author or work tends to treat disability in general.

While Cheyne's reading of Tyrion Lannister is well-argued, it perhaps sheds light on only a part of Martin's treatment of disability across his project. While analytically practical to reify that treatment through a single character, it would be useful for one to consider how Martin's progressive treatment of Tyrion – both in terms of his development as a character and the new understanding of disability he lends readers – compares to that of other disabled characters. Reading Tyrion in relation to the non-disabled masses who seek to contain him might be enriched by pairings less suggestive of a clean divide between disability and normalcy. Consider, for example, the intellectually disabled Hodor who carries the physically disabled Bran, who together seem to embody a Cartesian split in character.

Much as a network of characterization may remove the reader from discrete divides of disability and normalcy, texts may commit indiscretions that challenge the genre identities ascribed to them. How texts conjure conventions from multiple genres is something Disability, Literature, and Genre begins to shed light on, though that focus might also be taken up in future work. Cheyne does comment on how a text's genre identity may shift, arguing, for example, that Harris's trilogy transitions from "horror to extended romance," but this observation still relies on a discrete identity that a text can realize (46). Often genred texts indulge in forms that might not at first be associated with them. "Whodunnit?" – the motivating question of the plot of (and reader responses to) crime fiction – is the alleged, if insincere, central line of inquiry of Tyrion's trial after all. In one of the most shocking betrayals of the series, the defendant sees the politics of fantasy filter through unsettling testimony from his primary love interest, Shae, who claims, wrongly, to have identified the motive for the crime of his nephew's murder: "'They plotted it together,' she said, this girl he'd loved. 'The Imp and Lady Sansa plotted it after the Young Wolf died. Sansa wanted revenge for her brother and Tyrion meant to have the throne'" (961). "How and why might a text enact the forms of multiple genres so that they might plot together?" seems a natural question to raise in a cross-examination of some of the fiction Cheyne reads.

Like most recent work in disability studies, whether that be Michael Berube's Secret Life of Stories (2016) or Sami Schalk's Bodyminds Reimagined (2018), Cheyne's project names a terrain while smartly acknowledging that it has only begun to map such. Theoretical and textual ground is yet to be drawn, and Disability, Literature, and Genre presents readers both the direction and tools needed to do so.

Works Cited

  • Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York UP, 2016.
  • Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 1961. The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • Cheyne, Ria. Disability, Literature, and Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction. Liverpool UP, 2019.
  • Hays, Peter. The Limping Hero: Grotesques in Literature. New York UP, 1971.
  • King, Frances. "Treatment of the Mentally Retarded Character in Modern Fiction." Bulletin of Bibliography, vol. 31, no. 1, 1975, pp. 106-114.
  • Martin, George R.R. A Storm of Swords. Bantam, 2000.
  • Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction. Duke UP, 2018.
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