By Kevin Toolis
What to do about death?
Ernest Hemingway said that all good stories if they go on long enough will always end in death.
And given death’s ubiquity you’d think there might be space for a few constant bestselling titles; Your Coming Death or Death Rites Revisited!
The modern book trade though generally has other ideas.
Most of the time the answer is no. Gory crime — Yes. But Death books — books about real people dying in messy real dying sort of ways — don’t sell according to the received wisdom. And neither therefore do book proposals about death.
The logic goes no-one wants to think about their own death never mind buy books about mortality. How many coffees could you buy instead for the same 15 morose wasted dollars? Who needs, who is going to read, yet another dreary cancer death diary?
And then for some unknown reason in some unknown place, actually New York, death came back into fashion, hitting the New York Times bestseller list for month after month, year after year, and death is now back on the catwalk. And every publisher in the world wants a piece of this potentially infinite market — their own death book.
If death books were stocks then we are definitely in a bull market with global best sellers like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (2014), Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (2016), Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and other Lessons from the Crematory (2014), Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015) and brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (2015).
And there are a slew of death books to come including my own contribution My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die.
Given that death is immune to human caprice and our global death rate of 1%, 200,000 dead people a day, 73m dead people a year, never changes very much it is an interesting question why death is now back on the publishing schedules.
Outside Ireland, death is generally a whisper in the Anglo-Saxon world. Most Americans, most English people, have never seen a dead body, never, ever touched a corpse, never been to a wake and also rarely attend funerals.
Death and bereavement is viewed as an awkward social embarrassment. The calling out of the daily dead, a standard item on local Irish radio stations, would be utterly foreign and shocking to the citizens of both New York and London and undoubtedly lead, at the very least, to advertising boycotts.
Anglo-Saxon death has become remote, abstracted from daily life, a series of isolated funereal acts inflicted by necessity — the loss of aged parents — rather than a communal event like an Irish wake.
It’s no wonder then that both American and English publishers are wary of the mortality market.
The revival of the death book as a potential literary bestseller is undoubtedly the work of two outliers from the medical world Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande, both staff writers on the New Yorker and both qualified physicians.
If death is no longer an Anglo-Saxon social conversation piece it was always still a riveting subject for the extended 15,000 word reportage New Yorker essay. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s both men wrote about their professional encounters with dying patients in the medical trade.
Sacks and Gawande became appointed literary ambassadors reporting back from what had become, hidden behind medical curtains, the closed world of death to the readers of the most notable literary magazine in the world. Sacks’ final essays on the resurgence of his cancer and imminent demise in 2015 were widely praised for their lucidity and implicit courage in his acceptance of his own death.
The prior fame and skill of these two writers, and the relative uniqueness of their death encounter voices, and the cultural reach of the New Yorker within the American publishing world, undoubtedly influenced the US literary trade. The impact of these two doctor/writers reporter essayists is profound and clearly paved the way for the commissioning of longer form death book narratives in the last half decade. Literary death was born again in New York sometime around 2013.
A long running further series on death and dying, spurred by the demise of the 1950s baby boomer generation, in the New York Times added to the new found mortal delight publishing ethos.
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a first person account of a neurosurgeon turning into a terminal patient via his own lung cancer diagnosis, is an exemplar of this particular American combination of medical expertise and personal experience. The book was an instant New York Times bestseller through Kalanithi died before the work was published.
Despite the US surge, the UK market remained far more cautious. Brain surgeon Henry Marsh first came to national attention in a widely praised BBC 2008 documentary the English Surgeon. Marsh’s gawky idiosyncratic persona, a real-life English version of ‘Doc’ from Back to the Future, was hugely attractive to both viewers, and potential readers. Any book by Marsh was likely to be a sure bet. Do No Harm, again a bestseller, was published in 2015 and a sequel Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery has just come out.
Caitlin Doughty’s quirky adventures in the San Francisco mortuary business, picking up dead bodies, washing and sprucing up the dead for the relatives, loading corpses into ovens and getting smoke in her eyes, clearly supplied the invaluable gap — what happens to our bodies after we die — that her fellow medical authors failed to cover.
Which sort of brings me on to why I wrote a different sort of death book My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die.
Death like war is far too important to leave to the experts. If you breathe you die and we all have an interest in bluntly learning how to die and learning how to cope with the death of others. Not just my death but your death too.
The premise of My Father’s Wake is pretty simple. Rather than try to ignore or deny death as the Anglo-Saxon world does, it would do everyone a power of good if they just got over their death fears by copying what the Irish have been doing about death through the rite of the Irish wake for the last few thousand years.
Will re-inventing the Irish Wake in Anglo-Saxon land catch on? I have no idea. But I am sure of one thing. Whether we want to read about death or not there is, in the end, no getting away from it.
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on September 7th.