Michael Northen


When scholars in the field of disability studies have turned their attention to the analysis of literature, one of the richest fields of research has been in the area of disability in fiction. Thomson (1997a) has investigated the portrayal of disability in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, Martha Stoddard Holmes (2004) has explored the impact of disability on the writing of Victorian women, Davis (1995) has explicated the role of the novel as a form that goes hand in hand with the medical model of disability and Christine Kenyon Jones (2002) has explored the effect that social attitudes toward disability had on the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet unlike the genres of poetry and life writing, very few writers with disabilities have entered the realm of fiction. In this respect, disability literature differs from Jewish, African American, and feminist literature where fiction provided a major portal for expression. Like other previously marginalized group, however, disabilities fiction deserves recognition. This essay will try to provide a brief overview of the development of the disability short story from the mid-1900's onward by focusing on the work of Flannery O'Connor, Anne Finger, Noria Jablonski and Andre Dubus.

Unlike disability poetry and life writing, disability fiction does have a mainstream model to point back to. Flannery O'Connor could reasonably be called the mother of modern disability fiction. O'Connor is a valuable ancestor for the current generation of writers to claim for several reasons. First, her work is included in almost every modern anthology of American literature; second, she had lupus disease which affected not only her life and writing but resulted in her death; and third, she wrote stories that included characters with disabilities. Perhaps the most well known of these stories is "Good Country People" (O'Connor, 1988) which includes a major character with a wooden leg. O'Connor has been criticized by disabilities scholars because her portrayal of characters with disabilities is unflattering. In "Good Country People," for example, the disabled character in the story is duped into giving away her wooden leg. This, however, is characteristic of O'Connor's characters in general, not a reflection of her attitude towards disabilities. Virtually none of O'Connor's characters are the stuff of which role models are made. The title of her most famous story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is an apt description of the entire range of O'Connor's characters. To have a character with a disability who acts foolishly is merely to treat her as O'Connor treats all other characters.

Two of O'Connor's stories, "The Lame Shall Enter First" and "Good Country People," deal directly with disability (O'Connor, 1988). Johnson Cheu sets out three ways in which he feels O'Connor falls into archetypal stereotypes of disability: "disabled is less than non- disabled; for the non-disabled, impairment emerges as the central disability issue; and the non-disabled are portrayed as benefactors" (2003). However, both the time periods (1955 and 1962, respectively) and the setting of the stories (rural Georgia) have to be born in mind. To portray attitudes differently would be to play false to the milieu in which they were written. Cheu does, however, go on to point out that the main characters in both stories refuse to give in to the notion that they need to be normalized. In the "Lame Shall Enter First," Rufus Johnson refuses to put on a shoe which will make him look more normal saying, "I ain't gonna do it. I don't need no new shoe when I got ways of getting' my own" (O'Connor, 1966, p. 176). While hardly a model citizen, Johnson has more of a sense of himself than the benefactor who needs to fill himself with good deeds. In "Good Country People" (O'Connor, 1988) the main character not only does not hide her disability but actually flaunts her wooden leg, saying that people have to accept her on her own terms. Like Johnson, she does not want to be normalized. Cheu connects this flaunting with Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell's concept of transgression in which the disabled assert their own identity by reclaiming terms such as "crip" or "freak," attaching pride to once pejorative terms (Cheu, 2003; Mitchell & Snyder, 2003). O'Connor's stories challenge the prevailing notion of the 'charity cripple' and reinforce the idea that disability is in large part a matter of social relationships. (Patterson, 1994) Given that transgressive behavior was not embraced by the disabilities community until the appearance of such organizations as ADAPT during the final quarter of the century (Hahn & Beaulaurier, 2001), O'Connor's characterization is particularly prescient.

After O'Connor, there is a long gap during which little disability fiction was written. As with poetry, one of the best places to begin looking for fiction is in the two early anthologies of disability writing that did so much to promote the work of writers with disabilities, Vassar Miller's Despite this Flesh (1985) and Saxton and Howe's With Wings (1987). Unfortunately, both of these collections present problems with for readers or researchers seeking short fiction by writers with physical disabilities. Miller, as has been mentioned previously, did not include any biographical material, making it difficult to distinguish writers with disabilities from writers without. Saxton and Howe's book included few pieces of fiction and was limited to the work of women. It was not until Kenny Fries' Staring Back (1997) that an anthology appeared which both limited its authors to those with disabilities and included men as well as women. By that time, however, most of the writers of fiction who have made an impact, were already being read in their original sources.

