Don’t throw the baby out with the Sick Lit

 (This post contains spoilers for When I Was Joe and Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. Don’t read it if you haven’t read them!!!)

 I followed the ‘sick lit’ debate this week with great interest. It started in the Daily Mail with this article by Tanith Carey. Here’s an extract:             

While the Twilight series and its imitators are clearly fantasy, these books don’t spare any detail of the harsh realities of terminal illness, depression and death.
Most are also liberally peppered with sex and swearing. The blurbs for ‘teen sick-lit’ – as it’s become known – trip over themselves to promise their books will drive readers ‘to tears’ or leave them ‘devastated’.

Carey seems to be suggesting that teenagers should be shielded from detailed ‘harsh reality’ including sex and swearing, and that authors and their publishers are exploiting their emotions, trying to make them cry. Furthermore:

Publishers set about commissioning a raft of morbid novels, which all too often inadvertently glamorise shocking life-and-death issues.

‘When you write for children, you have a moral and social responsibility,’ says Amanda (Craig, children’s book reviewer for The Times) . ‘I think there is a cavalier attitude towards this in the publishing industry, especially as children as young as 11 are likely  to be reading these books.
‘They are aimed at young teens at the time when they are most likely to go through  self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts.’

So, added to the charge is a far more serious one, that these books can encourage or inspire self-harm or suicide.

There have been several responses to the original article. This one by Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow  makes many good points, including:

Books that deal well with difficult topics can be a safe way for children to encounter those topics.

And  this one by Vanessa Harbour points out that

Reading as a child/teenager is all part of working out who you are. It is all part of the search for an identity. Books are a chance to try on different voices and identities to see how they fit in the safe environment of between the pages.

Tanith Carey responds to Vanessa’s post in the comments. She says:

The feature also suggests that if young children are going to read these books, they should have an adult to talk through such issues.
Also do please address the issue that the press no longer reports anything except the most broad facts of a suicide, even though they have all the details at inquests – for fear of inspiring copycats.
Yet books like By the Time You Read This I Will Be Dead centres on a 15 year old bullying victim using a suicide website to set herself a deadline to kill herself – and considering how best to do it.

Michele Pauli in the Guardian was scathing about the original Mail article, calling it ‘daft’ and saying:

Frankly, I’d be more worried about a teen who wasn’t a little moist-eyed after reading a well-written book in which the main character, whom they’ve grown to know and love, dies at the end. Generation of cold-hearted psychopaths, anyone?

But in the comments, Meg Rosoff, one of our best YA writers says:  

Sorry guys, I completely 100% agree with the Mail on this one. I hate these books. I am sick to death (HA) of all these dead/dying teen books that somehow make you cry without any of the sense of the actual ugliness of cancer and death. In all the books mentioned there’s a definite sense of “well at least she lost her virginity first/fell in love”, allowing the reader to sigh with misery/pleasure at the outcome. Kids dying is unbearably ugly and awful and doesn’t allow you to sigh and cry. And most dying kids aren’t thinking about getting laid. Lord knows, I don’t hate gritty subjects for teens. The grittier the better in my opinion. But not this faux-grit. For an honest book about death, try Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. Or Maurice Gleitzman’s holocaust books Once and Then.

And another top YA writer, Anthony McGowan joins in too:

The dying child has become an equally lazy trope in Y/A fiction – just as formulaic and silly and the wizards and dragons. Judging by these books you’d think that there’s a 50-50 chance of any kid dying of cancer. The field is ripe for satire …

There are now so many strands to this argument, that it’s hard to know where to begin.  It seems to me that these are the most important.

 – Is there something intrinsically more shocking/dangerous/upsetting about books which deal with strong emotions, death, sickness, and so on in a contemporary realist setting, as opposed to fantasy?

I think not. Many adults feel easier with children reading fantasy. Perhaps they feel there is a mutual understanding that it is ‘only a story’, that vampires don’t exist, that the book will not be taken too seriously. But I believe that teenagers are able to understand that a contemporary story is as much a fiction as Harry Potter. Some of them prefer to read about the world about them. Others don’t. It’s a personal choice.

 – Is there a trend towards mawkish and exploitative books about cancer and death?

