Something very fun and freeing happens when you’re not blogging as often. You get less scared about posting controversial posts. I feel like I’m barely blogging anymore, so why not share a hot take? I’ve been neglecting my blog for months by now, this platform no longer feels like someplace sacred and special that I have to be scared about sharing an unpopular opinion. Not that it ever really did. It’s just that my intention with this post is slightly different than other posts. Sure, this is a discussion post, but I don’t really think any perspectives are going to change my mind about this. But hey, feel free to prove me wrong!
So what are we hear to talk about today? Well it’s quite simple. My dislike for Colleen Hoover books. Mwahahahaha. Oh, and the fact that I have strong feelings on A Little Life, despite never having read it. Hmmm, what other popular books can I scandalize you by sharing my opinion on? I guess that will have to do for now.
Well, now you might be trying to figure out what these books have in common. It’s quite simple. These books are really popular examples of authors using forms of trauma to pull at your heartstrings. And frankly, I’m not a fan. I’ve made it no secret how big a fan I am of trigger warnings. So you may just think that I’m sick of people recommending these kinds of books without trigger warnings. Which is true. But today we’re talking about something different. Assume I did my research and know a book has triggers or general trauma that would be harmful to my mental health. I can know that a book has a topic that I’m not able to read and be fine. My problem in this specific instance is how the people who ARE reading the book are processing the information they read.
To me this is a conversation that requires a lot of nuance. Are all books that handle something triggering or traumatic bad? Absolutely not. But there are several things that I dislike about how many triggering or traumatic storylines are handled. Starting from the very marketing of the book. Please do not tell me that a book is a beautiful romance, when it’s featuring heavily traumatized characters that recover from the force of the love they find. Absolutely not. It’s a no from me.
Now how about books that have no happy ending to the trauma? Things just get worse and worse for the character, and then the story ends. That’s also not a great take. Then we have some fun ones that pop up every now and then. Authors taking a delicate issue they have little experience with and making a whole book about that issue as if they are experts. Authors using stereotypes to guide their portrayal of events or traumas. These all happen and I hate it. But truly, just in general, if an author is writing a book just with the intention of making me a bawling mess because of what a character has gone through, I’m over it.
Now, I’ve read a lot of these kinds of books. Some of them I even enjoyed when I read them. But it also shaped my perception of trauma and the kind of possibilities available to one who has suffered. Let me let you in on a secret. If a book doesn’t show hope or healing, or any sort of balance, you’re being misled. Not to say that every story ends happily. But the fact that there are so many stories pushing narratives where it’s not the characters themselves gaining hope and healing, but their reliance on others that gets them there? Errr, no.
When books only focus on trauma and loss and grief
So let me be clear. Romance solves no problems. Books that market tragic stories as romances because love saves all are doing real harm. Stories where characters never unpack their trauma or dealings should not end with everything being perfect just because life circumstances changed. Because stories inform people. And yes, people understand that these stories are fiction, but people also end up picking up on a lot from what they read. If you’ve never encountered a situation in real life, and a book handles it one way, that you think worked out well, that may be what you suggest to a person who encounters a similar issue in the future. Because that’s your only frame of reference. Am I oversimplifying? Of course. But I’ve encountered far too many people who read these books and end up with damaging and warped perspectives on a variety of topics based on the authors and storylines they read to not feel like it may very well be that simple for some people.
I urge people that read fictional accounts of illnesses, tragedies, mental health issues, etc, to make sure they’re also educating themselves from a variety of first hand accounts. Realize that all experiences are different. Find out what some similarities are. Learn the best ways to be an ally in these circumstances. Don’t assume because you read it once in a FICTIONAL story, you’re qualified to speak on a topic.
Some people after reading one fictional account of a topic
I’m aware that this post is a jumble of thoughts. I know that I’m going to upset a lot of people who enjoy tear-jerkers and hard hitting novels. That’s okay! I’d just like to start a conversation here. Is it okay for authors to perpetually write trauma laden books just to profit off them? Is there a place for stories that end with no chance for happiness? I’m I being ridiculous thinking that people’s exploration of fiction is going to impact their real life perceptions to such a great extent? I guess you’ll let me know!
19 thoughts on “Profiting Off Pain: Why I Dislike So Many “Sad” Books”
I’ve never read a Colleen Hoover book, but I guess I have similar feelings about romance in general? I am mostly familiar with rom coms and a lot of them push these narratives about romance that are basically fantasies in nature. And, yes, they are fun to read or watch. And we should know that they are fiction. But I also know women who have really bought into the idea that love should conquer all, or that men have to do all this work “pursuing” them and making grand gestures while they don’t reciprocate at all. And it’s not been healthy either for them as individuals or for their relationships.
So, yes, stories matter! They affect us! And sometimes I think they affect us in ways we don’t realize. I’m sure many of the women I am thinking of would not recognize that they have unrealistic or unhealthy ideas about romance. They genuinely think that’s just how things are. They can’t see their perspective is skewed because they don’t know anything else. Maybe other types of stories with other perspectives could help them reflect more and think more critically about what they are expecting from a relationship, and why.