Anne Finger is, by almost any survey of the Disabilities Studies community, the major writer of short disability fiction. One of her stories, "Like the Hully Gully But Not So Slow," appeared in Miller's anthology. (In this story, Finger sets the stage for the cynical style and characters who refused to be marginalized by disability that characterize all of her work:

          "Dear Fashion Editor," I could write, "my problem is that I wear braces on my legs and walk with crutches. When I get dressed up nicely, I look like a robot in a party dress. Any fashion suggestions?"
          You're in luck. The fashion show in Paris this year featured the metal look. It hasn't hit these shores yet, but within a year the other drivels at school will be dressing themselves up in aluminum foil and carrying purses made of steel girders – casting jealous eyes at your high grade aluminum and anodized steel. SO just hold on for a little bit more, and you'll be right in the swing of things!
          I know what I'd really get. True beauty shines from within. Wear a pleasant smile and clothes that are wrinkle free. Avoid loud prints. Take part in a lot of after school activities. (Finger, 1985, p. 13)

Two years later, Finger's collection of short stories, Basic Skills (1988) appeared. Still the single best collection of stories about people with disabilities, Basic Skills explored the way in which society tries to normalize people with disabilities. In the title story, Finger writes, "Her hair is cropped short. It was supposed to come out looking like a "wedge" - as they call it in the women's magazines – short and fashionable. Normal. Normalization is a big thing here at Basic Skills" (p. 75).

While Finger employs a number of characters and disabilities, they cluster around one prototypical character, a young woman who uses crutches and has scoliosis as a result of polio, and who has a rebellious persona – a character who essentially stands in for Finger herself. One of the most artistically interesting stories, "Abortion" fuses fiction and autobiography. This story prefigures both her autobiographical work Past Due, and her novel, Bone Truth (1994).

The next collection of short stories to put a major focus on physical disability fiction did not come along until Noria Jablonski's Human Oddities, in 2005. Though comprised of short stories, the work is more like a shattered novel (Howell, 2005), a variegated whole. The first story, "Pam Calls Her Mother on Five-Cent Sundays," begins as a sort of minimalist narrative about a hairdresser and her blue collar life, but eventually leads to two characters who turn out to be conjoined twins. Having pulled conjoined twins into the story, Jablonski establishes a connection between the book's title and our usual concepts of odd instances of humanity.

The conjoined twins Fern and Rose Hyatt are stand-ins for two real life twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton who traveled in the freak shows of the early 1900's. At one point in the story, Fern and Rose reflect on what Garland-Thompson (2012) has recently called the "eugenics world building movement":

          "The peaches this year had black spots on them from too much rain." Fern said, "There's nothing wrong with them, really, but who wants spotty peaches."
          "People get nervous about spots," Rose said. (Jablonski, 2005, p. 13)

They also go on to defend the freak show tradition as a viable alternative. "If we could" said Fern, "we'd go back to being show folks. But live shows are kaput. People look down on them. Also, they're expensive to run. Now if you're lucky, maybe you'll get a two headed baby pickled in a jar.—"
           Or a five-legged cow," said Rose.
          "One of those kids with a unicorn horn," said Fern, "and some old pictures tacked up on the side of a tent."
          "Pictures of us," said Rose. (p. 13)

Jablonski is at least as concerned with the craft of fiction as she is with theme. Originally, she had planned to tell the story from the point of view of the twins. This would have put her in the tradition Finger was trying to develop of having characters who could not identify as normal. Jablonski changed her mind because "the result was, well, boring. And it was boring to write. I wasn't doing anything new with their story" (personal communication, September 7, 2006). She opted instead to tell it from the point of view of a hairdresser. This is a risky strategy in that it is an author with a disability telling a story of disability from the perspective of a non-disabled character; however, in doing so, what Jablonski accomplishes is a blurring of the definition of normal.

The theme of connection and disconnection runs through Human Oddities. In the story "One of Us" Jablonski explores the disconnectedness of two conjoined brothers who had been separated at birth. They are so different from each other that they have difficulty relating. Not only are they disconnected from each other but one brother, Hassan, does not recognize himself as having any connection to the disabilities community until he sees the film Freakson television (Rosenfeld, 2006).

Throughout her collection of stories, Jablonski explores events from the lives of a variety people in our society who do not fit the norm. While some may be physically impaired, such as a woman with no legs, others are disabled by society's attitudes towards them.

One of Jablonski's accomplishments is to answer Mitchell's (2000) criticism that most literary writers with disabilities do not seek to build a disability culture by making common references that the community would understand. While there are many subtle references throughout the collection, one story in particular is replete with them. The title of the story "One of Us" is a reference to a book by Alice Dumant Dreger (2004) about the pressures that parents of conjoined twins are under to choose one child to live when doctors try to make a medical separation. This story features twin boys and makes many references to the famous Siamese twins Eng and Chang, to Violet and Daisy Hilton and to Todd Browning's infamous movie, Freaks.

