those who hate “sick lit,” try #whitegirlproblems

So you might have heard about all that criticizing of “sick lit,” which is the new buzzword for adults who think they know about YA from having looked at synopses (you can always tell how invalidated these people’s arguments are when the comments are closed and the person has no experience as a librarian, writer, teacher, or scholar of the stuff, as you can see here). “Sick lit” has replaced Meghan Cox Gurdon’s ridiculous “Darkness Too Visible” article on the Wall Street Journal as the way to demonize YA for teaching teens that bad things happen in the world. They are written by people who know so little about children’s literature as to say things like “so-called ‘young adult’ (YA) fiction” (seriously, Russell Smith? A publishing category around for decades is just so-called? Anyway) and who think that a book published in the last five years was the first to “break the taboo about writing about suicide” (Tanith Carey). Basically, these people spent five minutes looking at YA and determined themselves experts, which I suppose is the same as men holding panels on reproductive rights and barring women from saying “vagina,” or politicians who have never been in classrooms telling teachers how to teach. This is about people with hegemonic power trying to keep it at all costs.

Of course, the real thing that these “concerned” adults are decrying is the idea that novels for teenagers might be something other than didactic and for an audience other than upper-middle-class white people with problems that cannot be easily solved with a little Kumbaya or finding true love that accepts you for who you are. There are scholarly articles about this, too, because people cannot get enough of criticizing these sick lit novels. And they have a point, to an extent – it is ridiculous when your novel hinges entirely on a kid with cancer and lacks, you know, a real plot, characterization, and compelling other things going on. But when these conversations move from Lurlene McDaniel to people with slightly more literary prowess, it gets ridiculous, because they are criticizing the wrong part of sick lit: the presentation of teenagers as people with serious difficulties in life instead of the problem novel-iness of it all.

Everyone uses John Green as an example, since The Fault in Our Stars is the book of the moment and deals with cancer. The fact that the book is nowhere near as well written as everyone says, and the fact that Hazel is just as problematic and tragic-female-present-only-for-man-pain as Alaska, aside, this book is nothing like the usual problem novel where nothing is happening but cancer. There is interesting stuff going on with intertext, and even if romance isn’t my thing, it is at least somethingAnd yet people like Carey claim that publishers are commissioning these novels to capitalize on the “exploitation” of children’s emotions (evidence, please?) And then Carey and all of the adults she quotes go on to talk about how teenagers are not capable, competent humans and cannot read anything on their own for fear of not being able to comprehend or process them.*

I find it interesting that so much of this criticism is directing at a white dude, when usually those are the literary gods who can do NO WRONG EVER because they are default humans and they own all of the things. But since this is just an offshoot of Gurdon’s original article of a couple years ago, I will go out on a very solid and thick limb and say that this all speaks to normal, problemless white people’s fear that folks other than them are beginning to have their stories told. Because if in upper-middle-class WASP world there is no childhood cancer, no drug abuse, no sex before marriage, no poverty, no nontraditional families, no LGBTQ community, and no people of color who deal with both racism and with everyday things that white people deal with too, there is no reason to damage your poor children’s tender, impressionable hearts with fiction that says they do. It is SCARY when teenagers and children don’t have enough to eat, girls enjoy sex or masturbation, family members suffer from alcoholism, teenagers are disturbingly cruel to each other, and being religious or spiritual doesn’t mean that all things are hunky-dory. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not real, and it doesn’t mean you get to say that it’s exploitative, unnecessary, unwarranted, or evil. You don’t have to think that books like these are for bibliotherapy or that they’re not; you don’t have to think that your own child should be reading them; you don’t have to think that they are appropriate for all types of readers. But you do have to accept that they exist, that they mimic, respond to, or comment on real things that happen to real people, and that they deserve to be judged by the same standards that other books are – namely literary quality, characterization, compelling plot, interesting use of language, or whatever criteria you can think of that books in general can be judged by.