Maybe. I haven’t read all of them. There are certainly a lot of them, and a cancer book won the Carnegie Medal last year (A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness) The ones I have read by John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), Sally Nicholls (Ways to Live Forever)  and Sophia Bennett (The Look)  are  well-written and engaging. They include  some medical details, and don’t dodge uncomfortable and difficult emotions. In The Fault in Our Stars the boy had another girlfriend with cancer –  and he didn’t like her, because her cancer affected her moods and she was not nice to be with. This seems to me to be honest, unsentimental, interesting.
I haven’t come across a book which is written solely to be a Love Story type weepie, but I’m sure they exist. Of course you cry. A book about a child sick or dying would be a failure if it didn’t move you to tears. That doesn’t necessarily make it mawkish, sentimental or exploitative. Sometimes it is hard to cry about the things that actually matter in one’s life. A book, a film, the death of a celebrity may provide catharsis. I remember weeping over the death announcements of strangers in the week after my mother-in-law’s death. So a book might be sentimental, it might be shallow, but it might also help a teenager release difficult feelings.

Tanith Carey in the Mail doesn’t like ‘harsh realities’ and Meg thinks ‘the grittier the better’. I think a book needs to be as gritty as the story and characters demand. I don’t like fake emotions, I don’t like feeling manipulated by an author or film maker (Spielberg, pah) but I don’t like gratuitous gore either. Tell the story. Be honest. Think about the affect on your audience. A teen audience is different from an adult audience in that your book may be their introduction to important questions. So don’t assume knowledge or cynicism in your reader, just give them enough detail to understand more, empathise more, care about the story they are being told. 
Can books for teenagers about self-harm or suicide actually encourage vulnerable teens to try these things for themselves?

I think the answer to this has to be yes…a qualified yes. Teenagers can be vulnerable, volatile, emotional, self-destructive. They can seize on anything –  a book, a film, a song lyric – and use it as an inspiration for terrible things. So there is, as Amanda Craig says, a huge moral responsibility for authors and editors when they write about any subject. In general they take that responsibility seriously.

In the case of self-harm, I doubt that many teenagers will first hear about it from a novel. Sadly it is a common part of modern life. I first got the idea of making my character Claire in When I Was Joe a self-harmer when I read a news story saying how common it was for teenage girls to cut themselves. I immediately made the link with boys arming themselves with knives –  a link also picked up by my former colleague David Aaronovitch in this column for The Times. I thought a lot about how to introduce this theme, and how my main character Ty would respond (he finds it sexually exciting, which disturbs him). I thought about how to convey this in a responsible way, with just enough detail, so it is realistic but not salacious or attractive.
 I would never recommend When I Was Joe for a 10 year old, because of this aspect of the plot. The only child that I know of who tried to self-harm after reading When I Was Joe was primary school age –  too young for the content, in my opinion.

When writing the book I asked my daughter, then aged 12, what she knew about self-harming. She showed me an article in Sugar magazine offering advice on what to do if a friend is self-harming. The advice was to encourage the friend to talk about her feelings –  no mention of talking to adults. So I mirrored this advice in the book –  it doesn’t work –  and eventually it is made clear (I hope) that the appropriate action to take is to tell a parent or teacher. Claire’s problems are not easily solved. I don’t like books where a counsellor magically solves all the problems. I can see myself returning to her as a character in future books.

It seems to me that it is possible that a child might get the idea of self-harming from a book –  but that the book is never going to be the only cause of that self-harm. But books can also show you what to do and what not to do when you are supporting a self-harming friend.  Or a friend threatening suicide. I have been involved in real life in advising teenagers what to do when their friend threatened suicide. It helped enormously to have thought and read about this in the past. I advised them to tell their school. Teens should not be bearing this sort of responsibility.

It also seems to me that if a group of friends all start self-harming then the idea could come from a book, but also that there is something very wrong with their environment. It might be school, it might be home, it might be the friendship group itself. The book may be a trigger, it is unlikely to be the beginning and the end of the story.

I’ve never read a book that set out how to commit suicide (and would think that inappropriate and irresponsible). I would also be concerned by books which suggest that suicide is a good way to escape one’s troubles or take revenge on one’s enemies. I have seen this once or twice in teen books, describing very extreme situations, and I found it worrying. Powerful but worrying. I would hope that teen books would emphasise the importance of life, of enduring and overcoming even the worst problems.

