"Nothing Feels as Real": Teen Sick-Lit, Sadness, and the Condition of Adolescence

By Elman, Julie Passanante | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, May 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Nothing Feels as Real": Teen Sick-Lit, Sadness, and the Condition of Adolescence


Elman, Julie Passanante, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


This article examines the emergence of "teen sick-lit" in the 1980s, a genre of adolescent fiction that fused illness and romance narrative to reinforce the interdependent norms of ablebodiedness, heteronormativity, emotional management, and maturity among American youth. Spotlighting popular American young adult fiction, including Lurlene McDaniel's Dawn Rochelle series (1985-93) and Jean Ferris's Invincible Summer (1987), the article critiques teen sick-lit's ableist and sexist visions of disability and sexuality and attends to the ways in which these novels suggest transgressive crip possibilities for desiring disabled bodies and resisting ableist norms of gender, sexuality, and beauty. Finally, drawing novel links between disability studies and emergent affect theory, the article analyzes teen sick-lit as one understudied response to post-1968 liberal social movements and post-Fordist economic shifts toward service industries that commodified emotion.

"Everyone loves a good cry, and no one delivers heartwrenching [sic] stories better than Lurlene McDaniel" reads the opening line of the Random House Publishers website's biography for McDaniel. Adoring fans describe her fiction as "cryin' and dyin'," while her personal webpage offers a series of printable bookmarks bearing slogans such as "Nothing feels as real as a Lurlene McDaniel book."1 McDaniel has penned over fifty young adult (YA) novels, which almost exclusively link an illness plotline, in which a white teen girl protagonist exhibits unexplained symptoms and receives a diagnosis and treatments for a chronic illness, with a romance plotline, in which her pursuit of a nondisabled and "healthy" male love interest parallels and positively affects her process of "getting well." McDaniel's melancholy titles-Let Him Live (1993), Don't Die, My Love (1995), Sixteen and Dying (1992)-produce the expectation of sadness for readers. As the bookmark's slogan suggests, McDaniel's books, and others like them, conjure a relationship between "realness" and emotional intensity in which sadness connotes authenticity.

McDaniel's novels represent a genre of YA literature that I am calling "teen sick-lit," which emerged alongside the YA problem novel as a new literary form and market for teenagers. Often identified as "10-hankie-novels" or "tearjerkers," teen sick-lit usually has been written by women for young female readers. While teen sick-lit clearly falls within a much longer literary history of illness narratives, including Victorian novels about chronic illnesses such as consumption, this article analyzes teen sick-lit of the 1980s as an historically specific response to the legacies of post-1968 "youth" activism, such as sexual liberation, secondwave feminism, critical race and disability rights movements.2 By the late 1970s, cultural producers, publishers, and parents articulated their own growing disillusionment with US governmental authority and the collapse of late sixties social movements when they "embraced a new realism for a young adult audience" that exposed (rather than insulated) children from the dangers of "real life" (Schmunk Murray 185).

While YA problem novels of the 1970s often critiqued racism, sexism, and homophobia, teen sick-lit of the following decade largely reaffirmed conservative political and sexual values and reconsolidated traditional heteronormative gender roles that had been "disrupted" by post-1968 identity movements.3 Problem-driven narratives quickly became the prevailing literary and cultural form exclusively for teenagers, and one that, through its pedagogical approach to storytelling, articulated a relationship between consuming "healthy" popular culture and developing good citizenship. Within this normative framework, good citizenship implied adherence to traditional norms of gender, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, and emotional management (the ability to express "appropriate" emotional responses to the social world). …

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