Monday, 15 April 2013

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars and Sick Lit

Some months ago, when John Green's The Fault in Our Stars was finally published in the UK to great hoorah and much tumblring, there was a bit of backlash in the press.

It all started with a piece in the Daily Mail, calling TFiOS "mawkish at best, exploitative at worst". It was a typically brow-beating and spectacular piece of journalism and accomplished very little except to earn its very own backlash, including this piece in the Guardian, and this piece on the Strange Chemistry blog and quite frankly I could go on here forever. Some contemporary teen authors even agreed with the Daily Mail - for the responses from Meg Rosoff and Anthony McGowan, see this blog from author Keren David.

I am late to the party, largely because it's taken me this long to gather my thoughts. For the most part, it's not worth responding to anyway, because it's something of nothing, but still, it's been bugging me.

So after several months of thinking, of losing sleep and pulling my hair out and generally not living life to the full because I'm always thinking about the question of whether 'Sick Lit' is right or wrong or, indeed, anything else, what conclusions have I come to?

I just DON'T CARE.

I think if a book is well-written and engaging and creates an emotional response because as a reader you connect with the characters and the situation they're in, then I'll read it and think it's a good book. I might not like it; it might not be my sort of thing, but that's a different matter, and has nothing to do with whether a book is good or not.

And whether the central characters have cancer is not one of the factors I use to determine a book's placement on a scale of sucky to total genius. It just isn't. It's like saying you don't like a book because it's set in Philadelphia. (HINT: the book isn't going to be about Philadelphia.)

I don't know about you, but I've never seen a section in Waterstone's with a garish sign reading "Cancer Section", and I've never recommended TFiOS by saying "You should read this. It's got awesome cancer."

Besides, we've always liked a bit of death with our romance. The death scene in Romeo & Juliet is only catastrophically heart-breaking because it involves the loss of unlived love. I'd have loved to have seen the Daily Mail put Romeo & Juliet on their list of sick lit. Perhaps there are letters written to head teachers every day begging schools to ban such radical examples of teen sex, murder and suicide, all in the name of love.

There's a beautiful scene in TFiOS, where the two main characters, Augustus and Hazel, visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. It reflects on lives lived in forced and involuntary cages, and the sometimes resentful but mostly OK nature of those lives, and the fact that they are lives lived at all and that's what's important and remarkable. It's a scene between two cancer patients in the house of one of the most famously trapped and short lives, and it's not about death. It's about the other thing.

And I think that's something that anyone can relate to, regardless of their age, but it's something particularly true of teens. There are too many things that make you feel trapped as a teen to bother counting, and there are very few ways out of most of them.

There's a reason that this book is being passed from rucksack to rucksack in schools around the country, and it isn't because it's a story about cancer. Trust me.

The fact is that TFiOS, along with so many other 'sick lit' books, is FULL of life, despite everything that conspires against it. It's quirky and funny and the first love between Augustus and Hazel is the first love that everyone wants to have, because it's smart and sexy and just downright awesome (minus the cancer). This is a story of love against the odds, and battles won and lost, and countless other cliches that could be applied to most famous books in our history.

And you know why they can be applied to most famous books in history?

Because The Fault in Our Stars is nothing new.

(It's just exceptionally well-written.)


  1. Absolutely, Jo - this book is about love and life and it is GREAT writing. Well said.

    1. Thanks, Addy! I think I'll be re-reading this book in twenty years and still be thinking it's brilliant.

  2. excellent post Jo-I went to a CBC panel to listen to various authors talk about dark teen fiction and 'sick lit' and a woman said her daughter and boyfriend had loved the book, read it together, gone to Amsterdam together as a result–very much reading it as an affirmation of life rather than death. And yeah, I bet if Shakespeare was writing R &J for YA today, he'd be asked to change the ending...

    1. Yeah, there's no way he'd have gotten away with a thirteen year-old boy who murders his girlfriends cousin, slips in through her window at night to sleep with her and then dies with her.

      Thanks for telling me about that woman's daughter and boyfriend - it's made me feel all awesome and mushy!

  3. Jo - Great post. I've not read 'The Fault in our Stars' yet but reading this makes me want to add to my TBR pile.

    I also think that your points on Romeo and Juliet are very interesting, it's a lot like my views on Noah's Arc. The story is about genocide by drowning and yet spin it to be about fluffy animals on a boat and it acceptable to be told to small children.

    However children and teenagers see through that to the message at the core. (My six year old did about Noah's Arc, saying it wasn't very nice as all the people were killed.)

    My point is that if it has got a strong message who cares if it delivered by a story about cancer. Much better than spinning genocide into an animal boat trip.

  4. The Fault in Our Stars is one of the most hyped about books by John Green. The plot of the book plus Green's writing style makes it a really great book. This is not generally the type of book I go for. I am not much into such tear-jerkers novels. I like fast reads, but TFiOS is an exception. I loved the book. I won't write the synopsis or give any spoilers. All I would like to say is that this book gives you a lot of positive messages. Read it really slowly and in a quiet atmosphere, you will find it magical and greatly moving. Highly recommended.

    This is truly a book to treasure.

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