In sp!ked, Brendan O’Neill discusses the latest opportunity for people to ostentatiously display their sentimentality:
I wish Scottish author Iain Banks had kept his cancer to himself. For in making it public, through a statement about being ‘Very Poorly’, he has unwittingly mobilised one of the ugliest mobs of modern times: the death-watchers, the ostentatious grievers, those who like nothing more than to read about another’s physical demise and advertise how moved they are by it.
Almost as soon as Banks announced earlier this month, through the publisher of his entertaining novels, that he was suffering from terminal gall bladder cancer, these professional proxy weepers were doing their thing. Premature mourning was rife. Twitter became a vast virtual pre-death condolences book, as everyone stopped what they were doing for 45 seconds to tweet about how torn apart they were by the news of Banks’ sickness. People seemed keen to out-lament each other. One said Banks’ cancer revelation hit her like ‘a chill blast of sorrow and grief’, which makes you wonder how she’ll cope when he dies.
Friends and fans of Banks set up a website where lovers of his novels can get updates on his condition and sign a ‘guest book’ that is really just another offensively early condolences book. Thousands of messages have been posted. It’s remarkable how many of the message writers admit they ‘don’t know what to say’ yet proceed to say it anyway, at length, clearly feeling weirdly compelled to sign up to the speedily constructed community of online mourners.
We’ve also had pre-death obituaries, articles assessing Banks’ life and work before either has come to an end: his next novel, The Quarry, will be published shortly. Even those who know nothing about Banks felt an urge to write about him, or rather about how they personally felt upon hearing he was sick. Simon Kelner at the Independent admitted ‘I haven’t read any of his books’, before producing a whole column on Banks’ cancer news. The macabre sense of anticipatory mourning is summed up in the way Banks’ wife is referred to on the tribute website: as his ‘chief widow-in-waiting’.