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Colleen Hoover uses trauma as the backbone of her stories, which is why she’s a special case to me. But I actually agree with you about the narratives many romances push with love conquering all!
I think part of the reason I feel so passionately about this topic is because for a long time as a teen, I believed that narrative, until I started reading more broadly, doing internal work, and listening to those who pointed out the dangers of the narrative. It just worries me that I see so many people, both teens and adults alike, that still seem to be stuck in the narrative. Romances are great! I love them! But it’s important that a reader can recognize some flaws of the genre or at the very least, the common, harmful narratives used in the genre.
And reading from a diverse and broad range of works is definitely an aspect of the solution! I am finding some books that have the characters go to therapy or do other forms of internal work before reconciling with their love interests in romances, and whenever I read that, I’m always so glad the author has decided to provide an alternative ending to how a romance should go! Yes, romance can be fluffy and fun, but it can still point out flaws within the genre at the same time!
I’ve read a number of romance books that romaticize trauma. And I also believe there should be trigger warnings for books content. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up a contemporary thinking it will be a lovely read and character study only to feel frazzled by the end from images bombarding my overactive imagination that I certainly don’t want interrupting my day. Sometimes I don’t mind a bit of trauma in a novel – if it’s written correctly and has a point in shaping the character or plot. But too often it’s present to elicit some sympathy from the reader. We can empathise with characters who haven’t lived through hell and back to prove they deserve love. We all deserve love. I have the same opinion on ‘sick-lit.’ Romances about people with terminal illnesses. It’s not romantic at all. I’ve had to go through chemo three times in my life so far, was diagnosed terminal at 23 and feel lucky to be alive – but at no point during the moments I was throwing up and could barely raise my head off the pillow did I feel attractive or even entertain the thought of wanting to be hugging and kissing someone. Finding love would have made little difference to my journey.
But I guess that’s the point with romance – it’s all told through tragedy and rose coloured glasses. It’s meant to be a poetic twist on hardship and the reward is someone to have and to hold. It started back in Shakspearean times and was popularized in the Victorian and Regency eras where the novel always ended in a marriage.
I agree with the trigger warnings for a book – but I think trauma is a part of the genre and has been for hundreds of years. Maybe it will fall out of favour, but if those books keep selling than probably not. Maybe we need to invent a new sub-genre of trauma free romances 😉
I guess it comes down to personal taste and the reasons people read in the first place. We really can’t police people’s reading habits (or what authors write) but some content warnings help the reader know what they are in for.
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Oh my gosh! YES! I hate those books with a passion. The fact that I can think of about 5 romances that just center and romanticize trauma, but aren’t marketed correctly just boils my blood! Using trauma in a book, ESPECIALLY a romance, is a choice that authors truly need to do intentionally and with thought. It definitely can be done well, but when used for shock value, or other exploitative reasons, I just get mad.
And sick-lit is definitely one of the most frustrating phenomena in publishing. Jojo Moyes in particular comes to mind as an offender, although I’ve unfortunately read quite a few others. Those books are definitely a case where an author is profiting off an experience they have never had to live through, just to generate some tears and emotion from a reader. I detest that method. When authors write from a lived experience it can be different, but even then, some sensationalize their stories or portray their experience as the ONLY experience.
That’s actually a really interesting take on romance. I don’t view it through that lens, probably because I try searching out books that don’t fit that mold, but even so I definitely see how some aspects of that “hard won journey” seep through into even the happiest and fluffiest of romances. Even trauma free romances, as you so perfectly put it, don’t lack for hardships!
I definitely agree that we can’t control what authors write, although I wish publishers would help with the task of ensuring less harmful narratives make their way to the shelves. And we definitely can’t control what people read. But the way a book is marketed by both publishers and people alike is what I really wish would change. At the very least I’d love to know there ARE trigger warnings to look into, even if the person or publisher themselves doesn’t list them! But perhaps even that is too much to ask!
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Yes, there is something in this, and it kind of reminds me of why I’m sick and tired of what my friend calls “Holocaust porn” which are basically romance novels set during WWII so that you’ll feel sorry for all their suffering and happy when love conquers all. Well, no… no thank you, no, no, no, no, and NO! Also… Jodi Picoult’s books. OMG, the horrible voyeuristic tone of those books (at least the first ones), cashing in on tragedies, just put me off totally. I’ll never read any of her books!
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Yes! Holocaust novels that completely disregard that the Holocaust was not a time of budding romance for most, and certainly not with Nazis, are INFURIATING.
Yup! Jodi Picoult definitely is someone who has profited off tragedies and hardships of others. I just find it so distasteful. Who are you to make money off of someone’s pain?
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Looks like we both need to find more humorous novels!
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I definitely agree! While I don’t think all “sad books” are profiting off pain, there definitely are ones that are. I also have absolutely no intention of reading any colleen hoover books or a little life. I think it’s a matter of whether or not it is voyeuristic. Like, are we meant to be empathizing with the character who has had an experience different from ours, or is it more of a shock value thing? I totally agree about the fact that some books act like finding love can cure all other problems, and I definitely do not like that. Thankfully, I usually manage to stay away from those.
