Recently, I tweeted a thread about Diary of an Oxygen Thief, and now that I’ve actually read the book in question, I’ve got even more to say. So buckle up.
Content note: within this post, there is a brief mention of rape and an extract from Milk and Honey which details sexual abuse.
The gist of the thread was that over summer, we had a slew of teens drop into the bookshop to enquire about Diary of an Oxygen Thief. Not only had I never heard of it, but it was long out of print and it didn’t really seem like the kind of book most teachers would put on a summer reading list. I could only find second-hand copies available to buy on Amazon for around fifty quid a pop, with no obvious reissue or movie adaptation on the horizon that would explain a sudden peak in interest. When I started to ask about it, they all said the same thing: “I don’t know, I just heard it’s really good.”
Why, suddenly, were the teenagers of Ilford interested in a 2006 novel-slash-memoir, set mostly in the States but originally self-published in Amsterdam, described by one reviewer as “artsy, swoon-worthy and kinky”? A quick Google told me everything I needed to know: reincarnations of the same image appeared over and over again, spread far and wide across social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram:
You can see why such a punchy opening line – “I liked hurting girls” might appeal to teenagers, just beginning to experience the rocky terrain of sex, relationships and heartbreak for the first time.
I’d experienced this phenomenon before, back in those halcyon days of 2012 when the air was thick with Olympic small talk and I was living in a shabby Leyton flat with a bin bag for a front door. Between requests for 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl (i.e. 95% of books sold during the summer of 2012), a constant stream of teenagers flowed through the bookshop hoping to pick up a 2006 American YA book called Looking for Alaska. Unlike Diary of an Oxygen Thief, we did indeed stock Looking for Alaska but I couldn’t work out where all this interest was coming from. Because I like to involve myself in literally everyone’s business, I started to ask customers where they’d heard about Looking for Alaska and they all said the same thing: “I don’t know, I just heard it’s really good.”
That didn’t really answer my question. But where did you hear it was really good? And why now? Why this book, six years after publication? Do you all know each other? Are you all part of an underground teen book group and everyone’s sworn to secrecy? Again, there was no film adaptation on the horizon and – wildly – this wasn’t even his most recent novel: a hardback called The Fault in Our Stars had just been released in the US. Six months later, in January 2013, the paperback of The Fault in Our Stars hit the UK and John Green became a household name, but the subsequent success of his rejacketed back catalogue didn’t explain how so many young people were seeking out his first novel six months previously.
The answer is of course THE INTERNET. Not some kind of wild biblio-branded witchcraft, not psychic librarians or literary voodoo: just the plain old run-of-the-mill internet doing what it does best, which is propelling a random assortment of things, like dead gorillas and polls about naming research vessels, into the current zeitgeist.
For John Green, it was YouTube. He and his brother Hank have a YouTube channel, which is of course wildly successful. Back in 2012, this was a new thing, so it isn’t surprising to learn that most of the teenagers I spoke to about Looking for Alaska were more inclined to shrug off my questions than try to explain to a 25 year old nan in a bookshop how a vlog works. I imagine it would have been as successful as me trying to explain the plot of Minority Report to my mother.
This is social media getting young people excited about literature in a way that is totally organic. They’re finding something they like – a beautiful quote or a perfect paragraph – taking a photo and passing it on. How amazing, to find a picture of the first page of a book and feel so inspired and intrigued, you go to your local bookshop and track it down? How amazing to think that teenagers are doing this all over the country?
Another example of online word of mouth really lifting a book to lofty heights is Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Milk and Honey, an illustrated poetry collection about relationships, trauma, sexual abuse, breakups and heartbreak, is also explicit, emotional and very social media friendly.
Again, we had dozens and dozens of teenagers asking for this book, and once again it started as an elusive American self-pub. It was possible to order Milk and Honey into the shop, but most teens declined the offer. Out of the few that did decide to place an order, even fewer followed through and picked the book up once it arrived. As a result, we ended up squirrelling the uncollected copies away into the poetry section, where they were perused by many a young hand but were seldom purchased. Why? I can hazard a guess: they wanted to see it, read it, flip through the pages, touch it, but they didn’t want to take it home, they didn’t want to have it in their possession, they didn’t want to be caught with it.
All of this is, after all, happening within the private world of a mobile phone – the digital equivalent of passing a note in class. It’s happening away from the prying eyes of parents, teachers, and other adults, who may well disapprove of the graphic adult nature of some of these books.
So let’s get into it. Looking for Alaska is about a misfit young man who falls in love with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Perhaps not the most inspirational feminist text, but there’s nothing unusual there, and it’s a great book about love and loss and grief so well done the internet, that’s one point to you.*
Milk and Honey is a gateway for teenagers, particularly but not exclusively girls and young women, to think about and discuss sensitive but essential topics such as consent, feminism, migration, racism, rape and relationships, as well as sexual and physical abuse, all through a lens of poetry. Milk and Honey could open the door to poets as diverse as Maya Angelou to Warsan Shire to Silvia Plath.
Meanwhile, Diary of an Oxygen Thief is actually quite a vile book: it’s a vanity project written by an anonymous ad exec which is written like a memoir but sold as fiction**. The story is about an alcoholic misogynist who falls wildly in love with a woman who later publicly humiliates him, and the book is the narrator’s desperate attempt to regain control of his own humiliation.
It felt derivative and self-indulgent to me, a 30-year-old woman who has read more books written by misogynists than she’d care to admit, but it’s still a perfectly valid jumping off point for teens to discover Bret Easton Ellis, or Charles Bukowski, or the Beats, or The Catcher in the Rye, or even Perks of Being a Wallflower, which as an epistolary novel has a similar self-consciousness towards the reader as Diary of an Oxygen Thief.
Diary of an Oxygen Thief – which has just come back into print, although I’ve learned from the publisher that the reissue has nothing to do with teenagers discovering the book online – is a horrible, cynical book. The main character is vile and his attitude towards women is vile. If you’re reading this and feeling anxious, disappointed or frustrated that young people are discovering this unwholesome book over more feminist-friendly texts, you’re missing the point.
Social media is brilliant and teenagers are brilliant and we should let them read whatever the fuck they like. Books don’t have age certificates attached, and nor should they. Although we can try to steer young people towards great books, solemnly dumping a copy of Gormenghast in front of a fan of The Hunger Games isn’t the answer. We cannot – as booksellers, as adults – be gatekeepers of literature and the assumption that young people approach literature with no critical gaze whatsoever is incredibly condescending. If books help to shape us, surely that also includes the books that help us to decide what we do not want to be?
*Side note: John Green later wrote Paper Towns which is arguably a response to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope of the eponymous Alaska.
** Is it a memoir? Is it a fictionalised account of real events? Is this a JT LeRoy situation, and the anonymous author is really someone completely different?