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Writer, M.D.: The Best Contemporary Fiction and Nonfiction by Doctors

by Leah Kaminsky

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Writer, M.D.
© Knopf
Knopf, January 2012

Writer, M.D.:The Best Contemporary Fiction and Nonfiction By Doctors, an anthology edited by Leah Kaminsky, explores doctors' medical lives from training to treatment. Some of the big name writers included within the collection are Abraham Verghese, New Yorker breakout star Atul Gawande, and fiction writer Ethan Canin; only doctors currently writing are included within the collection. The anthology is split unevenly between the fictional stories and the non-fiction, with essays dominating the collection in both page numbers and quality of the writing.

An Emphasis on Education
Perhaps not surprisingly, many essays focus on turning points experienced during school or residency programs - surgeries that fail to save lives, attending doctors that cover powerful emotions with humor, and the process of dissecting a cadaver. A medical school backdrop creates a more comfortable experience for both writer and reader; imagining Atul Gawande as a resident struggling to intubate a patient is humanizing; imagining the same experience from an unsupervised doctor is unnerving.

"Bedside Manners," by Abraham Verghese, is a powerful, eloquent essay, a defense of a doctor's ability to diagnose sans computer (even though that is increasingly uncommon). Verghese layers a story about how he is able to percuss the walls in his home to find a stud over a history of how doctors have interacted with patients, and how responsibilities are currently being ceded to technology.
Like Verghese, Pauline's Chen's essay, "Ressurrectionist," runs on multiple tracks - on one level, she's taking us through her process dissecting a cadaver, interspersed with the mundane memorization required from medical students. Like many writers, Chen provides strong evidence for just how overwhelming a doctor's training is; a friend tells her that memorizing the names of the bones is "like memorizing the phone book... You just have to get through it." On another track, Chen traces the history of dissection, and how the practice used to be viewed as an additional punishment. And on yet another level of the essay, she explores her cadaver's body, and how dissection provides a window into a person's history and lifestyle. The writing is powerful, engaging, and deeply fascinating, even if at points I had to flip a page quickly, because the details were just a bit too gruesome to read.

Audience & Evaluation:
As amazing as essays by Chen, Verghese, Sacks, Gawande and others are, it's hard not to contrast the wordcraft of these writers with some of the other essays, which fall a bit flat in comparison. Some essays rely on clichés - stories of doctors failing to treat themselves with the same skill they'd use to treat a patient - and others simply do not resonate on the same level. Still, all stories and essays in the anthology are thoughtful and engaging, and the medical theme offers its advantages, since the stakes feel high when you're reading about health problems.

In her introduction, Kaminsky mentions that laypeople are "hungry to see behind the veneer of the medical professional, as evidenced by the burgeoning number of TV shows such as ER and Grey's Anatomy." I wonder if this is correct - even the evidence seems slim, given that only one of her two examples is still airing. Do patients want to know about the inner workings and concerns of doctors, or is there a desire to think of medical professionals as lofty geniuses, free of foibles and uncertainty? As a non-doctor, I can say that I enjoyed the anthology a great deal. Occasionally I was forced to skim through passages that were too gory, too horrifying for me to imagine. Other less squeamish readers may revel in the suture-by-suture descriptions of surgeries and medical ailments.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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