 I just finished reading The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis, a German YA book which would give the editor of the Daily Mail a heart attack. (spoiler alert!) In it a girl is raped –  but she forgives her attacker, whose life is all too realistically grim. It’s a book which features child abuse, male prostitution, drug addiction –  and ends with a teen suicide. It’s also lyrical and sensitive, as concerned with the power of words and metaphor as with the grittiness of the story. It’s an extraordinary book. Not for ten-year-olds.

Books like The Storyteller challenge teenage and adult readers. But some less ambitious books are, to my mind, almost more worrying. I mean those silly  ‘undead’ books, paranormal books which suggest that death isn’t really death, but actually a way of making yourself cooler, strong, more beautiful. Take the Beautiful Dead series by Eden Maguire:

Souls in limbo, they have been chosen to return to the world to set right a wrong linked to their deaths and bring about justice. Beautiful, superhuman and powerful, they are marked by a ‘death mark’ – a small tattoo of angel’s wings. Phoenix tells her that the sound of invisible wings beating are the millions of souls in limbo, desperate to return to earth.Darina’s mission is clear: she must help Jonas, Summer, Arizona, and impossibly, her beloved Phoenix, right the wrong linked to their deaths to set them free from limbo so that they can finally rest in peace. Will love conquer death? And if it does, can Darina set it free?

Now, this is clearly twaddle (I’ve never read the books, so I suppose they might be better than the blurb suggests)  but does an unhappy and impressionable teen know that?
Some of the dark romances, so popular in recent years, glamorised death, dangling prospects of sexy after-lifes. This was the trope that I set out to satirise in Lia’s Guide by creating Raf, a boy with all the allure of a supernatural being  – gorgeous, moody, friendless and mysterious, who turns out to be depressed and broke, survivor of a suicide attempt. ‘All that time we thought he was one of the undead,’ says Lia, ‘and we never knew how near he’d been to just plain dead and gone. Ashes in the air or rotten flesh in the ground.’

Lia’s Guide confused some  readers because it is a romantic comedy which has big themes –  money, debt, sex, suicide.  At the moment I am adapting it to be a musical, which means it is (hopefully) going to be even funnier.  Re-working it has been an interesting experience. Quite often I have to remind myself why I thought a certain plot point was important, why Lia or Raf act as they do. I wanted to satirise the teen books which suggest that death is glamorous and desirable, that moodiness and stalking is attractive, that sex is more frightening than death. Some of these themes will be lost in the musical –  they belong in the context of a teen novel. But my point is really that it’s not just  ‘issue’ books or ‘sick lit’ that tackle big, important subjects. A rom com can help kids to gain insight and understanding, using laughter not tears.

My worry when journalists, authors and experts start condemning some teen books as sentimental or shocking, is that there is a suggestion that some books are not worth reading. A good librarian, a sensitive parent, will find the right book for the right child, and be there to talk to if a book is upsetting. The mawkish, the sentimental, the grim even the dreary all have their place. The most important thing is that teenagers have access to books and the chance to make their own choices. They have moved into a different phase of childhood, one in which they are preparing to become adults. Over-protected teens become anxious and unready adults.

One of the most sentimental books that I read last year was a piece of sick-lit. Wonder by R J Palacio is a story of a boy with terrible facial deformities who starts school for the first time and  –  surprise! –  eventually triumphs over bullies and prejudice.  Simon Mason, reviewing it for the Guardian said: ‘Wonder certainly delivers what it promises – an emotional roller-coaster ride in which tears, laughter and triumphant fist-pumping are mandatory.’   It is  – in parts –  mawkish. I found it strange and worrying that the principal kept on reassuring parents that the school was not going to take other disabled children.
However, despite its flaws, Wonder is also heart-warming, engaging, tear-jerking and important – showing children their power to hurt and heal. Would I give it to kids to read? I certainly would.

11 Comments on “Don’t throw the baby out with the Sick Lit

  1. Susie Day says:

    I’ve been following some of this discussion (reluctantly, because it’s the usual DM lazy kneejerk cobblers about whatever they’ve decided will get them most ad revenue this week) – but it’s good to see another author hitting back with some solid common sense.

