The book begins by running through some of Watt's minor childhood ailments: fracturing his arm falling off a wardrobe; twisting his knee after a football match; a car crash; having his wisdom teeth removed. But the real story is an X-ray-by-X-ray account of how, as he writes in the catalogue blurb: "I fell very ill - about as ill as it is possible to be without actually dying - confronting a disease hardly anyone, not even some doctors, had heard of."
Strangely, Ben Watt is not alone. Over the next few months, bookshop shelves will be groaning with lyrical but catheter-packed autobiographical accounts of "suicidal depression" (Tim Lott's The Scent Of Dried Roses, Viking), Aids (Oscar Moore's PWA, Picador; the late Harold Brodkey's This Wild Darkness, Fourth Estate); alcoholism (Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, already a bestseller in America, published in the UK by Quartet). Next year, readers who still have the stomach for electrocardiograms, inhaled steroids and strong antibiotics can look forward to Lauren Slater's addiction to Prozac (Black Swans), Robert McCrum's stroke (My Year Off) and Fiona Shaw's post-natal depression (Out Of Me). "We have a lot more sick books on the way," adds Viking's publicity manager, Kate Shaw.
These writers - with the exception of Harold Brodkey, who died aged 66 - are not old people whose natural subject matter has become the body's decay. Ben Watt is a 34-year-old pop star; Tim Lott used to edit the hip London listings mag, City Limits; Robert McCrum spent the night before his stroke drinking champagne in medialand; Caroline Knapp writes for Cosmopolitan. In the words of agent David Godwin (who represents Watt, Lott and the Brodkey estate, and is therefore something of an expert in the area), "Illness has become hip".
It never used to be this way. As Susan Sontag argued in Illness As Metaphor, disease used to stigmatise the victim; at best, it was linked with creativity. Now the endless, awful pleuritic pains and endoscopies of disease appear to be the new rock 'n' roll. Why? Have agents and publishers all gone down with fin de siecle cabin fever? Has the culture of confession taken over the literary salon? Are we all living in the shadow of Aids? And will there be a new literary award for the Best of Young British Illnesses?
In one sense, the "Look At My MRI Scan" genre is simply a niche within the expanding "diary of a nobody" genre pioneered by Nick Hornby. The illness strand - identified by Peter Kramer in the New York Times Book Review as "autopathography" - began with Blake Morrison's account of his father's death, When Did You Last See Your Father? and gathered pace with Elizabeth Wurtzel's grunge manifesto Prozac Nation (60,000 copies sold to date); Elisa Segrave's cancer chronicle, Diary Of A Breast; Love's Work by the late Gillian Rose (more cancer); Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind (depression) and Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (yet more depression). "A lot of people who would have written novels," says literary agent Georgia Garrett, "are now writing narrative non-fiction".
Tim Lott is a case in point. "I originally wrote The Scent of Dried Roses as a novel," he says. "Nobody wanted to publish it - they said it was too depressing. But the only reason I wrote it as a novel was I thought no one would be interested in my autobiography, because who the hell am I? Then Hornby and Morrison applied story-telling structure to non-fiction and suddenly it was OK to be an ordinary person writing about your own life. It was as if the English were finally getting the hang of the New Journalism."
But John Riley, publisher of Picador, believes the New Illness Journalism precedes the Hornby effect: Darkness Visible, William Styron's best-selling account of his own depressive illness, was published in 1990. "The phenomenon started with clinicians," he says. "Oliver Sacks, Sherwin B. Nuland [author of How We Die] and Kay Redfield Jamison humanised illness, writing about it in a literary way."
David Godwin believes that illness has become the new world writer's "last frontier": if Bruce Chatwin were alive today, Patagonia would be just another tourist destination and he'd probably be writing about Aids. Robert McCrum concurs. "We lead very secure lives," he says, "yet we have a taste for adventure. These books are late 20th-century war stories." Certainly, one senses the dead, conquering weight of CNN in Robert McCrum's original New Yorker essay: "For some hours, I lay on my back staring up at a framed brown-and-green school map of Indochina - a souvenir of a trip I had made to Phnom Penh in 1993. I had then been looking for an adventure. Now I seemed to be caught up in one."
Stella Kane who, as publishing director of Quartet Books, brought babe depressive Elizabeth Wurtzel to Britain, believes that illness taps into the feel-bad Nineties. "Wurtzel's grunge aesthetic," she says, "is simply inertia and economic depression for young people." Certainly, both young and old seem to have a lot to be ill and depressed about: overwork and unemployment, pollution, global warming, falling sperm levels, mystery cancer clusters. "Aids has made people think about their mortality at a younger age," says Simon Garfield, author of The End Of Innocence, a history of Aids in Britain.
At the same time, illness may act as a way into that other element of the Nineties zeitgeist, the spiritually authentic New Age. "The truth is," writes McCrum, "that in my 'old' life as a fit person I had become a monster of irresponsibility. For years, I had lived for my freedom. I would look up and see the jets circling over London and say to myself, 'There is no reason I shouldn't be on a plane to anywhere in the world, given an hour's notice.' I revelled in the idea of escape. Psychologically speaking, I carried a passport and a wallet full of international credit cards. Before my stroke, I'd been dissatisfied with my lot; in the hospital, I came to recognise that I'd been ambushed by the 'adventure' I was looking for, and was travelling into a new and strange interior: my heart."
Perhaps the new illiterati are simply victims of the culture of voyeurism and complaint, in which psychiatrists have their own chat shows (Anthony Clare), doctors are sex gods (ER's Dr Ross is the new Batman), Oprah Winfrey's daily mess fest has made her one of the richest entertainers in America, Dennis Potter is lauded because he has cancer, and in which celebrities do not hide their problems, as they did in the Fifties, but shout about them on prime-time TV: Imogen Stubbs' paralysis-inducing fear, Adam Faith's post-traumatic stress, Ludovic Kennedy's depression.
Meanwhile, if anybody is interested in my own modestly searing contribution to the genre - The Balloon Inside Me: Living With Pre-Menstrual Water Retention - I can confidently predict success.Reuse content