By Taylor Hay
In 2012, it seemed as though you couldn’t walk past a bookshop without seeing one cover in particular – a shiny bright blue paperback with clouds on it.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
Needless to say, it was a big deal. The book (TFIOS) was wildly successful, and people the world over were swept up in this tale of two terminally ill teenagers falling in love.
Now John Green wasn’t the first author to write what I would call ‘YA illness narrative’. He wasn’t even the first author in the 2010s (that’d be Wendy Wunder); but it’s not far-fetched for anyone to think he was, because he made such a big impact.
I’ve read TFIOS once. It was after the film adaptation was released in 2014, and only because a friend had been pestering me about it since the book was published. I also read it with a more unique perspective, courtesy of a pair of back-to-back diagnoses I’d rather not have received.
It wasn’t surprising that I was less enamoured with Green’s book than the world seemed to be, and the world was enamoured. TFIOS was published, ‘the vampire book bubble burst’, the allure of TFIOS’s popularity was infectious, and suddenly it was like every YA author was diagnosed with Bandwagon Syndrome.
With John Green in the driver’s seat, the 2010s were when cancer became the YA trend.
When Green was inspired to write TFIOS, he did so with a simple intention: to show that ‘people living with illness … aren’t entirely defined by their illness’, that ‘their lives are every bit as rich and complex and meaningful as any others’.
In a way, Green’s book did just that, bringing illness narrative to the mainstream and creating awareness, but after TFIOS was published, there was a shift.In the rush of YA authors attempting to recreate Green’s success, a pattern emerged – ‘a rote plot line of “teenager gets cancer, falls in love and tragically dies”’.
In my experience, whenever I was in hospital or at my worst, romance was the furthest thing from my mind. And yet, fictional teenagers with IVs were falling in love all over the place, and they all had the same thing in common: they were written by able-bodied authors who more often than not had no connection to the disease they were writing about.
The 2010s paved the way for the book culture we’re experiencing now, one that has a real push for literary representation with things like the #OwnVoices movement and We Need Diverse Books, as well as the Disability Visibility Project, a community I particularly admire, as they call for disabled authors to write about disability. But it seems like chronic illness was left out of that first big push.
Living with disease is a unique narrative that deserves to be told like any other, but illness narratives remained in the hands of authors who weren’t living with disease or even experiencing it in their loved ones. With all these authors trying to follow in John Green’s footsteps, the YA illness narrative was romanticised. Suddenly, it wasn’t illness narrative at all, it was ‘sick lit’. (Like ‘chick lit’, get it?)
The catchy, if morbid, nickname is as clear a sign as any that there had been some mishandling along the way. That authors had ‘[undermined] the suffering of the character in favour of unrealistic narrative’ and that readers now had an expectation of romance when they picked up these books which rightfully should have been focused on the experience of living with disease.
The morality of ‘sick lit’ has been questioned before, with critics calling it ‘mawkish at best, exploitative at worst’. Yet, despite the acknowledgement that ‘sick lit’ is ‘a messed-up genre that romanticizes and trivializes some of life’s most gruesome realities’, the question of whether it was morally right for able-bodied authors to be the ones writing these stories was seemingly never asked. And so, you had illness narratives being marketed as romance first, sometimes with no mention of the illness they were about; and authors who thought stories about a ‘dying kid’ were their best idea.
These things are symptoms of the callous attitude towards illness that YA authors developed in the 2010s – something which only happened because illness, ironically, wasn’t at the heart of illness narrative. It hasn’t changed yet, but there’s no reason that it can’t.
Illness narratives can have romance. But disease in fiction can’t – shouldn’t – be reduced to a character trait or faked so it can be used as a plot device.
Looking at this trend is a reminder that while, yes, ‘angst sells’, not all ‘angst’ is ours to touch. Storytellers can’t tell every story, but our own experiences are and should be enough – we just have to be mindful we don’t write beyond their limits.
Taylor Hay is the current Commissioning Editor for Grattan Street Press, completing her final year of a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. England-born and Australia-raised, she has an expert knowledge of 12-Lead ECGs, a background in music, a bookshelf with three different comedy books about grammar, and many years of writing fiction under her belt.