American author John Green’s young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars has been a bestselling juggernaut since its release in 2012. Green’s book was somewhat inspired by his friendship with Esther Earl, whose posthumous memoir This Star Won’t Go Out was released in January this year.
Fault tells the story of 16-year-old Hazel Grace, who has Stage 4 thyroid cancer and is forced to attend a support group. There, she meets Augustus Waters and her life changes. It’s been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for more than 61 weeks and the much-anticipated movie adaptation will be released in June.
Suffice to say, John Green and The Fault in Our Stars are kind of a big deal.
But the book has also sparked controversy, after a 2013 Daily Mail article by Tanith Carey described it as ‘mawkish at best, exploitative at worst.’ Carey took the Helen Lovejoy approach to teen literature which she believed ‘inadvertently glamorise[s] shocking life-and-death issues,’ pithily labelling such books ‘sick-lit’.
The film’s release will probably reopen concerned discussion around sick-lit, and not helping matters is the poster tagline: One Sick Love Story. John Green has come out in support of this gallows humour marketing, while also stressing that he did not choose it. It may be crass, but it seems appropriate that the book that ignited the sick-lit debate will have the final tongue-in-cheek say on the matter.
One author who is insulted by the sick-lit label is A.J. Betts. Betts’ YA novel Zac & Mia (Text Publishing, 2013) was lumped into the category by Sue Williams in her Sydney Morning Herald article ‘Art of darkness.’
Zac & Mia begins with two teenagers meeting in hospital; both are undergoing chemotherapy. Betts was partly inspired to write the book by her own experiences working as a teacher on the oncology ward at Princess Margaret Hospital in Western Australia.
Betts says of the sick-lit label, ‘It’s offensive to the students that I work with, and the many unwell teenagers around the world who struggle with illness. I wrote Zac & Mia because I’ve spent the last eight years teaching adolescents on a cancer ward, and I wanted to pay homage to their amazing courage, humour and friendships, and the perspectives they develop along the way. To suggest that sickness can be exploited as a genre is a cheap shot.’ Betts adds, ‘There’s nothing glorified about cancer – either in real life or in fiction. Cancer sucks. It’s the teenagers I wanted to glorify.’
Equally insulting is the suggestion that authors have a moral, even social, responsibility not to portray such harsh truths to young readers. ‘Young people already know of sickness: cancer, eating disorders, diabetes, mental health issues, etc.,’ Betts says. ‘What they might not know is how to be compassionate to others who are suffering, how to respond, and how to be grateful for their own health. Novels have the capacity to foster empathy and compassion.’
What Williams and Carey’s outraged articles fail to grasp is that, just as a person with cancer should not be defined by their illness, nor should these books. ‘I’ve had amazing feedback from parents and siblings of teenagers with cancer,’ says Betts. ‘They say it’s given them a real insight into how their family member was feeling, and how cancer changed their views, big and small. Reading the book emphasised that sickness doesn’t define them, and that the teenager strives for what all teenagers strive for – to be normal, and to be loved.’