When Christopher Hitchens’s posthumous book Mortality came out a week ago, I thought, Oh no, not you too. Why does every journalist who gets cancer end up writing about it, splashing salacious details about his or her physical demise across the pages of newspapers, blogs, and books? Hitchens, always a brilliant trend-bucker in life, has become a trend-follower in death, embracing the fashion for revealing all of the grim details about terminal illness.
This macabre trend in modern essay writing, whether it manifests itself as a cancer column in a newspaper or as a cancer memoir with a maudlin title is not really the fault of the writers themselves. It’s entirely understandable that someone afflicted by cancer would be unable to think about anything else and might find it useful to put down on paper what is happening to his body and mind. No, what turns the cancer-ridden writer’s rational myopia with his mortality into a pretty sick publishing phenomenon that one British observer has branded “the pornography of death” is a public appetite for details of decay, a public lust for a peepshow-style glimpse at the process of dying. Not the dignity and ethics of dying, mind you, the physical, gory transformation from a healthy body to a sick one to a corpse. Ours is a morbid era, obsessed with disease, and we implicitly incite the sick to tell us everything, to keep nothing bottled up. “It will be therapeutic,” we say, but really we just want to be titillated.
The most striking thing about Hitchens’s book, which documents his last 18 months as he succumbed to cancer of the esophagus, is the almost sordid level of detail. As you would expect from Hitchens, the book is moving and insightful, not least when, upon discovering that he has lost his voice forever, he writes: “What do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.” But there is also an awful lot about hair loss and emaciation and bags of drugs being pumped into a has-been body, and a bit about how the “whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.” It is a curious mix of Hitchensesque rumination and misery memoir, a mash-up of good essay writing with the sort of physical revelation you would normally expect to find in one of those sad survivor memoirs in the “Tough Lives” section of the bookstore.
When journalists write about their illnesses they are congratulated for breaking the last taboo, which says we should shut the hell up about disease and death and not mention such unpleasantness in polite company. But seriously, how many times does a taboo have to be broken before we stop calling it a taboo? Because writing about one’s own malady, especially if it’s cancer, is actually pretty commonplace these days. It can even make you a celebrity, or at least make your cancer a celebrity.
In Britain, cancer commentary took off in the late 1990s. In June 1997 Ruth Picardie, diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, started her popular death column in the Observer. She filed six columns, all pretty graphic, some upsetting, before her death in September 1997. Then came the inevitable book, Before I Say Goodbye, which contained not only the columns but also a host of personal emails exchanged between Picardie and friends, for those greedy readers who wanted even more info about Ms. Picardie’s death throes.
Journalist (and husband of Nigella Lawson) John Diamond wrote what he openly called a "cancer column" for the London Times in the late 1990s and early 2000s while he was suffering from throat cancer. His columns won him a prestigious What the Papers Say award and were turned into both a book, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, and a play, A Lump in My Throat, which was a hit among the more morbid sections of the theater-going chattering classes. Diamond achieved his highest level of journalistic fame after stopping writing about the external world and instead writing about his internal decay, as a Guardian obituary dryly noted: “It was a horrible irony that the illness that eventually ended [his] life was also, professionally, the making of him.”
Fame is frequently bestowed on those who treat the public to details about their disease. Last year a Daily Telegraph journalist won Britain’s “cancer journalism award” for her articles about battling lung cancer. The success that can spring from writing about one’s own cancer was summed up in a desperately sad headline in the San Francisco Chronicle in March 2007: “Cancer. Despair. And Now, a Blog.” That story was about Alicia Parlette, a journalist who blogged her demise from skin cancer. In the US, cancer memoirs have followed depression memoirs (remember Elizabeth Wurtzel?) and anorexia diaries (hello Portia de Rossi) as the latest offering to that strange section of the public that can’t seem to get enough of other people’s suffering.
In such circumstances, when sickness sells, it was only a matter of time before we started seeing fake cancer columns, written by charlatans seeking a shortcut onto the op-ed pages and into Joe Public’s heart. In 1999 a Kentucky-based columnist called Kim Stacy started a series of columns about her battle with “terminal brain cancer.” "Try to picture a world without dreams, without wishes, without hope,” she wrote, yanking painfully on the reader’s heartstrings. But she didn’t have brain cancer. She made it up, to disguise the fact that she was actually suffering from AIDS, she said. But she didn’t have AIDS either. She made that up too. She was a serial disease fantasist, clearly out to make a buck from the weird cultural fascination with sickness and sorrow. At a time when you can be treated as heroic simply for having suffered, it must be tempting to pretend to be sick.
The thing that motors cancer journalism, which makes it increasingly acceptable, even good, for hacks to tell all about the very darkest moments of their lives, is our craven culture of voyeurism. Nothing can remain private anymore, especially the bad stuff: In our Oprah era of constant sharing, to refuse to publicly discuss your failings, fuck-ups, ailments, and even imminent death is taken as a sign of sociopathy. “Let it out,” we’re told. “Don’t hold anything back.”
Shortly before his death last year, when he was quite legitimately refusing to tell the world’s slobbering media what was wrong with him, Steve Jobs was attacked by Slate for being “unusually—and, frankly, irresponsibly—cagey about his medical status.” Yeah, how dare you not tell me—and tell investors!—what your sickness is, and even better, show me your sickness by giving me a graphic description of what bits of you are falling off. It is a sick culture that is so obsessed with sickness. A cure for cancer is a long way off, but let’s work on what we can for now, and find a cure for the cancer column.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked.