on the ‘sick-lit’ brand, and why it matters

*potential trigger warning*

(I wrote this very early on this year, in response to this article by Tanith Carey.)

‘As plots go, it’s mawkish at best, exploitative at worse.’ – Tanith Carey describing John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, one of my absolute favourite books, and proving she also hasn’t read it when she continues to incorrectly describe the storyline.But that is pretty much the best sentence of the article. ‘While the media stops short of reporting even the most basic facts of suicide for fear of encouraging copycat behaviour, publishers are commissioning entire works of fiction on the subject.’ The Daily Mail, of all papers, appears to be trying to argue the case that the media avoids topics such as terminal and mental illness, eating disorders, self harm, murder, suicide and rape, which is what these so-called ‘sick-lit’ books are portrayed as tending to focus around. Yet it only takes a quick flick through a copy of their paper or a speedy scroll down their website homepage to find headlines such as ‘Former teacher at £28,000-a-year school jailed for sexually abusing boy, 14, while coaching him at rugby’; ‘Pensioner, 71, charged with murder after his wife, 70, is found strangled at farmhouse in rural village’; ‘Anorexia is a disease of the middle classes…’ and ‘Soldier, 24, who spoke of ‘buzz’ of surviving Afghanistan bomb blast is found hanged at home while on leave’. If a writer for this paper hasn’t even read their recent headlines, what hope do we have of her having read any of the works of literature she is about to discuss?

The article mentions how the ‘taboo of writing about suicide has been broken’ as if that is a bad thing. Apparently Carey cannot fathom the idea that if we as a society are to do something about this issues – issues which have become far more prominent over recent years – they need to be talked about: we cannot resolve these problems if we hide from them. She discusses novels such as By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead, telling readers how ‘Though helplines are listed, at the end it’s left unclear if the central character decides to go through with [committing suicide] or not’. Is this surprising? Is Carey really under the impression that stories like this should have definitive happy endings? Can she not appreciate the art of not having a clear ending? To give these books happy endings would be degrading, not only to those who have to cope with similar issues in their lives (of which in today’s teenage society there are a great many), but to all young people. It would be patronising and condescending to give a story about suicide aimed at young adults a happy ending. Teens reach an age where they are not yet adults, but want to be treated as such in some respects. Novels such as these grant them that wish.

She practically complains that, thanks to books such as these, teen fiction sales have ‘jumped almost 150% in the last six years’. Does the media really hate fiction so much (ironic, since much of what the Mail writes actually is fiction) that it can ever be happy with the books teenagers are reading? This article manages to mock Harry Potter and Twilight whilst simultaneously suggesting that it is better for teens to read Twilight, with its blatant scenes of sexism and assault, than something like The Fault in Our Stars (disregarding entirely The Hunger Games, in which  twenty-six children are annually forced to fight each other to the death). It cannot appreciate the immense effort that has gone into all of these books and the positive impact they have had on so many people’s lives. Dear Daily Mail, why can you not be happy that teenagers are reading at all? Reading, and thinking about what they have read, considering it; being introduced to these themes and ideas which are completely unavoidable in life in a safe and controlled manner? Would you not rather that, than them be forced to face it in real life having no idea what they are dealing with? That is not the way we should be introduced to these truths: these books are.

‘…publishers set about commissioning a raft of morbid novels, which all too often inadvertently glamorise shocking life-and-death issues.’ One of the things that has got my back up about this article is the all-too-clear way that the writer demonstrates that she have not read these books. If she had, she would know for absolute fact that, in The Fault In Our Starscancer is not glorified. It is ugly, it is cruel. The main character, Hazel, has to drag around an oxygen tank with tubes in her nose everywhere she travels. Her friend Isaac has to undergo an operation after which he will be entirely blind, but it is the only way to save his life. What TFiOS does, however, is show that, whilst Hazel’s initial attitude is ‘living is a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really’, she, and the other characters, whether they have cancer or have been indirectly affected by it, can continue to live and have massively enriching life experiences; continue to have friends and travel and fall in love. She may be terminally ill; you know that, whether she dies at the end of the book or not, this disease will eventually take her life – and yet it manages to have a positive outlook, without portraying cancer as a good thing or an elevating experience. This takes a huge amount of skill from author and editor, is something that this article fails entirely to appreciate. The Fault In Our Stars does not ‘glorify’ terminal illness: it does not make the reader want to have thyroid cancer like Hazel, whose ‘miracle drug’ is preserving her life for an undeterminable amount of time, or osteosarcoma like Augustus which has forced him to lose a leg; in fact it makes you eternally grateful that you do not have those things because of the devastating impact it has on their lives.

