Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Illness and the Modern Novel

Nashville

I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but in almost every book I pick up lately a major character has an ailment of some kind: Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimers, Blindness, Deafness, brain disorders, cancer and their kids have autism, Downs Syndrome, aphasia, mental illness.

Is this because the reading audience is getting older and both the writers and readers are affected by such ailments? Or was it always like this and I missed it?

I am not really talking about characters that are victims of crime, but ones that are victims of physical ailments and disabilities. What ails us?

16 comments:

George said...

Cancer seems to be part of too much contemporary fiction today. As you point out, part of this is an appeal to an older, sicker reading public that's obsessed with health.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As is the nightly news as I swallow my aspirin.

Anonymous said...

Good point. I've noticed that too.

I just read John Green's very good YA novel about kids with cancer, The Fault in Our Stars, and this morning started Keith Thomson's Twice a Spy (sequel to the very entertaining Once a Spy) in which the central plot point is a character's Alzheimers.

I generally try and avoid the nightly news wherever possible.

;)

Jeff M.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Thought: Because authors are told that characters have to have depth and something with which to struggle. Alcohol is cliched now so we have this.

Anonymous said...

To be fair I do think that writers live in the real world and have to deal (as do we all) with aging parents, various illnesses (some of which are the results of living longer), etc. so it's not strictly marketing.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

No, I don't think it is marketing. I think these illnesses are very much on our minds. They can also insert some pathos or feeling into a novel. Aging children caring for aged parents is certainly the lot of most of us.

Thomas Pluck said...

It's also the truth; we're not dying shot in the streets, our own bodies are betraying us and we're dying old and often alone in a hospice bed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The new noir: hospice noir.

Anonymous said...

But how much of that do we want to read?

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think I reached my max for this year already.

Richard R. said...

No, I don't care to read that, if I want to be entertained, it's not by grim reality. Not for me, anyway. I think many authors do it because it's so easy to, as PK says, add character depth that way. It doesn't seem to be enough anymore, at least for authors or perhaps their editors, to have the character to simply be challenged by the circumstances of the plot. say finding a missing girl and ending up busting a porn ring.

Margot Kinberg said...

I hadn't thought about it, Patti, but you're right. There are a lot of crime novels now where one of the main characters - sometimes the sleuth - has some sort of major ailment, including mental illness. My guess? As we learn more about these things, authors explore them.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Missing girls and porn rings are pretty grim as well.

Ron Scheer said...

Illness has been a taboo subject in the past. It's also something we fear. Perfect material for fiction.

Deb said...

If, as Susan Sontag claimed in the 1970s, illness is a metaphor, then perhaps all the illnesses and various disabling conditions we find in our current reading material is a sign of a reflection of a culture that believes itself to be sick in some way.

There. I've made my pseudo-intellectual argument for the day!

Frankly, unless the illness or condition is integral to the plot (like the cancer in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS or autism in THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT), too much emphasis on an illness in a work of fiction is a bit of a turn-off for me. Probably because I'm getting older, have my own health issues, and prefer my reading material to take me away from all that, rather than rub my nose in it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nicely put, Deb. I am reading Robotham just now where the main character has Parkinson's. In some ways I prefer it to alcoholism but in other ways not.