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Yvonne Leffler

The study of popular literature can enrich the understanding of our life conditions. So says Yvonne Leffler, professor of comparative literature, who heads the research programme Religion, Culture and Health.
She argues that today's best selling vampyre and so-called chick lit novels clearly reflect ideas and ideals of health in our time.

– Modern vampyre literature centers on the significance of being human, both morally and physically. For example, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Series reflects a fixation on health and beauty and a wish to overcome death, but also thoughts on what consequences eternal youth might lead to. Chick lit, in its turn, fuctions as a kind of fictitious self-help. It revolves around the woman in crisis – both privately and professionally – who against all odds attains happiness and success. These stories of young career women can function as advisory illustrations on how a woman can deal with her problems, process her romantic disappointments or depression and turn adversity into success at work.

Your work is part of the research programme Religion, Culture and Health?
– Yes, within the programme there are researchers in comparative literature, film, religion as well as political science, investigating the role of culture and philosophy of life vis-á-vis health and well-being. As I said, I have personally investigated the importance of the fictitious popular stories of our time in this context. I analyse how basic values are shaped in best sellers such as Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, the Twilight Series and Kajsa Ingemarsson's chic lit novels, as well as how and why this particular type of story feels so important and meaningful for so many people today.

Could you say that literature reflects conceptions about illness and health of our time?
– Fictitious stories always reflect conceptions of their time, while they also contribute in confirming and shaping conceptions of various phenomena. Concerning illness and health, time period has its "fashionable diseases" – certain disease conditions that are more accentuated than others. This says something about what people are familiar with and want to delve deeper into.

Are there any particularly topical themes of illness and health in popular fiction?
– If it was TB and syphilis that were described in the late 19th century, the focus today is on mental illness. The fictitious principals of our time wrestle with depression or feelings of meaninglessness. Often, the characters' suffering is linked with a general societal state. It is probably no coincidence that popular detectives, such as Kurt Wallander, have to sacrifice family life because of their job. Because of the police work, Wallander neglects his health: he is overstressed, sleeps too little, eats and drinks unhealthily, forgets to excercise, et cetera. Whom among us cannot identify with this?

How can the meeting with fiction contribute to people's well-being?
– Fictitious stories' ability let us see the world from the principal's perspective, is an effective way to indirectly gain experiences and imagine how something might be. We receive new knowledge of various human conditions, but also of emotional and cognitive experiences without exposing ourseleves to mental and physical risk. One can, for example, learn how it would feel to be inflicted with mortal cancer without having to die from it. Instead, the experience contributes to our being enriched with new thoughs and experiences.

Could you say that the connection between fiction and health is a research area for the future?
– Absolutely! Modern health care has to a large extent focused on rapidly curing, operating and medicating tangible bodily afflictions such as injuries caused by accidents or cardiac problems. Often one forgets the human aspects of being inflicted with serious illness and being subject to extended treatment. In order to achieve better rehabilitation, we must better understand how people experience disease and what is meaningful at a deeper level in life. It is precisely this we can learn from fictitious stories, while we also can work more actively with film and literature in health care, so-called biliotherapy.

Personal facts

Employment: professor of comparative literature, history of ideas and religion
Family: husband and cat, siblings and siblings' children
Research interests: narratology and reception theory, at present our need for ficticious stories in the shape of horror novels, horror movies, crime fiction. Also working with research on the early Swedish 19th century novel and how it was spread across Europe.
Driving force: the need to raise and answer questions, in particular those that do not lend themselves to a given answer
Leisure interests: freely relaxing with long hikes and running, opera and cooking with friends and family

[Interview by Daniel Brodén and published 2012-06-26]

Contact Information

Centre for Culture and Health

Box 200, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

Page Manager: Lovisa Aijmer|Last update: 6/27/2012

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