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The Controversy over “Sick-lit”

2013 January 24
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I’d never heard the term “sick-lit” until recently, when I came across a UK Daily Mail article delivering the news that there is a rise of “exploitative” modern YA fiction in our midst. Allegedly, sick-lit is the rising sub-genre of realistic fiction that — at its worst — aims to glorify death, suicide, and cutting; at its best it encourages vanity and shallowness.

The Fault in Our StarsWhich books are these? you ask. Well, according to Tanith Carey, author of the aforementioned UK Daily Mail article, one of the worst offenders is John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. Another is Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons WhyBy the Time You Read This, I’ll be Dead by Julie Ann Peters also makes the list. Tanith, with encouragement from popular children’s book reviewer Amanda Craig, has determined that these books and others like them that take on such serious topics such as terminal illness and suicide do more harm than good. Their concern is that rather than providing a safe means to explore tough subjects from a safe book-land distance, these books might encourage damaging behaviors or depression merely by planting the seeds into young, impressionable minds. Evidently, by reading about a teen who attempts suicide in reaction to a stressful event, a teen reader has been prompted and prepared on the dos and don’ts of successful suicide. Or, as is the case with our beloved Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars, sick-lit presents characters who romanticize death and dying by being overly concerned with trivial teen-aged topics like love.

‘Cause you know, when you’re dying, apparently you should be out campaigning for a cure for cancer or saving the world, or at the very least not be charming; you definitely should not be thinking about kissing or experiencing life to its fullest or even just watching reality TV, either.

The author of this article (and others like it) claims that publishers and “sick-lit” authors are negligently trying to shove “depravity” down teens’ throats all for the sake of the mighty dollar. Instead, they claim, authors should be protecting their readers from exposure to potentially damaging content.

However, although the term “sick-lit” may be new, the range of situations the teens in these books are experiencing certainly aren’t. Abuse, depression, suicide, terminal illness; YA authors aren’t fabricating these topics. Many teens throughout the world have already been, and still are, living these tragedies every second of every day.

YA readers, what are your thoughts? Could books with these topics push a damaged teen over the edge? Do they falsely represent and romanticize afflictions?

— Dena Little, currently reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

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13 Responses
  1. Carla Land permalink
    January 24, 2013

    If YA authors need to be protecting their readers from “harmful content” then CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and the world at large should have to do the same. Life is tough, bad things happen, and if teens can’t read about it in a way that makes them comfortable they are not going to be able to deal with “what’s out there” when they get there.

  2. January 24, 2013

    In Australia we recently had a similar-ish discussion after an English teacher took to a newspaper opinion page, shaking his fist because ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ was included on a senior reading list. He said it was inappropriate because Australia is currently in the midst of a Royal Commission into child sex abuse in the Church – and in Marquez’s book there’s an old man who sleeps with his 14-year-old ward. The teacher clearly confused representation with advocacy, but it was bizarre that he was, essentially, saying “this happens in real life so kids shouldn’t read about it in books!’

    I’m reminded of Aussie author, Morris Gleitzman, who has written about everything from brothers dying of cancer to children in mandatory detention – when asked about what is and is not appropriate for children, he simply said “if it’s in the world, it’s for them.”

  3. January 24, 2013

    I guess this means Beth’s illness and death in Little Women was shallow with no emotional resonance? How unlike my experience with Montgomery’s work.

  4. Whitney Etchison permalink
    January 25, 2013

    In a fun coincidence (am I allowed to say fun?), I came across this list today: 13 Teen Death Novels From the ’90s That Actually Exist. Looks like this isn’t a new problem guys.

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/mollykateri/13-90s-teen-death-novels-that-actually-exist-421u

  5. January 26, 2013

    Here we go again. I’ve read all three books mentioned above, and I never got the impression that the authors were encouraging teens to commit suicide or exploiting terminally ill teens. On the contrary, I thought these authors, and maybe even Lurlene McDaniel, humanized kids facing tough issues. Maybe even gave some teens a chance to experience “What If I…?”

    BTW, there are an awful lot of song about dying/dead teens. Anyone care to write an article about that?

    • Dena Little permalink
      February 3, 2013

      I was tempted to also include the Judas Priest trial above (about two boys in the 90’s who attempted suicide, blaming JP lyrics for their influence) which is the same idea. Sigh!

  6. Emily McDaniel permalink
    January 31, 2013

    Yeah, because now that I’ve read THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (and LOVED it), I’m going to seek out cancer. Give me a break.

    I worked for years in a school district where parents refused to talk about teen pregnancy or allow the Family Life course, and what did we have? The highest teen pregnancy rate of all the surrounding counties.

  7. Karen permalink
    January 31, 2013

    I was a YA librarian in the 1990s, and none of my Lurlene McDaniel fans up and died on me.

  8. January 31, 2013

    LOL–2 of my favorites (from the 70s) were “A Taste of Blackberries” and “Go Ask Alice”. Obviously, this is a new trend in teen lit…

    • sharon permalink
      January 31, 2013

      Beth, I totally remember A Taste Of Blackberries!! and other similar novels…this is indeed not a new phenomenon…

  9. Katie permalink
    February 4, 2013

    I’ve been using the term “sick-lit” to describe treacly novels about dying teens with cancer a la Lurlene McDaniel… I think of it as romance with cancer.

    The novels about suicide and cutting are “problem novels.” I don’t see how “The Fault in Our Stars” fits into that. I don’t think kids are going to start trying to contract cancer to emulate the novel…

  10. February 8, 2013

    I’m a therapist for teens and a writer of what would probably be considered “sick-lit.” All teens think about suicide at some point—it’s the degree to which they think about it or act on those thoughts that differs. And for kids who have thought about it, or are terminally ill or disabled, giving voice to their thoughts and feelings can help them articulate things they’ve acted out to cope with in the past.

  11. David Macinnis Gill permalink
    February 8, 2013

    Tanith and Amanda Craig are very late to the game. These types of books have been part of YA since its beginning, when they were still called problem novels. And let’s not forget 1970’s novel and film “Love Story.”

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