The article continues to discuss a book called Red Tears which I cannot claim to have read, but which focuses on a girl who self harms due to the stress of her GCSE exams. Not only does the book raise the issue of self-harm, but that of the way it is dealt with in schools, and the pressure felt by thousands of teenagers due to the many exams forced upon them at a young age. I’m sure Michael Gove would argue that some new form of examination will solve this problem, but the article dares to suggest that the novel actually encourages teens to self-harm. Young people in these situations often self harm because they feel that nobody understands them, so they turn in on themselves because they don’t know where else to go. This book does not promote self harm: it shows people that they are not alone, which is often all people need to be convinced of to help them take the first few steps towards getting help. It reassures them that they are understood and that they are not the only one who feels that way; it shows them that it is okay and they need not feel judged or not normal. ‘Children’s book expert’ Amanda Craig is quoted as saying, ‘I know a girl of 12 in whose class the book spread like wildfire – several of them also started cutting themselves,’ she says. Perhaps they were ‘too young’ for the book but it seems to me that perhaps there should be some investigation into why those children started cutting, rather than blaming it all on a book that, as has been stated earlier on in the article, she has not even read. One of the biggest problems with self-harm is that people who don’t do it don’t understand it: they are, understandably, scared of it. Books like these help to explain, and therefore help people to cope with, matters such as self-harm. They are important: we need more of them.

Julie Elman, we are told, has ‘studied teen ‘sick-lit”; she is ‘worried the genre encourages young girls to believe that the most important thing to worry about when facing serious illness is whether boys still fancy them.’ Elman appears to have forgotten that people with serious illnesses are, at the end of the day, still people. It’s about reality – at the end of the day, having cancer isn’t going to make you stop worrying about whether a guy or girl ‘likes’ you. Just because someone has to face such a trial in their life doesn’t mean they are automatically not allowed to be concerned by the same matters that other people are. A comment underneath the article displays a brilliant analogy: ‘Stubbing your toe doesn’t suck less because you have leukaemia.’

The final sentence of the article also gripes with me: ‘Let’s hope that publishers… are not selling books by sensationalising children’s suffering.’ Although I cannot speak for many of the authors mentioned in the article having not read their books (although there are a number I’m now interested in), I can defend John Green. He and his brother Hank have created the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, a charity which, through events such as the Project for Awesome, in which youtubers make videos advocating for a charity of their choice and when other users comment on these videos over a 48-hour period, every comment is worth a penny, aims to help as many other charities as possible. This year they raised over half a million dollars to donate to charity – not only this, but the main character in The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel, was partially based on a girl called Esther Earl. Esther was a great fan of his books, a good friend to Green and also a cancer sufferer. She has since passed away, and her life is celebrated every year by Green and his brother, along with the online community of ‘Nerdfighters’ they have built through five years of ‘vlogging’ on youtube, on her birthday,  proclaimed Esther Day. Clearly, this book was not written just to get as much publicity and profit as possible, and the fact that this so-called journalist would even suggest such a thing is degrading to Esther Earl and her friends and family, as well as all other serious illness sufferers and survivors. If you are going to write an article regarding topics such as these, at least do your research first.

The Mail does, at least, quote an author of a ‘sick-lit’ novel called Saving Daisy, about a girl who self-harms. He says, ‘When young people are lost in such traumatic states, it’s vital that they don’t feel alone […] Isolation makes the situation worse and their problems more entrenched. Novels and stories on the subject offer a sense of commonality and, most importantly, a sense of hope. How do I know this? Because young people going through such trauma have told me so.’ It’s gratifying to see that at least the important people – the authors of these novels themselves – have done their research.

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