Despite these references, Jablonski is a writer of subtlety. Unlike Fingers earlier work, which has a tendency to proselytize, Jablonski, in an understated way, presents portraits of lives different from the norm and leaves them there as a mirror for the reader to reflect upon. Her stories are almost always unresolved.

Between the publication of Finger's Basic Skills and Jablonski's Human Oddities came an influential book by a much more widely-known author. The book was Dancing After Hours (1996), the author, Andre Dubus. Dubus, born in Louisiana, and transplanted to Massachusetts later in life, was already a widely respected writer of American short stories and friend of such writers as John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, when in 1986 he was hit by a motorist (Fecteau, 2003). He subsequently became a wheelchair user, losing one leg and being paralyzed from the waist down.

Dancing After Hours was Dubus first collection of fiction after his injury. He brings to it the craftsmanship that made him respected as a writer in the American realistic tradition. While the collection of stories superficially resembles Jablonski's collection in the sense that it is unified by characters all of whom are dealing with deep personal problems, the similarity ends there. He neither approaches the surreal as Jablonski does nor pushes a social agenda, like Finger. It is his skill with words that lets his character's lives speak for themselves.

Dubus' influence within disability literature essentially rests upon one story in the collection, the title story, "Dancing After Hours," the only story to actually feature a character with a physical disability. The story is written as a third person narrative with Emily, a forty-year-old barmaid as the central character. Drew, the character in the wheelchair, is one among a number of people who come into a small, local bar, sharing both the bar and the story, but his presence there ultimately has an effect upon other characters.

Emily, who fears intimacy and thinks that she may be ultimately unlovable, reflects:

So was anyone boundless? Most of the time you could avoid what disgusted you but if you needed that person to help you simply live….Drew's body had knocked down the walls and door of his bathroom; living without privacy, he also had to rely on someone who did not need him to be private. It was an intimacy that babies had, and people like Drew, and the ill and dying. And who could go calmly and tenderly and stoutly into his life? For years she had heard married women speak with repugnance of their husbands: their breath, their farts, their fat stomachs and asses, their lust, their golf, their humor, their passions, their loves. Maybe Jeff's wife was one of these; maybe she'd been with him too long; maybe he took home too many fish." (p. 219)

"Dancing After Hours" was anthologized in Staring Back in 1997 and has since been a staple in Disability Studies college curricula. This was a savvy move by Fries. What the story has did for disability literature was to incorporate from mainstream literature a widely read story in which a character in a wheelchair is neither pitiable nor repulsive, neither a hero nor a symbol, but a part of the community with issues and influences like everyone else.

With only this handful of fiction by writers with disability, it is difficult to delineate the parameters of disability fiction as a genre or even assess its contribution to literature - notwithstanding its auspicious beginning with Flannery O'Connor. Nevertheless, some tentative characteristics do seem to be emerging. One particular drawback is that, with the exception of Dubus, the works of fiction are all by women. This genre, therefore, lacks the perspective of a male fiction writer born with a physical disability. One characteristic common to all these writers is their lack of sentimentality about disability. There are no Tiny Tim's or Klara's (Rosenthal, 1998). Jablonski, who readily admits her debt to O'Connor, points out that in addition to O'Connor's craft she admires her unsentimental treatment of characters with disabilities such as the protagonist in "Good Country People." Though their styles differ, the same unsentimental treatment of characters is true of Dubus' portrayal of Drew, Finger's alter egos and the characters of Jablonski herself.

A second characteristic, and, indeed, contribution, of disability fiction is the bringing in of the point of view of the outsider, specifically that of the individual with disability. Unlike poetry and autobiography, fiction (first in the form of the novel and later as the short story) was a middle class invention which sought a middle class audience. It was concerned with social relationships, especially class or social status (Spurgin, 2006). Inherited from England, the American short story even from the beginning, exploited "the tension of the opposition of a minority to the wishes of the majority" (Gelman, 2001, p.15). The viewpoint conveyed in fiction, including concepts of normalcy, was a middle class viewpoint (Davis, 1995). This hegemony of viewpoint has been eroded by the gradual incorporation into fiction of points of view from Jews, African Americans and feminists, and more recently by Latino, LGBT and other literatures. It is with Finger in particular that American literature is introduced to the world through the eyes of a narrator with a disability in the first person. If, as Jablonski believes, disability fiction is the next frontier in fiction, then O'Connor, Dunn, Finger, Dubus and Jablonski herself have made a significant contribution to it by laying the groundwork.


(Editors Note: Because the list of sources cited is extensive, they are not included here but may be accessed by clicking on citations).


Michael Northen is an editor of Wordgathering and one of the editors of Beauty is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.