The ‘Sad Girl’ Fiction Trend
By Yashika M, Alexandra Constable and Maisie Clarke
In recent years, sad young women have quickly become the latest book cover trend. This has resulted in setting the mood for the resurrection of a ‘sad girl’ in relation to heartbreak, regret and, most importantly, communication of mental health. This prospective trend was first popularised through album covers of famous singers like Taylor Swift. The most popular and well-known ‘sad girl’ book is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; it is widely regarded as one of the first books to popularise the trend. Autumn and winter are slow, cold and cosy seasons; it can be argued that these seasons can impact people’s mental health, potentially increasing the number of people buying into the ’sad girl’ book trend.
Reading sad books emerges from the art of writing and conveying emotions, as an author alone shoulders the responsibility to be able to deliver when it comes to presenting the narrative in a way that authentically creates a deep emotional impact. These books have been known to help people get in touch with their feelings and truly acknowledge them. They are most popular amongst those who strive to create awareness about the stigmas surrounding mental health, as the books extensively focus on mental illnesses and how the protagonists or the side characters can make the best out of their situations. Not only that, a growing number of young adults are being diagnosed with several mental disorders. This has meant that reading books about people like themselves has encouraged them to explore and discuss these issues with others, which has become a much-needed respite.
Arguably, the ’sad girl’ fiction trend has become a medium through which authors can articulate certain struggles women face to their readership. For example, earlier this year Weike Wang’s Joan Is Okay: A Novel was published. Wang skillfully tells the story of Joan, a middle-aged ICU doctor working at a busy hospital in New York City, whose life is turned upside down when her father suddenly dies and her mother subsequently moves from her homeland in China back to America to reconnect with her kin. The novel poignantly addresses the struggles of being a female professional in a male-dominated world and workplace, in addition to the power of retaining one’s independence. Similarly, Dustin Thao’s novel You’ve Reached Sam, published late last year, tells the story of Julie Clarke, a seventeen-year-old student whose boyfriend dies unexpectedly, leaving her heartbroken. Clarke touches not only on the realities of modern-day societal pressures and expectations, but the unfortunate truth about experiencing heartbreak as a young, single female.
A novel in particular which has seen dual criticisms is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. This novel of more than 700 pages explores the lives of four university friends in America as they journey their way through adulthood. Although it doesn’t focus on the experiences of women, it definitely encapsulates the ideas of ’sad girl’ fiction. The novel has received rave reviews among readers, with an overall score of 4.33 on Goodreads as well as a 5/5 rating on Waterstones. In addition to this, the work has acquired critical fame, winning the Kirkus Prize and becoming a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Also, this prominence has been recognised by BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTube, with creators such as Jack Edwards vlogging their experience reading the lengthy book. However, it is not the size of A Little Life that has captured the attention of readers; it is the expansive list of trigger warnings. It is rare to find a review of the book that doesn’t involve a warning to future readers to educate themselves on the difficult subject matters which are described in detail throughout. Some have even gone as far as to label the text “trauma porn” due to its seemingly never-ending list of sensitive themes. However, reviewers are also keen to emphasise Yanagihara’s incredible prose and skill in storytelling which has made her work so popular and positively reviewed. Potentially, this makes A Little Life the perfect case study of ‘sad girl’ fiction and its controversies; how do you find the right balance in a ‘sad’ novel without crossing boundaries of extreme trauma?
Overall, there is a big conversation around the popularity of ‘sad girl’ fiction, especially with the oncoming winter months. Some question whether authors exploit trauma in trade for book sales and go so far as to criticse this trend for worsening readers’ mental health. On the other hand, this genre has been praised for highlighting authentic, real-life experiences of many people – women in particular – providing them with comfort in the knowledge that their struggles are shared. Therefore, it is clear that, with caution, this genre can thrive. It opens up crucial conversations on shared experiences and, most importantly, gives a sense of safety to those who are in need of it.