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Not all sad books profit off pain, but far too many do, in my opinion. But there definitely are exceptions where the author handles a topic with care and nuance, where even I appreciate how those topics were dealt with, and what emotions were evoked as I read.
YES! That’s exactly it. Is it an exploration of the trauma? Is there a path towards recovery? Is there hope and healing? And if there isn’t, is there exploration of that as well? Essentially, I want nuance. Shock value does not lend itself to nuance. Neither does just using a love interest to pretend the trauma is gone now, since love conquered all. I’m glad you’ve managed to avoid those kinds of stories!
YES TO ALL OF THIS!!! As a disabled/chronically ill person myself I absolutely LOATHE how much praise the book community heaps on A Little Life, when the author has actually *bragged* about doing no research about disability and mental illness. I don’t have to read the book. If the author’s point of pride is that they never bothered to research the topic of their *realistic* fiction novel—especially when their portrayal is of a marginalized group that they’re not a member of and can do very real harm to those of us who are real people within said marginalized group—I think it’s safe to say the novel is trash. I hate how people call the book “such a beautiful, moving, tragic story!” when all it actually is is exploitation of the lives and stories of disabled people. It’s ableist garbage and yet the book community is steady lauding it as “a modern classic!”
I feel similarly about other “trauma p*rn” novels, including romances and “sick lit,” especially as a MASSIVE amount of said “trauma p*rn books” are about disabled/chronically ill/mentally ill people but by able-bodied/non mentally ill authors. To paraphase (of all people) The Grinch, “Hate, hate, hate! Hate, hate, hate! Double hate!! Loathe entirely!!!” Ugh.
A great book you might check out that counteracts this trend is Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz. Moskowitz is chronically ill/disabled herself and the book is about two chronically ill teens who fall in love—but neither die in the end nor are their chronic illnesses part of the main conflict!
Thanks for the great discussion!
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WHAT?!?!? I did not know that about A Little Life! Wow. I think you found the one piece of information about that book that can make my opinion of it even lower than what it was beforehand.
And, YES! Ableist, traumatic stories are not your inspiration! They are not beautiful because of their tragedy. Everything you’re saying is EXACTLY what I was trying to get at! Sick lit and trauma porn are exactly the kinds of books I was referencing. Like you, I cannot STAND those kinds of stories.
I LOVE SICK KIDS IN LOVE! I’ve recommended it MANY times on the blog, and just in general to internet friends and in person strangers alike. Another book that you might be interested in is True Biz. It’s a fantastic story following 3 people all connected to the Deaf community written by a Deaf author and activist that addresses so many problematic takes people have with regards to Deafness and disability. Honestly, I may end up doing a review/discussion combo on that book because of how much there is to unpack in that story. Essentially, if you read it, PLEASE let me know, so we can discuss.
Thank you so much for contributing to this conversation!
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Wow this is SUCH a thought provoking topic! Because when I first read the title I was like “no silly I love sad books! The more apocalypses the better!” right? BUT I also agreed with pretty much all of your points. Especially the romance one, nothing makes me hate a book faster than romance solving life problems. Because yeah romance can help one feel happy, but… what kind of message does it send that it is the ONLY way to achieve happiness!? I daresay we’re completely conditioned as a society to think we HAVE to be in a romantic relationship to be happy. I spent my first 25 years thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have a romantic partner, THEN marrying (and divorcing, because duh) the first moron who showed me the time of day. So yeah I have a LOT of feelings on this. And I think that like- some stories ARE sad, and that is okay, but I agree with you that when it is doing it almost to like, see how many tears it can expel from people, that isn’t cool either. If you write a goood story and people tear up, okay, but if you are writing it BECAUSE you want people to cry, that is weird behavior tbh. Also fully agree about the marketing part- I feel like it sets a lot of people up to be VERY unhappy and potentially harmed by a reading experience and that is not okay.
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Why, thank you! Yes, my title was a bit of click-bait, but hey! It worked!
Romances don’t solve life problems. It’s practically a plot hole when a book pretends they do! Like, can romances make people happy? Sure! But it won’t cure a mental illness. It won’t get rid of trauma. It may make it easier to cope with those things, but it requires nuance to convey the difference.
Stories can be sad! For sure! I’ve even enjoyed some sad stories. But the exploitative ones just make me mad. The shock value ones put me in a rage. The ones that pile on the sadness and trauma just to make you cry, I detest.
And marketing and the issues I have with it is a WHOLE separate rant. But to me I feel like, if you’re going to still publish these stories, the least you can do is provide trigger warnings and/or market these books correctly. But alas. Even that seems to be too much for publishers to provide.
I totally agree with you on trauma romances. I stopped reading CoHo after Ugly Love because I just couldn’t help but feel that it focused way too much on the ugly and was pretty light on the love. I couldn’t help but feel that those two should not have ended up together without some major therapy to solve their issues, so the “happy” ending fell very flat for me. I do also agree that it can set some pretty unrealistic expectations, especially when I see younger and younger girls buying her books.
I DO love a book that breaks me, though, and so I’m not totally opposed to pain if it’s done well (as you pointed out). Of course, that could be subjective.