"Sick LIt" Is Nothing New -- Here's Why It Matters

Every time one of these op-eds is published, it serves as a reminder that children who experience hardship are freakish and weird, and that childhood should be a happy, unicorn and rainbow-filled place.
Publish date:
January 3, 2013
books, reading, young adult fiction, young adult, concern trolls, pearl clutching

In my young and impressionable years, I loved nothing quite so much as curling up with a comfortable Lurlene McDaniel paperback, cover frayed and worn with multiple readings, and drinking a hot chocolate. Each book followed a familiar and delicious storyline: terminally ill teen, last-minute love, grim days on the hospital ward. It was hurt/comfort fiction in mainstream format, and I mainlined it wherever I could get it.

I imagined myself swooning in bed waiting for the attentions of some nebulous person. Maybe the dark-eyed girl with long, glossy curls who sat in the seat next to mine in English, or some mysterious stranger. I wasn’t quite sure what it was I wanted from these people, but I had the vision clear in my mind: I’d be tragically ill and my savior would come along and show me that there’s love and hope in the end.

I’d die anyway, of course, but at least I wouldn’t die without knowing love. And being a sick kid myself, I found something reassuring in the stories of other sick kids. I wasn't alone. I wasn't a freak.


I guess we don’t call it hurt/comfort fiction when we’re talking about traditionally published books; we call it sick lit or tragedy porn or some such. Whatever you want to call it, it’s nothing new, contrary to the beliefs of the “Daily Mail1,” which has a breathless concerntrolling piece up about the alleged rise of sick lit, part of the general trend these days in journalism of people who don’t know what they’re talking about expressing shock and horror that children read books in which bad things happen.

There have been so many poorly informed and ridiculous opinion editorials about young adult and children’s books in recent years that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin when it comes to listing them, but publications like the “Wall Street Journal,” “New York Times,” and so on seem convinced that children’s and YA authors are corrupting a generation of youth with these horrible bad naughty books.

They identify “trends” which don’t exist, like “steamies” (SEX! In YA! I might get the vapors!) and books that are “too dark” (and we all know dark scary books are bad!). And now, it’s “sick lit.”

These aren’t trends; they’ve been present in young adult and children’s literature all along, as anyone who’s actually well-read in the genre is well aware. In fact, sick lit in particular is seriously old news. Don’t believe me? Check out “The Little Match Girl” or “A Christmas Carol,” both of which prominently feature tragically ill characters; there’s a reason that a sick character who needs to be redeemed or needs to serve as a lesson to other characters is a trope.

Tanith Carey starts out her column by taking a shot at one of my favorite books of all time, “The Fault in Our Stars.” John Green’s absolutely amazing novel about life, death, love and the universe has been making all sorts of bestseller lists and attracting tons of buzz because it’s a fantastic book, and because, in part, it actually breaks out of the troped narratives about childhood illnesses. She calls it “mawkish” and “exploitative” and I wonder if we read the same book.


She goes on to cite books like “13 Reasons Why” as some sort of evidence of a “disturbing trend” and I wonder if she’s actually read any of them; she talks about them like they’re guides to misery and self-harm, when I’d argue just the opposite. “Wintergirls” isn’t a manual for eating disorders any more than “Scars” is a guidebook to self-harm or “Suicide Notes” is a handy map for how to commit suicide (and fail).

These are books about the actual darkness that some kids experience, and they’re books about how to cope with it and come out on the other side. Some are stories of survival -- see “Suicide Notes,” for example. Others are about who is left behind, and how people pick up the pieces.

Some are indeed tragic and heartbreaking and will leave you devastated as a reader, but this isn’t part of a cheap ploy. The text is provocative and complex, dynamic, and it also lets young readers know that they are not alone. Their experiences aren’t abnormal. There are others out there like them and there are lots of options in front of them.

Having childhood cancer doesn’t mean you need to die without knowing love. Self-harming doesn’t mean you can’t stop self-harming and seek help. Suicidal thoughts don’t have to be acted on. Being a survivor of a tragedy doesn’t mean you should be consumed with guilt. Indeed, the “sick lit” Carey cites as a problem has come a long way from its earlier roots, which were indeed sentimental, mawkish, exploitative, and gross.

It’s become a genre with emotional complexity and depth.

And apparently some pearl-clutching adults seem to have a problem with this. I’m not sure if they don’t want to admit that bad things happen to children and children need a way to deal with it, or what the deal is, but the only trend I’m seeing is a definite uptick in fussing about books for young readers, which only serve to further stigmatize.

Every time one of these op-eds is published, it serves as a reminder that children who experience hardship are freakish and weird, and that childhood should be a happy, unicorn and rainbow-filled place.

I wish horrible things didn’t happen to children. I wish it fervently. I wish horrible things didn’t happen to anyone. But they do, and sticking our heads in the sand won’t make the issue go away. We need to confront it, talk about it, process it, and work collectively on a way to get it to stop. And for people who are coping with horrible things right now, sometimes reading a book is a great way to get through it.


Of course, you don’t need to be coping with something awful to enjoy any of these books; some of them are just good reads, others give valuable perspective, and some create those few hours of fantasy that you need to get a break from the world. There’s nothing wrong with reading books, and I’m tired of this slew of op-eds suggesting that books are some kind of gateway drug.

They are a gateway: to insight, to greater understanding, to knowledge, to creativity. If you find the idea of well-read children threatening, I guess I can see why the thought of children reading would bother you.

It’s definitely worth talking about why the hurt/comfort theme appeals to young girls in particular, and how it’s been transferred over into other genres (“Twilight,” for example, has a great deal of hurt/comfort elements), and what that says about how this culture socializes young girls. But we shouldn’t be telling young girls that they’re wrong for liking the books they like. We should instead, perhaps, be asking ourselves why they like the books they like.

It’s notable, too, that of course there are lots of “sick reads” for adults (swap Jodi Picoult for Lurlene McDaniel) and that these books are classically considered “chick lit,” a dismissive term used to describe stories about things that aren’t serious. Namely, things that affect ladies instead of dudes.

This conversation is about a lot more than frowning adults unhappy with what children are reading.

1. Why am I always after the “Daily Mail” when it’s such a cheap target? Blame Emily. Return