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Fit-lit or sick-lit?

Fit-Lit under attack by the Daily Mail

Tanith Carey of the Mail reacted against books aimed at the Young Adult (also known as the teen) market.  Ms. Carey’s ire was directed at books about teens suffering cancer and depression, considering suicide or self-harming.  Carey supports taboos imposing silence on controversial subjects, railing against literature engaging with harsh realities, thus she seeks to censor literature potentially building resilience while helping teens engage with real issues.  I argue that what Ms. Carey deems ‘sick-lit’ is actually ‘fit-lit,’ potentially helping troubled teens, their friends and family, making them fitter for life.

Ms. Carey is offended by what she sees as a new trend in literature, introducing her article thus:

The ‘sick-lit’ books aimed at children: It’s a disturbing phenomenon. Tales of teenage cancer, self-harm and suicide…

As plots go, it’s mawkish at best, exploitative at worst…

It’s not just the fact that these books feature terminally ill teenagers that makes them so questionable – they’re also aimed at children as young as 12… 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’…

So it’s mawkish and exploitative to write books aimed at teenagers that explore real issues allowing cathartic emotional release.  ‘Liberally peppered with sex and swearing’ – has Ms. Carey spent any time in PRIMARY SCHOOLS lately?  The swearing in the playground there, imitative of movies, television and adults in the children’s lives, makes sanitised dialogue unrealistic especially when exploring gritty, realistic themes.  And the sex?  Teenage hormones and already sexually active teens create a need for healthy engagement with issues surrounding sexuality, not to mention the sex prevalent in prime-time soapies, other TV programs, movies, etcetera.  Is Ms Carey’s censorship to be limited to literature only?  And if so, why censor literature?

The most likely repercussions of censoring literature would be to reduce the number of teenagers reading as literature would have far less to offer.  Also, TV and movies are already exposing issues such as self-harm and suicide are already out there: take cult movie My Suicide as one example.  In contrast with a movie, a book allows for much more serious and broad-ranging exploration of any such topic; just compare Cloud Atlas the book to the movie, for starters!

Ms. Carey’s concern seems to be with taste:

As if using children with months to live to build dramatic tension is not distasteful enough, the taboo about writing about suicide in young adult fiction has also been broken by the book Thirteen Reasons Why – a bestseller about a teenage girl who leaves 13 recordings explaining why she killed herself.

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.

Children’s book expert Amanda Craig is among those concerned about these books. She has been sent about 12 teen sick-lit books over the past year, but she feels so strongly she will not review them.

What makes Ms. Craig a children’s book expert?  There is no mention of psychological, social work or counselling qualifications, nor does the article indicate whether Ms. Craig has read the books, simply that she’s so concerned she will not review them.

Yes, there is always a concern that copycat behaviour will occur, especially when it’s a high-profile suicide, for example.  This is why the media does not report suicides or bomb threats.  In literature we’re not talking about a rock star’s drug overdose, a novel is about a fictional character engaging with relatable issues.  Exploring these issues can encourage teens to seek help or even alert someone – a trusted teacher perhaps – to real concerns about a friend.  If literature is censored along the lines that media self-censors news reporting – omitting bomb threats as well – then literature will become stifled, constrained.  It’s also notable that media news censoring is very different to current affairs and documentary content; suicide and bomb threats are permissible in the latter.

Ms. Carey’s article continues:

‘When you write for children, you have a moral and social responsibility,’ says Amanda. ‘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 troubled teens are apparently expected to go through this tumultuous period of life with no role models and constrained by taboos dictating silence in literature.  Yes, that’s very helpful.  And it’s worked so well in the past.

Carey’s article continues by quoting Phil Earle whose age is apparently worthy of note, presumably because he’s not one of the ‘experts’ upon which Carey’s argument is based.

‘When young people are lost in such traumatic states, it’s vital that they don’t feel alone,’ he says.
‘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.  [emphasis mine]

‘How do I know this? Because young people going through such trauma have told me so.’
Child psychologist Emma Citron urges parents to keep a careful eye on their children if they find they keep reading these books – particularly if they are under 15.

‘I think there are more life-affirming ways for young people to find out about death,’ she says. ‘It’s OK as along as parents are talking to them about these books and what they are thinking and feeling.
‘But these subjects should  not be consumed by young  people alone.

So Ms. Carey found two people – a popular author and a child psychologist – who agree that young people need community and support especially while engaging with difficult subjects *apparently unlike adults who don’t need any community and support while engaging with the same subjects* [snark].  That’s news, thanks Ms. Carey!

Michelle Pauli of the Guardian responds to the above-mentioned article about sick-lit:

Illness, depression, sexuality – these are all issues that teens are going to bump up against in their lives, whether directly or at one remove, through family members, friends or representations in other media such as TV, films, and the internet. The Daily Mail seems to be suggesting that it is inappropriate for these issues to be looked at in the one place where difficult subjects have traditionally been most sensitively explored for teens: fiction written specifically for them….

Children and teens – well, all of us really – read to explore and experience other lives and thoughts and situations in a safe way, not purely for escapism and adventures and fantasy (although this is a valuable and cherished tradition in children’s fiction, too). Kate Wilson, managing director of children’s publisher Nosy Crow – which publishes for a younger age group than that targeted in the Mail piece – points out that so-called sick-lit is nothing new. “Think of Heidi,” she says, “or Katy in What Katy Did, or Colin in The Secret Garden”.

