I’m the epitome of the average 18-year-old female. And in my mind, illnesses have never been something that I’ve “idolised”, whether they be mental or physical. Yet according to recent buzz in the literary world, if I read certain fictional novels I just might.
A new genre within the young adult (YA) category for fiction, so-called ‘sick lit’, has caused quite a controversy amongst readers and authors alike. Sick lit is a shorthand for novels aimed at teenagers that focus on the themes of psychological disorders, terminal illnesses and death.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is the most popular target of late, a fictional novel that looks at the tragic love of two teenagers with terminal cancer as they both fight for their love and lives. Labelled as “mawkish”, “exploitative” and other crass terms in the literary media—often by 30-somethings rather than the book’s target audience—it has been slotted into the category of “do not give this to teenagers”.
Why? Because of concerns that books such as The Fault In Our Stars or Before I Die—a book following a 17-year-old girl on a mission to complete her bucket list before she dies from terminal cancer—will promote, idolize and romanticize terminal illnesses and psychological disorders.
Yet in my opinion as a young adult reader, these are beautifully written and compelling pieces of prose, encouraging empathy and compassion from young readers for their dying heroes and heroines.
I’d like to share a small(ish) quote with you, from the author’s note at the beginning of The Fault in Our Stars. “This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide within a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species,” writes Green.
All books (except for non-fiction, obviously) are works of fiction. Why should it be the author’s responsibility to hide the truths of our society, when they can reflect what life is, as well as fantasy?
The assumption that works of fiction can influence readers isn’t a complete lie. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m sure they can. Aren’t books designed to propagate emotion and feeling anyway? But to label literature as exploitative—as idolising very stark and serious issues within the minds of young people—is quite an assumption, particularly if you aren’t a teenager yourself.
Saying that so-called sick lit encourages the idealisation of psychological and terminal illnesses is like saying fantasy novels like The Hunger Games encourage violence, or television shows like Skins promote drug and alcohol abuse. The list goes on and on, and it is the same old ‘our environment influences our actions’ argument regarding societal norms that has existed since the beginning of time.
Depression, illness and death are all things that teenagers are going to encounter in their own lives, so why censor or discriminate against the novels that feature these disorders and illnesses? They give suffering teens a compassionate shoulder—perhaps even more so if the story resolves positively and give readers whom have fortunately never experienced such turmoil in their own lives empathy, understanding and compassion for those who are experiencing such things.
I understand the argument that perhaps these book aren’t for teenagers who already suffering with psychological and physical illnesses. You wouldn’t hand a teenager with depression 13 Reasons Why, which deals with a young girl who has committed suicide and the thirteen reasons why, revolving around her friends and family—the same way you wouldn’t hand an alcoholic alcohol.
But these novels shouldn’t be shunned or censored because they encourage those of us who have no experience of these hardships to empathise and feel emotions that stay with us long after finishing the book.