A terrifyingly true account of giving the vampire paper to a room full of bioethicists…
No, no, I did not talk about the possibility that health care providers might be creatures of the night. In my paper, The Undead in Bioethics and Vampire Fiction, I claimed that cultural and literary criticisms of vampire fiction could benefit from the addition of some bioethicists to the discussion, and that narrative bioethics could benefit from looking a little more closely at commercial/mass market/genre fiction, especially vampire fiction.
This is an annual conference put on by the largest bioethics organization in the US. There are 420 sessions over 5 days, and with most of those having 3 speakers, so you can imagine what a big conference this is. Bioethics is many things: academic, clinical, political, public. And this conference brings together people who work in traditional academic settings, academic medical centers, medical centers of the nonacademic stripe, public policy and think tank folks, artists, advocates, community organizers, students, practitioners, etc etc etc.
My paper was one of six in the sub-area Arts, Literature and Cultural Studies, but unlike another multidisciplinary conference I attended this year, the Popular Culture Association, ASBH doesn’t organize the panels or conference with the sub-areas in mind at all. There are affinity group meetings each evening, which you can attend to see others in your area. Tonight, I plan to attend the clinical ethics affinity group meeting, because we have a very controversial issue before us: the credentialing and licensure of ethics consultants.
So my fellow speakers were a philosopher who talked about existential suffering at the end of life, and a JD/PhD who discussed consent to cadaveric donation (like, when you give your body to science, do you mind if the US government straps an explosive device to it, and blows it to smithereens? Or if some of your tissues might be used to plump someone’s lips … or penis?). Our session took place in the ballroom, where the plenary sessions have been, which seats about 500 and has two giant screens for your power points, as well as a large raised stage. Of course, the room wasn’t full as there were many other sessions taking place, but I would guess we had about 150 people, which would not have been possible in the smaller conference rooms. So I guess the organizers knew what they were doing.
My paper made a point similar to the one I gave at PCA in April. Lots of bioethicists appreciate the fertile ground which fiction presents for our work, whether it’s used as a teaching tool, a clinical tool, or a site of investigation of important bioethical themes. But they tend to focus exclusively on literary fiction. When they do look at popular fiction — and here I cited recent essays which addressed the work of Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, and Robin Cook — the analysis tends to focus heavily on the possible negative (distorting, simplifying, upsetting) impact of this fiction on readers and on public discourse about bioethics generally. So the first half of my paper involved making some claims about readers of popular fiction, how actively we read, and how we don’t necessarily need the protection of others to save us from bad messages. I also talked a little bit about the ways genre fiction can be read — in terms of system, in addition to as an individual text — to note that if a bioethicist picks up one book by Stephen King and thinks she is getting all of the things out of it that a seasoned horror reader would, she is mistaken. For example, characters that look thin when reading one book in a series (Sookie Stackhouse, for example) flesh out once you appreciate the serialized nature of their narrative. And other points along these lines. So, basically, I argued that (a) popular fiction can fail to fulfill its aims, while literary fiction can fail to fulfill its aims, and (b) there’s no way to make an invidious distinction between good and bad fiction based on how popular it is, unless you have a secret anterior dislike to genre, which you’ll have to substantiate.
I know this argument won’t please some readers of this blog. Perhaps I should have just claimed there is no difference AT ALL between popular fiction and literary fiction, neither in terms of quality, nor in any other terms. But my goal is to convince people that they need to turn theoretical attention to genre fiction. If I can do that while making a less controversial, more easily defensible claim, I will.
In the second half of the paper, I talked about vampire fiction, how ubiquitous it is (I made reference to it as a “category killer” and to the joke about a “vampire industrial average” in publishing). I showed lots of fun slides — never have I had so many non-textual slides in my life. I talked about literary and cultural criticism of vampire fiction, and noted that it tends not to spend much time looking at the obvious: that vampires are undead and that death figures prominently in any vampire story. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that being undead — not blood sucking or day sleeping or even being alluring — is the one thread that ties together every vampire narrative I know. Maybe we need to get out of the deep end of the psychology pool and just think about the more obvious issues: this is the one place in our culture where people are reading and talking and thinking about death. About what it takes to be dead. About how we figure out who is dead. About whether there are nearly dead states that are enough like true death to count. About organ and tissue donation. Etc. Don’t bioethicsts have anything to contribute to this discussion?
Putting my feminist hat on, I talked briefly about the tendency to think that if a vampire narrative is about romance it is therefore not about anything else, and that everything in it is a metaphor for sex. I used the image of Bella’s dream about being an old lover to an eternally 17 year old Edward to suggest that questions about what happily ever after means in the context of immortal love might be one way that women think about death.
There are many other bioethical issues I could raise in this connection – longevity research being the one that comes to mind first — but you get the point.
I had 20 minutes total for reading the paper and for discussion. I made sure to position myself openly as a reader and fan of the vampire fiction I was discussing, and had to roll my eyes inwardly as one of my copanelists snickered through the whole thing. The response from the audience was really terrific, and also from the editors of two journals in this subfield of bioethics, who approached me afterwards. I was especially gratified that one of them told me he agrees completely that we need to be working on popular fiction across the genres. A medical anthropologist asked me be an outside reader for one of her PhD students who is writing on vampire folklore and medicine, and a med school professor told me he now plans to begin his unit on death by discussing vampires. I couldn’t be more pleased with that response.