I read these books when I was in primary school, but especially the Heidi trilogy and The Secret Garden.

Ms. Pauli says:

In fact, despite what the Mail article implies, fiction written for teens often actively protects them. Dawson writes: “As a 12-year-old, I had no access to young adult fiction because it didn’t exist. Instead I went straight to Stephen King and James Herbert. I was able to choose what was suitable and unsuitable. The rise of young adult means we are able to explore ‘the darkness’ with the safety wheels on.”

I’m totally with Dawson – I started reading my mother’s science fiction by the time I was 10 years old.  Prior to that stage the only literature that I remember reading about a character with whom I could identify was about Helen Keller.  She was totally blind; I was vision impaired, and had grown up with my mother repeatedly telling me I was going to go completely blind, yet she denied me the opportunity to learn Braille.  I don’t recall any mention of albinos anywhere, but by age 10 my peers, who were allowed to watch much more diverse TV and movies than I, conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that albinos were sick, deranged and evil, hence my position in the social fabric of our school.

I’m passionate about protecting children.  PART OF PROTECTING CHILDREN is BUILDING RESILIENCE by engaging with harsh realities and helping them to resolve issues, NOT by pretending that ‘distasteful’ topics don’t exist.

I’m in doubt as to how much I should say here about the abuse I suffered as a child…  When I was 7, Mum started telling me “We’re going on a family outing and you’re not part of the family so you’re not coming”, leaving me at home alone while the family went on day trips.  Instead of reading about abused children and teens who suffered from depression, I read SF about people learning to use the ‘other 90% of the human brain’ (it’s a myth that humans only use 10% of their brains), adult sex and more.  It wasn’t relevant nor was it helpful, deepening my sense of isolation.  I read to escape from my reality instead of working through issues; the net result was to delay my development while toxic relationships drove me in a downward spiral.

Escapism is a valid goal for reading, but in my teen years I only remember a real emotional connection arising from a few songs, like Used to Be by Stevie Wonder.  I loved this song so much I saved what little money I had and bought the single.  One night after I moved back in with Mum when I was 15 or 16, I was particularly depressed.  Mum went to bed and I took the opportunity to play this song over and over.  The next day Mum was extremely abusive: she’d taken the words personally and apparently gone through everything I owned, listening to everything she could find, in an effort to find the offending song and destroy it.  After that I couldn’t buy music or listen to it in the house except on the radio unless it had ‘parental approval’.  If only I’d been able to quietly read a book that engaged me, perhaps a book where a teen sought and eventually found help and support after being knocked back and betrayed in her search for help, THIS would have been really helpful.  This is about BUILDING RESILIENCE.

Even knowing where the local youth shelter was and how to get help there would have been fantastic, but all I ‘knew’ was that I could end up homeless and I’d have no money or food if I left home.  Already very familiar with going hungry by aged 10 due to running out of food on a fortnightly basis while my mother and step-father were in the throes of a bitter break up, the thought of living worse terrified me into submission.

A book with a protagonist with whom I COULD IDENTIFY could have given me courage.

A book that showed me I WAS NOT ALONE could have helped.  Instead, the best I had was the song Luka by Suzanne Vegas that told me ‘you just don’t argue anymore.’

My response to allegations of ‘sick-lit’ is to point out that silence imposed by taboos prevent people from reaching out, block people from getting the help and support they need.  Literature holds a unique position in that it’s possible to more fully explore issues than in a television program or movie.  It’s also possible to put information about suicide help, youth helplines and various resources in a book in such a way that the vulnerable reader can keep it and use it, unlike a brief ad on TV that is gone before you’ve found a pen to write the details down.  Literature and high-quality TV and movies can open discussions, enabling people to get support and to deal with issues.  Carey’s allegations of ‘sick-lit’ are counter-productive, aimed at regressing to out-dated taboos with no constructive outcomes.  I’d rather a teenage girl read Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr than Twilight.  Let’s get more literature that engages with issues, making our teens resilient and fit for life.

After citing the specific attack on John Green’s work, Pauli concludes her article by referencing this tweet:

John’s ‘official response’ is this humorous song about the Daily Mail:

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


  1. I am tempted to think that the writer looked at the controversy that occurred in the wall street journal last year over YA being too dark and thought they could get some more mileage out of it.

  2. Personally I think it is the unbridled hypocrisy & arrogance of “news” outlets like the Daily Mail that is the problem.

    If the world was like we said it should be nothing would ever go wrong. Expoitative, manipulative & derisive of anything that doesn’t fit their narrow world view.

    So what resources has the Daily Mail provided to help teenagers (& others) with issues they face? My guess SFA as that isn’t their target audience and there is no profit in it for them.

  3. I always find it funny when people protest about dark themes in young adult fiction. Do they think that real teenagers don’t get cancer or never feel depressed? In an ideal world, everything would be butterflies and rainbows but in reality life isn’t like that, and there are some people (particularly young adults, but really in any age group) for whom life is especially difficult. Also, not everyone has a supportive network of family or friends, so for those people, book characters may be the only ‘people’ they can identify with.

    Yes, some of the themes might be harrowing or even triggering to some people (in which case I’d understand having a warning on the book so that those who might be upset could choose not to read it), but if it can help someone who is facing a similar kind of suffering to work through their issues and start on the road to recovery, then I don’t see how it can be a bad thing. Besides, most young people have probably seen worse stuff on the various crime shows filling our TV screens these days.


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