Friday, 4 January 2013

Sick Lit or Simply Sick Reporting?

Like a lot of people, the article by the Daily Mail yesterday was brought to my attention. It was mentioned by an author I follow on Twitter and like the curious numpty that I am, couldn't help but track down said article and have a gander. And I almost wish I hadn't. Almost - because as much as I hated reading such utter stupidity, now I have an opportunity to speak out. 

I read a lot. I'm a book blogger, a writer, and have been an avid reader from a very early age. I've read classics. I've read YA. I've read crime. I've read historical. I've read romance and science fiction and war accounts and even a book by Snookie (loved it, but that's not the point). When it comes to books, I have a voracious appetite. And even though they weren't huge readers themselves, I owe a lot of that appetite to my parents. The rule was, if I could read it, I could have it. I enjoyed the usual kid stuff - Enid Blyton's The Barney Mysteries was one of my favourites, as were R.L. Stine books from the Goosebumps series. And by eleven I was reading Stephen King.

That will horrify some people. And yes, I suppose it is shocking. But I could read it. And I enjoyed it. And no, just to put some minds at rest, I did not turn out to be homicidal in my later years, nor did I walk around dressed as a clown pulling the arms off children.

So yes, I love books. That point has been made, I think. But I have never heard the genre 'sick-lit' until now. And even the term is sickening to me. 

According to the Daily Mail's article, publishers are desperately seeking the new trend for kids. It's no great secret that over that last five years or so, book sales have shot up remarkably. Books like Harry Potter and Twilight have given books back some of the press they so deserve, and most importantly, got kids reading again. New genres are coming out of the woodwork with YA having a new, trendy and sexy facelift. Dystopian are giving a cool edge to science fiction. For the first time, being a book geek is something to be loud and proud about. 

Vampires have been done to death (so not true - read The Hunt by Andrew Fukuda or Dinner With a Vampire by Abigail Gibbs for a fresh take on our loveable blood-suckers), werewolves are like, so passé  So what's next? Dying kids? Perfect. We'll rake the cash in with that one, mates. 

And I kid you not, that is the tone of said DM article. The DM are horrified and so concerned for our teens because of these naughty, naughty publishers. A few books targeted by this article were The Fault  In Our Stars by John Green, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and Before I Die by Jenny Downham. And the problem the DM has with these books? They are glamorising death of kids for kids. 

I remember exactly how I felt when I read 13 Reasons Why and Before I Die. They both shocked me. They both affected me. They were both difficult to read. Why? Because they made me feel, which, if you have read any of my reviews, is something I treasure with books. If you can make me cry, get me angry, provoke a laugh or a smile, make me scared with your words? You're doing something seriously right. 

13 Reasons Why is a book about a girl who leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes explaining why she killed herself. According to the DM, "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." This has lead to fears that by writing about suicide or self-harming, our teens and influential minds will be led astray and more likely to take a leisurely stroll down that path too. Do you know what Jay Asher has done by writing this book? He has given a voice to a subject that, while, taboo, is very real. 

As for Jenny Downham and Before I Die, she gives her protagonist the chance to seize life before it is taken from her - to experience what she wants and just live

I have read a lot of contemporary fiction lately, and do you know what I have noticed? More and more authors are getting braver. It wasn't so long ago that your book would have been burned for swearing or if your characters have premarital sex or heaven forbid have a sip of alcohol. But now the teens in these books are swearing. The F-Bomb drops, knickers come off and they get pissed. Why? It's what teenagers do. It's what I did (but we won't get into that...) and it's what they will continue to do. Granted, it's not all they do, and not all of them do it, but the point is they do do it. And anyone who says otherwise is just kidding themselves. 

Do you know what else they do? 

They die. 

They get awful illnesses. They kill themselves. They hurt themselves. 

Death, as they say, is just another part of life.

And yet we are supposed to pretend it doesn't happen in our books? Shame authors who have the bravery to write about it? 

