In her recent New York Times column, Compelling Stories, If Not Literature, Dr. Abigail Zuger bemoans the recent outpouring of health-related memoirs. “Few of these efforts rise to the level of great literature,” she writes. “None of these books comes close to succeeding according to the usual standards. The language is clumsy and full of clichés; the dialogue is stiff and unreal; the pacing is way off.”
Dr. Zuger also has something to say about doctors who have taken to writing their own stories: “the great majority are sentimental and predictable, and a few manage to be as pedantic, self-important and annoying as, one ventures, their authors must be in person.” Her conclusion? “Most of these books aren’t great literature either.”
Still, Dr. Zuger confides, she has a soft spot in her heart for such books. In the face of all of her prior criticism, you have to ask yourself why. Is Dr. Zuger merely being sentimental? Or does she identify with the sentiments of her patients and colleagues?
In my opinion, what Dr. Zuger fails to recognize is that the patient’s story, no matter how ineptly told, becomes an integral part of the healing process itself.
Medicine’s great 19th century humanitarian physician William Osler remarked that, dealing as he does with poor suffering humanity, a good doctor has to keep his heart soft and tender, lest he develop too great a contempt for his fellow creatures. Osler reflects on what he terms “the poetry of the commonplace”—the ordinary man, the plain, toil-worn woman, their love and their joys, their sorrow and their griefs.
According to Osler, such tales serve to sustain the weary-worn clinician in his daily work. They also serve to sharpen his compassion for his fellow creatures.
My collection of clinical tales in the art of medicine, Patients Are a Virtue, might not be great literature. Few practicing clinicians and fewer patients will ever read it. Most likely it will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of narrative medical writing. And yet I take heart when I receive that occasional communication from cyberspace, such as a brief e-mail from a doctor in rural western Pennsylvania, who wrote that, after reading my book, he felt energized and renewed in his commitment to his patients. He felt so strongly about it that he purchased additional copies for his colleagues and encouraged them read it as well.
Is every patient and practitioner a poet? Dr. Zuger asks. In his consideration of the poetry of the commonplace, I believe that Dr. Osler would answer her rhetorical question in the affirmative.