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To the Creators of 'Sick-Lit:' Please Be Careful in Your Representations

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If you are a person living in today’s society (and if you are reading this, I would be willing to bet that you are!), then you will be no stranger to the new branch of media, film and literature especially decorating every theatre, bookshelf and television show.

I am a person with a disability, and a person who also struggles with mental illness, so I feel I have a relevant opinion to add to this conversation. The conversation of “sick-lit.”

“Sick-lit” is defined as literature (easily transferable to other mediums) about sick people, usually teens, and their illnesses. I will not lie and say I have never read any “sick-lit,” nor will I claim never to have enjoyed it, but more and more, as it infiltrates – and seemingly takes over – every bookshelf, I find myself critiquing the reason for which it is written.

I’ll not specify any particular works of fiction in this article, but, in reading between the lines, I gather it will be relatively easy to work out to which stories I am referring.

The first “sick-lit” novel I read was probably not the first one written, but it is often represented as the one that gained the genre its traction. This book struck a chord with me, and I loved it. I loved its characters and the way that every emotion written in it felt as though the author had extracted it right from my own head. Yes, it was sad, and at times a little too close to home, but it made me feel something, as art should, and while I’ve already read it more than once, I believe that, at some point, I will read it again.

Perhaps the reason I was able to enjoy that first “sick-lit” novel had something to do with my age, or the part of life and illness I was in at the time, but as I’ve grown older and my illness has grown with me, I find myself a little less captured by illness in books.

I believe in representation. I believe that all people, people with illnesses and disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, people of color and all other minorities need representation in the media they/we consume. However, I also believe the way in which we offer this representation must be careful and calculated, and it must represent these groups in exactly the right way, because accurate representation is too important for us to allow for having missed the mark.

These sickness-based novels, these films, these TV shows that seem like the only thing being created right now are great because they represent a group that is usually forgotten about in the lights and glamour of Hollywood, but they carry risks.

We have books that show illnesses as the only thing in the lives of the characters who have them. Well, of course, that is a necessary device, because illness is a plot point, but we, the real faces of illness and disability, are made interesting by more than our sicknesses.

We have stories that get their facts wrong and show a disorder as something it isn’t, cures that don’t exist and abilities that just aren’t realistic. We have plot twists that show newly diagnosed, frightened and real life people with the condition that their prognosis isn’t so great, even when this is not the case, and is only true in stories for the purpose of an unpredictable way to end an entertainment piece. We have euthanasia encouraged when it is not the only answer, eating disorders seen as a route to popularity and suicide demonstrated as a way to make sure we are remembered.

Careful, tread lightly.

I am not trying to control or inhibit the creation of art. I am not trying to defile an entire genre. What I am trying to do is encourage authors, producers, screenwriters and production teams to be tactful, sensitive and delicate. To you, quadriplegia, suicide, anxiety, allergies, cancer…they might be just a plot device, the thing that distinguishes you as someone who is not afraid to write about hardships, but to us they are days, years and lives. Please be gentle and thoughtful when you are inadvertently telling us whether or not ours are worth living.

By all means, bring stories to life, bring awareness to illnesses and bring minorities to the public eye, but do not make us media that belittles our existence, that pities us or that spreads unverified fear to new (and old) patients.

Your character is ill, and that is fine, but don’t forget that real people are too. Please be kind with your bright idea.

As for me, I hope that “sick-lit” evolves into better versions of itself, versions that can help those of us afflicted by the plot lines, but, until then, I think I will stick to children’s books and “happily ever afters.”

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Thinkstock photo via BrianAJackson.

Originally published: May 22, 2017
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