Seven thousand years ago when I was at school, we were instructed by our English teacher to write a short story. I do not remember whether any more specific guidelines were provided, but what I do recall is this: every single one of us wrote something tragic, depressing and borderline psychotic. My own masterpiece, as I remember, concerned a woman who had recently suffered a miscarriage and spent the duration of my epic tale overdosing on sleeping pills. Because, clearly, at the age of 13, I was an expert on such matters. No wonder our teacher looked on the edge of a breakdown of his own.
My point in retelling this inspirational tale is that things don’t change. I don’t mean that I still write two page fictional suicide notes based on things about which I have no knowledge whatsoever, but that teenagers still dig this stuff. Last week, having set my own class the task of writing their own short story, one student asked me to suggest ways that someone might commit suicide. The focus of the task? Time travel. Clearly, then, teenagers in any decade are basically weirdo Father Time from ‘Jude the Obscure;’ surely, the prototype for the kind of sob-inducing fiction which forms my subject here.
As far as I can see, pretty much all young adult literature being published at the moment fits into one of two categories: teens-in-extreme-peril dystopian trilogies and first-person, possibly split narratives about teens-in-peril because of diseases. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But in my epic efforts to read every decent YA novel in order to keep up with the young whippersnappers in my class who can manage a book a night (ahh, those were the days), I have now read too much of this stuff not to question why it is so wildly popular.
Probably one of the reasons for the popularity of miserable books is the same reason that I have a whole iTunes playlist dedicated to sad music; sometimes it is weirdly pleasant to feel sad. And, if you feel sad anyway, sometimes it is nice and entirely healthy to indulge that instinct. At some point in the distant past, I reread ‘Goodbye Johnny Thunders’ on a loop for weeks just because I wanted to read something that would make me cry. I have read ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ twice for the same reason. I like to believe that this is totally normal and everybody does it. No..?
Something I read in The Guardian suggested that teenagers love ‘The Hunger Games’ and every other book that has copied it because it is the normal condition of the youth to feel oppressed by adults and so in a hugely self-aggrandising way, they like teen dystopias because they can relate. You know, like when Katniss drapes flowers all over the dead body of her 12 year old ally, it’s exactly like when your parents make you do homework or something. So why the massive popularity of books in which someone you really like dies? Part of me thinks it’s about putting your own problems in perspective. Yes, it is hard doing GCSEs. Is it as hard as, say, having a terminal illness like Hazel in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’? Is it as tormenting as dealing with the death of a sister, faced by both Violet from ‘All the Bright Places’ and Laurel in ‘Love Letters to the Dead’? Really no. This Buzzfeed post (http://www.buzzfeed.com/kaylayandoli/powerful-books-depression#.pkWPvvK1L) also highlights that books like this can help those who do face problems similar to the characters in novels like ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ and ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story.’
When it works, this sub-genre of Depressing YA really works. ‘All the Bright Places’ by Jennifer Niven is almost too beautiful for me to talk about. I didn’t predict the ending because I didn’t want to; Niven really made me care about Violet and Finch, without a manic pixie girl or cliche in sight. When teaching Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ to a class recently, I was asked, “but what did she have to be depressed about?”: I don’t have firsthand experience of depression, but my response (when I’d finished defending Sylvia as if she is actually my best friend rather than a poet who died 30 years before I was born) was to think about Finch and what an authentic representation of the illness this is. I felt the opposite about ‘Thirteen Reasons Why,’ which I really wanted to like but just found completely unconvincing. Where Finch’s struggle with depression is heartbreakingly real, Hannah’s vindictive and, let’s be honest, whingy tapes just seem like the ranting of someone who is having a strop. On the Buzzfeed post mentioned above, one contributor did say that ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ helped them through their own dark period, so perhaps I just don’t know what I’m talking about. But it’s certainly not ‘The Bell Jar (yes, I do think about Sylvia Plath all the time. I am a female English graduate). My most recent foray into teen-suicide-lit was Jasmine Warga’s ‘My Heart and Other Black Holes,’ which sounded melodramatic (the whole ‘teen suicide pact’ thing nearly turned me off) but was quite the opposite; the low-key style of Aysel’s narration was far more convincing than Hannah and her burning desire to make everyone else as miserable as she was. I feel an urge to make people read this book.
When it comes to John Green, ‘Looking for Alaska’ genuinely made me angry; I couldn’t find it in myself to feel sad about Alaska’s death when it just seemed like the latest example of her desperate bids for attention. So I had no expectations going into ‘The Fault in our Stars’ and, consequently, was blown away. I only started reading it because I had just watched my football team lose 5-1 away at Reading on a Friday night and wanted to read something which matched my mood of immense distress. In this case, Hazel and Gus completely let me down because ‘The Fault in our Stars’ is unexpectedly funny. Despite the tragic circumstances and slightly unbelievable Amsterdam bit, it’s a surprisingly entertaining read. And I either cleverly guessed what was going to happen or accidentally saw a spoiler when I wasn’t planning to read it. ‘Extraordinary Means’ by Robyn Schneider treads similar ground, again telling a sad story in a way that doesn’t milk it.
On my to-be-read pile sit ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ and ‘I’ll Bring You the Sun,’ both of which will, I assume lead me down these mental paths once again. In the meantime, whilst contemplating just why teenagers like such bloody sad books, I will continue to reverentially revisit Plath and listen to the Smiths. And support a football team who do nothing but ruin my life. Maybe teenagers aren’t so weird after all.