Controversial Authors: Jennifer Niven


Most of you have probably heard of Jennifer Niven or at least her 2015 hit All the Bright Places. Though that book topped countless charts, there was still substantial pushback for what many felt was a romanticization of mental illness. Those criticisms have kept coming with her new book Holding Up the Universe.

I've read both of these books, Holding Up the Universe just last month. Here are some things I can say for certain about my opinion on Niven's work:

  • She's a skilled writer. Romanticization or not, her technique is definitely there.
  • Her characters are good. 
  • Her heart is (probably, I'm no psychic) in the right place. In interviews and author's notes', she's talked about loved ones whose mental illnesses prompted her to write AtBP (specifically, Violet's character) and HUtU (specifically, Jack).
  • But yes, her stories do romanticize mental illness. 

Here's a quick breakdown for those of you unfamiliar with her work. Beware, though, spoilers abound.

All the Bright Places features two depressed teenagers, shy Violet and rebellious Finch. They meet, fall in love, and go on some adventures. Following a fight, Finch disappears for a week or so before committing suicide. After that episode, Violet goes swimming in the pond where he drowned and proclaims herself mostly healed. Fans say it's an honest, real look at teen suicide and grief. Critics say Violet's illness appears to be magically cured at the end due to her love for Finch.

Holding Up the Universe stars Libby, who was once dubbed "America's Fattest Teen," and Jack, who has prosopagnosia (a neurological condition characterized by the inability to recognize faces). Jack's prosopagnosia is one of the most extreme cases ever found. Libby suffers from panic attacks, though never during the course of the actual book. She and Jack are enemies at first, then fall in love throughout the course of the book. In the last scene, Jack realizes he's gained the ability to recognize Libby's face - in terms of her, his prosopagnosia has been cured. Fans say it's empowering representation for overweight teens. Critics say Jack's illness appears to be magically cured due to his love for Libby.

Many people have differing opinions on Niven's books, but here's a fact: in the real world, love does not cure mental illness. Does it happen in Niven's books? That's for you to decide. 

Do you believe Jennifer Niven's books misrepresent mental illness? Are you a fan? Or do you hold both positions? What do you think of mental illness rep in YA in general, and what are some other books you feel do it exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly? Comment below. Let's start a discussion.

Namarië,
Ellie 

11 comments:

  1. You nailed everything I was thinking. I've met Jennifer and she is the sweetest person; her heart is in the right place with what she wants to do with her books. I've read HUtU and her writing is engaging, but yes, the fact that Jack can only recognize Libby's face is troublesome.

    I have a copy of AtBP I still have to read but had heard about the way mental illness is romanticized there too. Such a bummer.

    This is a really great post. I hope you continue with others.

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    1. She seems really sweet in her authors' notes! And I love that she's trying to use her position as a writer to enact positive social change and represent illnesses usually swept under the rug. She's just not going about it in quite the right way.

      Thanks!

      - Ellie

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  2. This is actually the one issue I feel like I can comment on, as I did in-patient twice, talk/pharmacological therapy for decades. I loved both books. As with anything, our opinions and interpretations are shaped by our experiences. I never felt she made Finch's mental illness this glamours thing. In fact, I felt fearful for him, angry at his family for doing nothing, and it still pains me the way it all played out. Sometimes I feel that when one person with enough reach makes a statement about a thing, people start looking for that thing specifically, instead of reading with an open mind. I am sure if I look hard enough, I can find something problematic in every single thing I read, but like I said, we all have different sensitivities, and what may be a problem for me, may not be a problem for you.

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    1. Oh yes, I felt exactly the same way about Finch! My main problem is how Violet was portrayed, but as you said, our opinions and interpretations are shaped by our experiences. Thank you for sharing!

      - Ellie

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  3. I loved All The Bright Places when I read it and didn't think about how it romanticized it but once people pointed it out I was like YEP totally see that and think it could be hard for some people. But I agree with a lot of what the previous commenter said in that I read Finch's mental illness similarly. BUT I think seeing how some people found it hard to read I am pretty careful about how I rec this book!

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    1. I read both books after hearing the arguments about the romanticization, and sometimes I wonder if I would feel the same way about them if I'd not heard those arguments at all or had only heard them after reading. Me, too, on both counts.

      - Ellie

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  4. I didnt even know there was a controversy around her books. I read All The Bright Places when it first came out, and I loved it. although I have to admit, I dont even remember that ending ever happening. lol.

    I thought it was honest though.

    I think that having her characters be "healed by love" could be interpreted differently. I really hate promoting the false idea that love cures mental illness. because its far from true. however, I know it can often feel like love does cure it. in that moment for Violet, maybe she really did think she was healed. I know in my journey I've had moments of insane clarity/euphoria like that. times I thought I had "made it." only to go on and suffer more. only to find out I wasnt magically healed. but it was a step of progress. if that makes sense?

    I think the authors heart was in the right place. I think she wanted to end her books on happy notes instead of heartbreaking ones that books about mental illness often had. but maybe despite her best intentions, the books still fell short.

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    1. I agree about the honesty. Niven's handling of Violet's grief and Finch's family life impressed me a lot because I don't think she sugarcoated anything. It's the best book I can remember reading about the issue of grief.

      I've never heard that point of view before! That "moment of clarity" makes a lot of sense. I do still think it could be easily misinterpreted by those who have never had a mental illness and so accidentally falsely represent some aspects of depression. If Niven was attempting to show that "step of progress," I applaud her, but I do think she could have clarified it more.

      I absolutely agree! Thank you for your comment! You're always so thoughtful; I love hearing from you.

      - Ellie

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  5. I love your post! I do think Niven romanticizes mental illness, yet, I agree with you in that her heart seems to be in the right place in both cases. That said, I really hope she'll take more caution in her future books, because accurate information & representation would obviously be more helpful for teens with mental health issues than this. Also one thing - romanticizing mental illness ones is, well, problematic, of course, but, you know, I see room for improvement for the author's future works. However, doing it TWICE even though she was called out after the first time is... disheartening. It's like she is purposefully ignoring the critics, and that is never a good look when many of those critics struggled with similar issues as the characters in her books. Fantastic post! Followed you, because I really hope to see similar discussions in the future. ^^

    Veronika @ The Regal Critiques

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    1. I agree precisely. Since her heart is in the right place, I do hold out hope for improvement. And I do think that being catapulted so suddenly onto the A list of YA authors could easily disorient a person and make them more hesitant to change what they do, since what they do got them pretty far. But I do think that after the same type of criticism for both her books dealing with mental illness, she should definitely be stopping and thinking seriously about what it is her critics are saying - especially those critics who have first-hand experience with this subject matter.

      Ahhh, thank you so much!

      - Ellie

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  6. So I never ever thought ATBP romanticised mental illness! But I did read it SO long ago that most of the details are hazy and I wasn't as informed about mental health then as I am now. If that makes sense? So I'm 100% going to reread next year and see how I feel. But I reeeally thought it was an honest look and almost a call out: if you don't get help for your mental illness, it is dangerous and can kill you. So I appreciated that spin on it, just for the fact that so often people are like "oh just think yourself out of your depression" or whatever and erase and dismiss it. Buuut anyway I'm curious to see what I think for my reread!

    I did like Holing Up the Universe again, but I didn't I didn't like how Jack could recognise Libby by the end. 😭😭 Like why must you do that, author. Pleeeese, it didn't work and it turned a realistic story into something "magical" almost?!? It would've been a MUCH better message to say that: even though Jack could never recognise Libby's face, they still deserved a romance/relationship and it could still work out?!? I would've preferred that message.😭😭

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