Sadly I have not read The Fault in Our Stars, but a very good friend of mine and a fellow book addict has. This is what she had to say on the book:

"The Fault In Our Stars is a beautiful and moving novel about two teenagers who fall in love while they're both battling cancer. It's so honest and real but never strays into mawkishness. Yes it made me sob but it was healthy, cathartic sobbing and sometimes we need that, no matter what age we are. There is a lot of humour in the book too, it's really well balanced with the light-hearted moments and the devastating ones and that's what makes it so true to life. It's one of those novels that really makes you view the world a little differently and it makes you think about the legacy that you're leaving to the people around you."

Sounds a tad different to this, doesn't it? :

"Diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer at the age of 13, Hazel spends most of her time tethered to an oxygen tank and is running out of hope.
When she is attracted to a fellow cancer sufferer, she has to weigh up if she has enough time to fall for him before she dies."

Which is what the DM had to say about the book. Doesn't even sound like they read it. 

And so this book that is described as beautiful and funny and honest and real is potentially damaging to our young people? 

What about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Book Thief? Both these books take place during Nazi Germany and both can be found in the children section in bookshops. I can honestly think of no worse time humanity has seen than the Second World War. Concentration camps saw just what humans are capable of doing to one another. So do I think that any book that even mentions Nazis or war or concentration camps should be pulled from our shelves and tossed on a bonfire? No. Because ignorance does not protect us. In fact it does the opposite. We need to talk about the hard stuff to be able to appreciate the good. And because it happens. It happens

Saving June by Heather Harrington was one of my absolute favourite books last year. This time it was about the people left behind and how they cope. But it was about suicide, so it must be bad, right?

And how about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? That is one of the most powerful books ever written. Yes, it's about rape. But that's not all it's about. It's about gaining the strength to rebuild yourself and to trust the people around you again and to carry on. Ah, right. Rape. We're not supposed to talk about that either. Whoops.

To Kill a Mockingbird. I guarantee every single person has heard of it. It features a rape case and racism. Burn it.

Guess we should get rid of Romeo and Juliet whilst we're at it, eh? All that suicide. Messy business. Can't have people reading about that.

So publishers are trying to find their next goldmine. Because vampires are so overdone. 

Let me say something about those bloody vampires.

But before I do, let me say I did enjoy them, I still do enjoy them, and I will continue to read them. 

If we're about to point fingers about whose book is most damaging, get you're fecking finger away from the people honest enough to write the truth. In my opinion, not that it's really worth much, but if I was to look closely at the YA market I would say it was the ruddy vampires who are more damaging. The DM said they are clearly fantasy like it makes it okay. But how is it okay to make our teenagers believe that some of these boyfriend figures are what they should want and lust after? Many are controlling to the point of obsessive. And no, that is not an admirable character trait. One YA fantasy book even had the object of affection struggle to decide whether or not to kill the girl or kiss her. 

And everyone knows Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfic. Just sayin'. 

Yes, authors have a responsibility when they write for children. And again, let me say, I do enjoy these 'fantasy' books. And no, I don't particularly think they are harmful to our young readers. But to say that a book about someone with cancer who has the audacity to want to live before they die is? Come on. Seriously. 

To be honest, I started this blog post enraged. Every time I thought of that article I felt sick to my stomach. Now I just feel sad. 

The article ends urging parents to check what the book their teen is reading is about. Which in a way is great - there's nothing better than a good book chat. But to censor your teen? Not cool. And as for this: 'Let's hope publishers do have young people's interests at heart - and they are not selling books by sensationalising children's suffering.'

Really? *scornful look*

I just hope parents who read the article don't start believing what is written, that these books have a potential damaging affect on those who read them. Books have an amazing ability to heal you, even the sad ones. 

Let me end this blog post by saying that all the pics are linked to their pages on Amazon. Where you can buy them. And love them. Bugger what the DM says. 


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