Writing the Sleep Crisis

In this post Diletta de Cristofaro introduces her Wellcome Trust project ‘Writing the Sleep Crisis’ and discusses sleep deprivation and speculative fiction that imagines the future end of sleep.

A pamphlet with the slogan “Protect Yourself and Others”. A map illustrating outbreaks and quarantine zones. Conspiracy theories circulating online: “It’s the government, they say. Or it’s Big Pharma. . . . They probably engineered it themselves. . . . Or maybe there’s no sickness at all. . . . just ask yourself, they say, who stands to benefit from all this”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that these sentences refer to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They come, instead, from two novels: Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation, originally published in a digital-only format in 2014 and now out in paperback (2020), and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers (2019).[1] Both plots revolve around epidemics of imagined sleep disorders, terminal insomnia in the former, and an unnamed “sickness” that causes people to sleep for months on end in the latter.

Sleep has become an important source of inspiration for contemporary speculative fiction writers, as discussed at “Forty Winks Café”, a Northumbria University Being Human Festival online event held on 19th November 2020 in partnership with New Writing North. In my talk, which paid homage to the theme of this year’s festival – New Worlds – I considered speculative fictions’ new worlds of sleep, or, it turns out, new worlds of no sleep. For The Dreamers is an outlier in a growing corpus of contemporary fictions that imagine the – more or less near – future end of sleep.

I discussed these narratives in the context of my new research project, “Writing the Sleep Crisis” (funded by the Wellcome Trust), which explores how sleep, and lack thereof, is represented in contemporary writings across fiction, non-fiction, and digital culture. Sleep experts are divided on whether our society is actually suffering from the crisis of poor sleep my project’s title refers to. As Simon Williams summarises the matter, “Individual sleep ‘needs’ . . . are known to vary and the ‘problem’ (if problem it is) of self-defined sleep ‘deficit’ or ‘deprivation’ may be as much as product of perception as it is of actual time spent asleep”. But Williams also acknowledges a “readiness and willingness, within professional and popular if not lay culture, to frame or translate all manner of problems and issues into sleep-related matters; a process which itself engenders a sleep ‘crisis’ of sorts”.[2] Indeed, whether this crisis is actual or perceived, the discourse of contemporary society as chronically sleep-deprived dominates cultural production. My research, therefore, analyses this discourse and what it tells us about our conceptions of sleep, health – especially mental health – the temporal rhythms of day-to-day life in the twenty-first century, and the pressures these rhythms exercise on us.

Seen through the lens of the discourse of the sleep crisis, the epidemics of insomnia that characterise speculative fictions like Sleep Donation, Adrian Barnes’ Nod (2012), Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon (2014), and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017) speak of diffuse anxieties about the contemporary world conveyed through the image of non-sleeping bodies.

Where Jonathan Crary still sees sleep in the early twenty-first century “as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism”, in that, despite the efforts of the “sleep-industrial complex”, it is an “interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability”. [3] Or, put simply: we cannot work while we sleep. Texts like Sleep Donation and The Marrow Thieves imagine futures in which this last bastion against the inexorable advance of capitalism falls. In the novels, sleep, due to its extreme scarcity, becomes just another commodity, and an incredibly precious one at that, opening up new and disturbing avenues for exploitation.

A powerful environmental thread also runs through many of these fictions, in which climate-breakdown Earth is paralleled with human bodies breaking down under the weight of constant hyper-vigilance. In Sleep Donation, the “mining” of sleep from sleep donors – Russell imagines a world in which sleep transfusions exist – is compared to “people . . . plunging their straws into any available centimeter of shale and water, every crude oil and uranium and mineral well on Earth, with an indiscriminate and borderless appetite”.[4] In The Marrow Thieves, this critique of extractive capitalism and its environmental damages combines with the critique of systemic racism in medicine and health care, for it is the bodies of First Nations people – their bone marrows, specifically – that are “mined” to develop a treatment for white insomniacs.[5]

My talk at Forty Winks Café was followed by Katy Shaw’s and Jason Ellis’s talks. Shaw, Professor of Contemporary Writings at Northumbria University, took the audience on a wide-ranging tour of sleep in literature. From Shakespeare’s “sleep perchance to dream” to the “slow literature” penned by Phoebe Smith, sleep storyteller-in-residence for the app Calm, Shaw focussed on sleep and dreams as moments of narrative sense-making and, more broadly, on the important role literature plays in fostering our wellbeing, including during lockdown.

Ellis, Professor in Psychology at Northumbria University and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, also rooted his talk on sleep health in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussing the impact of the pandemic on sleep. It’s perhaps surprising to hear but, during COVID-19, the amount of sleep we’re getting has actually increased, yet its quality – and this, I’m sure, will sound less surprising – has severely diminished due to the anxiety-inducing situation we’re experiencing. Ellis then proceeded to outline a few sleep do’s and don’ts that should help during these challenging times.

A lively Q&A session ensued, spanning both the literary studies side of the café and its sleep psychology side. Ultimately, what I hope Forty Winks Café demonstrated and what I hope my research on the “Writing the Sleep Crisis” project will continue to demonstrate in years to come is how sleep is a key phenomenon to consider in order to understand our present. If you’d like to watch a recording of Forty Winks Café, you can do so here. Here you can instead download a list of recommended books, films, videos, and apps featuring/about sleep crowdsourced thanks to our speakers’ and attendees’ suggestions. To keep up to date with “Writing the Sleep Crisis” and its future initiatives, you can follow the project on Twitter and Facebook.

Dr Diletta De Cristofaro is a Research Fellow at Northumbria University working on “Writing the Sleep Crisis”, a Wellcome Trust-funded research project. Diletta’s research expertise is in contemporary culture, crises, and the politics of time. She is the author of The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel: Critical Temporalities and the End Times (Bloomsbury, 2020) and you can find her on Twitter as @tedilta.

[1] The slogan and map can be found in Sleep Donation’s illustrated appendix: Karen Russell, Sleep Donation (London: Vintage, 2020), appendix 1-3; for the quotation about conspiracy theories, see Karen Thompson Walker, The Dreamers (London: Scribner, 2019), 90-91.

[2] Simon J. Williams, Sleep and Society: Sociological Ventures into the (Un)known (London: Routledge, 2005), 2, 137.

[3] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 10-11.

[4] Russell, Sleep Donation, 129.

[5] Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (London: Jacaranda, 2019).

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