Minimalism's attention deficit: distraction, description, and Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever

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What does it mean to diagnose a literary work with attention deficit disorder (ADD)? This article traces how US literary minimalism came, in the late twentieth century, to be understood as a literary counterpart to the new diagnostic category of ADD. Pursuing some links between literary criticism and the third volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the article shows how minimalism was seen to resemble the ADD patient because both were defined in terms of a descriptive surface that yielded no depths for expert excavation. Engaging with recent debates on the relative function and value of description and interpretation in literary studies, the article asks whether the notion of an ADD literary aesthetics, grounded in critical disability studies, might provide a route out of the dichotomy of suspicious analysis and reparative description. To pursue this question, the article performs a close reading of Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever (2001), a novel narrated by Money Breton, a woman with an ADD diagnosis. Drawing on the critical disability studies concept of cripistemology, the article shows how Robison’s novel both dismantles the trope of minimalism’s attention deficit and demands a reformulation of the relationship between writing and diagnosis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-327
Number of pages27
JournalAmerican Literary History
Issue number2
Early online date22 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2020


  • attention deficit disorder
  • ADD
  • distraction


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