If that still freaks you out, however, never fear! There are books for you or your teen darling that are the opposite of sick lit. They are called #whitegirlproblems. One such book is Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt. Short synopsis: high school girl’s boyfriend has a secret girlfriend on Second Life. She is understandably enraged, so she dumps him and decides that living as if it is 1962 will solve her problems, because these sorts of things couldn’t happen when you didn’t have smartphones and Internet. So she starts dressing in mod dresses and starts a pep club, where she acquaints herself with boyfriend’s cousin, who is hot (and also, for a perk, fully white instead of the bf, who is only half white, so obvs he is going to be better at all things in life) and finds herself and learns that problems are a hallmark of teenhood and life, not 2012. Awww.

I really thought this book would be fun, because I assumed she would end up really into music or movies or fashion and there would be Nick Hornby-style discussions of why these things are awesome. Instead, I was treated to a family that literally solves its problems by taking everyone to Disneyland and that knows everyone’s business, including why their daughter has broken up with her boyfriend. Other problems include that Mom has a secret blog (understandably upsetting when your mother blabs about your problems to the Internet, sure, but maybe if your family weren’t so damn weird and childish that wouldn’t happen), younger sister totes needs to have her first kiss to be normal (decides older sis), young Grandma has a new lifestyle and is happy, and Dad may be really bad at running his business.

I’m not saying that these couldn’t make for a good or realistic novel. Of course they can. These are things that happen in life. But they are also #whitegirlproblems in the meme sense (and the Babe Walker sense): they are presented in our cultural narrative as pretty much exclusively happening to middle-class white girls, so they both imply that such things cannot happen to other sorts of people (e.g. black girls cannot be brokenhearted about boyfriends, or a Thai girl cannot have a mother who knows how to use a computer) and perpetuate the bubble that is White People Land, where only minor problems can occur and where white girls are delicate flowers of specialness. Also, they are boring and they happen in all of the books about white girls, because they are formulaic and belong in our cultural narrative about what constitutes adolescence, so they are what has always been published and promoted as YA!, you know? Like other adolescent experiences don’t happen.

I spent this entire book going, “You are dumb and immature and say sentences that reek of not having a very smart brain, protagonist-whose-name-I-already-forget-because-you-are-utterly-forgettable!” “Why do you think that is a big deal?” “Why are you not cynical and/or snarky?” and “Why can’t there be a book about a girl who really wants a date but also understands that she is just undesirable and won’t get one, even if she finds herself and reconciles things?” (sorry, that last one is basically one of my personal complaints about every time I read a high school experience that is not mine and may not be exactly fair to put on the author). I just don’t understand why this is a book, and I’m also really sad that I read a book that implied that it was an exploration of the dangers and joys of nostalgia, the awesomeness of sixties music, and the snark of high school and was really just dull as doornails. That is all.

*This is said without a nod to the fact that if this were true, adults should be blamed for not teaching children how to read, and yet I’m pretty sure a lot of kids learn how when they are pretty young. I know how to read, and I learned when I was 5, not 20. Also, I’m not down with calling children and teenagers stupid just because they have lived for fewer years, but that’s just me. If you think your teenager can’t handle books about complex subjects, maybe you should consider the possibility that you’re a shit parent instead of that your kid is dumb. Jus’ sayin’.


7 thoughts on “those who hate “sick lit,” try #whitegirlproblems

  1. Yeah, I always think it’s weird that people think there are crazy publishing scandals around corrupt brain-washing things when it comes back to John Green. John Green does what he wants. A lot of the publishing industry can’t keep up with him – not the other way around.

  2. Actually, I’m a teen, and I have to call it “Sick-lit” because that’s what it is. Anytime a guy main character decides to hit a girl repeatedly, and yet two other still fall in love with him. What exactly is that teaching? And it’s not a case of bad parenting when the parents don’t even know what’s in these books.

    • Books aren’t required to teach, nor does having something bad in a book mean that it is teaching someone to be bad. And I was implying that banning books is bad parenting, not not knowing what’s in books. Or am I misunderstanding you? I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say.

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