What is Sick-Lit?

Sick-lit is a relatively new term that has emerged particularly in Young Adult texts, as the area of YA is often on par with popular cultural trends.

I’m including a sick-lit text (‘Impulse’, by Ellen Hopkins) in the thesis I’ll be writing this year (2015). None of the lecturers I mentioned it to had heard of this genre (or subgenre) before.

John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ is an example of this emerging genre, which speaks to human connection, mortality and the inevitability of death. Similarly, Jennifer Niven’s ‘All The Bright Places’ explores mortality and the depth of emotional connection, with more of an emphasis on mental illness and its incapacitating isolation.

This emerging genre of YA texts is not constrained to its own niche, either, with self-harm and mental illness occurring across multiple genres, for example, dystopian (Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Pretties’) and fiction (Jackie Kessler’s ‘Rage’).

There have been ripples of controversy: why market such bleak, morbid texts to a young adult audience? Won’t this romanticise self-harm and mental illness, drive them into doing it themselves? I don’t think so, at least. If anything, it might grow what thoughts are already there… But it should not create new desires.

I have not read any of these novels and decided that dying in my early life was a good idea. Because I am not mentally ill. I am not sick. These sick-lit books are exposing emerging contemporary culture, shedding light on self-harm and what we would generally rather ignore. The relatability of these novels are localized: the characters go to school, fall in love, have fallouts with their friends.

Sick-lit brings self-harm, suicide, and mental illness into people’s’ central focus. It ‘normalises’ illness through an approachable lens. And this is why sick-lit novels are extremely important in our click-and-go, immediate-pleasure-satisfied society. What is sick-lit really saying about our stress filled environments? And will this awareness of sick-lit through young adult literature encourage dialogue about it?

It certainly has so far.


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