Sick Lit: What’s With Our Morbid Fascination For Stories Like ‘The Fault In Our Stars’?

| June 27, 2014
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Photo: 20th Century Fox

Photo: 20th Century Fox

By Kimra McPherson 

It’s been a bit uncanny for me to witness the monstrous success of The Fault in Our Stars. John Green’s novel about a whirlwind romance between two teenagers with cancer has spent 80 weeks on the New York Times young adult bestseller list; on opening weekend, the movie adaptation raked in more money than Tom Cruise’s latest project.

It’s a bit different from the early ‘90s, when I was a kid who loved reading about kids with cancer. Back then, I’d hit my local Waldenbooks to scoop up all the Lurlene McDaniel books my allowance could buy, learned about brain tumors and cystic fibrosis from the fictional kids at Hope House, and became a little obsessed with the TV movie starring Reese Witherspoon as a plucky (they were always plucky) football player stricken with leukemia.

I wasn’t alone — but I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t exactly hide my sick-kid books, but I wasn’t sharing them with my friends the way we swapped The Baby-Sitter’s Club or Fear Street.

sick-lit-lurlene-mcdaniel The first time I remember finding out other people shared my obsession was 2005, when Bitch Magazine ran a piece about “sick lit.” The current moment has brought far more of us out of the woodwork: When The Guardian UK’s Tanith Carey dubbed the genre “distasteful”  last year, it prompted plenty of responses from women who had once curled up with a good cancer story. More recently, Vulture’s Margaret Lyons reminisced about her years of reading many of the same stories that filled my shelves (“the books about diabetics were, at best, a last resort”).

The Fault in Our Stars is a little different from the “sick lit” of my youth. For one thing, it’s better than a lot of what I read (at least based on Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death’s hilarious re-reads; I’m too beholden to my memories to revisit the books myself). It’s also just one story — although there are signs, like ABC Family’s new Chasing Life, about a young reporter with cancer, and Fox’s forthcoming Red Band Society, set in a pediatric hospital ward, that it’s the standard-bearer of a new wave. But its greatest gift to me has been revealing how many other women were drawn to the same stories I was.

One reason I think we loved these books is that they were comfort food to voracious young readers. In a standard “sick lit” story, our heroine is about to lead her school’s quiz bowl team to victory/is gaining recognition for her art/has founded a dance troupe that’s about to score a major gig. Then she feels faint/rides her bicycle into a car/can’t walk. Eventually, she ends up in a doctor’s office, learning she has cancer/macular degeneration/rheumatoid arthritis. But all is not lost! She can still make the quiz team/learn to sculpt/become a choreographer. (That’s Too Young to DieJessica’s Dying Light, and Did You Hear About Amber?). With each new novel comes the pleasure of new (pretty, intelligent) main characters, new (hunky, sensitive) love interests, and new (foreign, yet recognizable) challenges.

"Will Star lose her best friend because she's so sick?"

“Will Star lose her best friend because she’s too sick?”

For at least some of us, there’s another common thread. When we were most devoted to these stories, nothing truly bad had happened to us yet. Heck, one of my biggest struggles was figuring out which tragic novel to buy at the Scholastic book fair. But teenagers try on emotions all the time. I didn’t know anyone with a fatal disease, but I certainly had a lot of feelings — about the friends who were fighting and the homework that was getting harder and the older boy who wanted to smoke cigarettes behind the Dairy Queen. “Sick lit” gave me a place to channel those feelings. I was sad when Dawn Rochelle was dying, or indignant when Kim’s stupid classmates were afraid they’d catch AIDS just from being around her, or angry at the universe when Star was fine but — twist! — Courtney had a heart attack.

I don’t think I wanted to be the sick girl — what Marni Grossman, writing in Bust in 2010, dubbed “Beth March Syndrome.” I did, however, want to cry. I didn’t have any particular reason to cry, other than being between the ages of 11 and 14, but I wanted to anyway.

That’s got to be at least some of what’s going on with The Fault in Our Stars: the collective letting go. Theoretically, it’s about Hazel and Gus; really, it’s about whatever. I’ve heard stories of movie theater ushers pointing out where prospective sobbers can find tissues before screenings. And I’ve got to admit I’m jealous of all those kids thinking about PET scans and oxygen tanks and the hassles of dating while dying, sitting there feeling their feelings together.

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KQED Pop is a daily blog edited by Emmanuel Hapsis that critically examines the social and cultural impact of music, movies, television, advertisements, fashion, the internet and all the other collective experiences that make us laugh, cringe and cry. We focus on local, national and international experiences with a Bay Area lens. We don’t do reviews.

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