    One point I thought was particularly important: A teen audience is different from an adult audience in that your book may be their introduction to important questions. So don’t assume knowledge or cynicism in your reader

    I think that’s where Rosoff’s and McGowan’s arguments fall apart entirely. There’s no one right way to write about death – any more than there’s only one way to write about dragons or wizards or bare bums. Picking out individual books as ‘doing death best’ is absurd.

  2. An interesting dilemma. Many things crossed my mind while reading this post. A friend told me about how a psychologist came to their high school to talk about the dangers of anorexia and bulimia, a big problem in the school. Among other things she told them ways to be alerted to the signs in order to tell the teacher. Can’t remember exactly what the food was but she said how e.g. caqbbage and grapefruit can have some sort of weight loss effect so girls who eat exclusively that….. The next day almost every girl in the school brought cabbage and grapefruit salad for lunch. My point – if a teen wants to know the details of a notion they already have, then they will glean the information from somewhere eventually.
    When I was a teen I was fascinated by a book called The Cross and the Switchblade in which troubled teenagers in NYC strangle birds (among other things). And isn’t there something extremely dark about The Catcher in the Rye which is on official school reading lists in the US.
    And one more point to show that there’s nothing new about death in children’s lit. My favourite books as a pre-teen all involved ghosts or a dead child:
    Little Women in which Beth is an absolute saint.
    The children of Green Knowe
    Charlotte Sometimes

    I’d rather my daughter know about the real world at an appropriate age and what goes on in it. I’d rather she read about these things in a book than experience them first hand. But not to be aware that our (hopefully) life is not everyone’s life sets a young adult up for a shock when she enters the real world.

    Excuse my ramblings – just thoughts on the topic.

  3. Keren this is an excellent post that talks a lot of sense. Thank you for writing it. I think it is important, as we have both said, that if the story requires the contentious issue and it is not there for shock tactics then it should be written about in a good, honest and straightforward way.

  4. The survival rates for child and young people with cancers is high and rising all the time. Death should not be the assumption with a diagnosis of cancer and it is a pity that this flurry of books don’t deal with serious illness and living with it. They all choose death which is only one outcome. When I was younger, the fear of getting cancer and dying was much higher and I find today that fear has subsided as I know so many people surviving and living with this illness. This is a message which should also be conveyed to young people. One size does not fit all in acute illnesses.

  5. Such a thought-provoking debate – and a considered response to it, Keren . So many big issues, so much responsibility, so many challenges,. But there’s a flip side, which is the cultural bias of the western world which raises questions about our view of death and illness (too often seen as something terribly negative and to be feared), and yet it’s a view which is not always as healthy or as positive as we’ve been conditioned to think it is. These are really such difficult topics to address, but they do need to be addressed in YA fiction, because YAhood is the time when young people are asking and grappling those often impossible meaning of life questions.

  6. fionadunbar says:

    Will someone please tell me what ‘faux-grit’ is? Give me an example of it in YA fiction? One of the comments on the (excellent) Guardian piece accuses Jodi Picault of writing faux-grit – that’s as may be, I don’t know, haven’t read her – but as is pointed out, she writes for adults. Who are these faux-grit YA authors?

  7. Anne M Leone says:

    I love this post, Keren. It seems mawkish and sentimental are in the eye of the beholder. And we can’t be perfect adults, and some books might upset some kids, or trigger dangerous thoughts–but being responsible and thoughtful about it is a good place to start.

  8. Juliette says:

    A good rom-com can help kids gain insight and understanding – and so can a good paranormal story. Surely the real point is the quality of the book, not the genre or plot device?

  9. Keren David says:

    Yes, good point. Not even quality, it’s about the underlying message. Does the book make death seem like a good choice for any reason? That’s it.

  10. There are plenty of wannabe-rexics and self-harmers who do it because it’s supposedly glamorous. There are also kids who genuinely self-harm, have eating disorders and might try to kill themselves. They have a very low opinion of the wannabes, as you can imagine. They also have a very low opinion of badly written or poorly researched YA books that feature the topics, but hold in very high regard those books that deal with the issues thoughtfully and sympathetically.

    You can include the message ‘tell an adult’ but 90% of them won’t, so the book must show some coping strategies/hope that don’t rely on that. To suggest that there is no hope if they won’t tell an adult is far more irresponsible than to write about the issues in the first place. Intelligent books that deal with these topics are a life-line to those in genuine need. The trick is not to make it attractive to those with an EMO streak.

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