A few weeks ago, my pre-teen step-daughter started reading The Fault in Our Stars. She instantly fell swoopy in-love with the novel, which is not surprising, as she is its target audience (actually, she is a bit young, but apparently precocious). Because she wanted to see the movie for her birthday, and because I have been secretly working on my own young adult novel, I decided to settle down and give the story a quick read.
I downloaded it to my tablet at 6:30. I read solidly until 12:30 in the morning. I may have cried once or twice, though not necessarily where John Green expected me to. Nevertheless, I thought it was moving, and lovely, and thoughtful, with a bit of silly teenage angst thrown in and a few romance novel conventions tucked conveniently into the right places. We went to film the next day, and while my three kids sat there stoney-eyed, my partner and I wept like babies. Overall, I would say the story succeeded in all the ways it meant to succeed: I laughed at Hazel’s witty narration, I rooted for her love for Gus, I was pissed at Van Houten, and I felt satisfied by the ending. If there were bumps along the way… well, few books exist without a bump or two (or 50 pages worth. I have read a lot of Dickens over the years).
Which brings me to my point. Since I saw the film and read the novel, I’ve become more aware of the criticisms surrounding this book (until then, I’d only heard my students and friends rave about it). They mostly seem to boil down to the idea that the teenage protagonists don’t really sound like actual teenagers, or that Green was “using” cancer to further a silly romance for teenage girls.
As Gus would say: “I reject that out of hand.”
I will quickly demolish the “they don’t sound right” criticism by saying this: yes, they do, sometimes, if you know the right teenagers. Most of the kids I’ve taught don’t talk like Hazel and Gus, it’s true. They don’t monologue, they don’t quote poems to one another, and they don’t speculate on the meaning of life. But a few of them have sounded exactly like these characters. I once made the mistake of trying to eat lunch with a group of particularly literate teenage boys and had to move seats when I realized they really were going to spend the entirety of their lunch period discussing Kierkegaard. So it’s possible, and why shouldn’t it be? Did Shakespearean teenagers really stroll around spouting iambic pentameter? Did Victorian teenagers all sound like Jane Eyre? Did anyone, ever, sound like the characters in Hemingway stories? Of course not, but we believe it because fiction is an idealization of life. My main concern with the voice of the characters I read is to believe that it’s consistent, that it’s authentically sustained, and these kids certainly meet that criteria. One doesn’t have to like the voices Green chose to give them, but to argue that they can’t exist because my friends and I never talked about Kierkegaard at lunch is like arguing that Romeo can’t tell Juliet that she’s like the sun because my teenage boyfriends never got further than complimenting my butt.
So now onto point two: The Cancer Plot.
Oh my god, when did we decide that utilizing any legitimately important life event was off-limits for writers? Seriously, if Green can’t use cancer to further his plot, than I’m going to lay down a few life events I would love to see eliminated from all literary fiction plots:
1. Incest. I’m actually serious about this one, just because it’s the main plot device for so very many overwrought novels. If I have to read one more story where the one of the primary motivators for the characters’ behaviors is the sexual exploitation of children by their family, I will scream. I’m looking at you, Southern Gothic fiction (particularly you, The Sound and the Fury and Beloved). If we struck this one from the literary play book, almost the whole of Oprah’s Book Club would vanish overnight.
2. Rape. Imagine if we removed this subplot from, say, The Kite Runner. What would be left? Lyrical descriptions of Afghanistan is what would be left, and I would much prefer to have read that book than the dreck I barely ended up finishing. I really did hate that book. But rape is a plot point in lots of legitimately great works, too. What about Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or A Clockwork Orange? Or House of Spirits? Or The Bluest Eye? Even The Lovely Bones falls by the wayside. Let’s not leave out drama. Go watch A Streetcar Named Desire in its original theatrical release format, and then watch it with the 30 seconds of restored footage that implies (as the play makes quite clear) that Stanley rapes Blanche. Then tell me that it can’t be used as a powerful motivator for character behavior simply because it’s been done a thousand times before.
3.Consumption/TB. If no cancer, than no TB, damnit. That eliminates about 60% of the French novels ever written, I think. No Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Les Miserables. It would also take out Crime and Punishment, and about half of the world’s great operas (because when people get TB, all they want to do is SING!).
4. War. Tale of Two Cities is such a cliché! Nevermind War and Peace. And don’t get me started on Parade’s End, or Empire of the Sun, or For Whom the Bell Tolls, or for God’s sake, All Quiet on the Western Front. Who uses the suffering of millions as a plot device? Such exploitation!
5. Mental Illness. Besides the afore-mentioned Crime and Punishment, we could just strike out Heart of Darkness, Jane Eyre, and all those horrible “memoirs” about depression or suicide or addiction that have come out in the last ten years.
Need I go on? What if we cut out domestic violence, murder (oh please, for all the gold in heaven, can I never read another novel featuring a serial killer? PLEASE?), suicide, adultery… Oh heck, let’s just eliminate the ability of the writer to exploit a single negative thing that ever happens to anyone in real life. Because if we get rid of all that melodramatic nonsense, what we’re left with is the sort of pathetic, angst-ridden drivel that passes for entertainment on “real” network television: who will sleep with whom? Who will get voted off the island? Who will be America’s Next Top Model?
Oh for Christ’s sake. I would rather see kids read 100 novels about thoughtful, literate and totally believably pretentious teenagers dying of cancer and consummating their love with a kiss in Anne Frank’s house than let them see one more moment of Tyra Banks.
But if the book/television comparison ain’t doing it for you, let’s examine a few recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction: The Goldfinch, which uses the death of the 13 year-old protagonist’s mother as a jumping off point for the story; The Orphan Master’s Son is a coming-of-age story which is set in North Korea; Tinkers, whose main character is an epileptic traveling salesman; and A Visit from the Goon Squad (the “goon” is death), which tells whole chapters in mock-PowerPoint presentations. Are they better written than Green’s book? Some people clearly think so. But that’s not because they avoid using exploitive plot-devices. I mean, let’s be honest: it’s hard to be more exploitive of current talking points than a white guy from North Dakota writing a novel set in North Korea.
In the end, people have every right to loathe books like The Fault in Our Stars. Maybe you hated the characters, or the voice, or the language, or even the plot. But saying that a writer shouldn’t use cancer as a plot-device because it’s, well, cancer, is just stupid. Everything is open and available as a plot device. EVERYTHING. Because writers are creating tales about life, and disease, death, love, sex, war, fear, rape, birth… it’s all life. How could anyone tell a story without this stuff?
I think the critics who hate this story often pounce on it because it was written primarily for teenage girls, who are seen almost universally as silly (as opposed to teenage boys, who fund the freaking Transformers franchise, but who are apparently mental geniuses). Girls like love stories, and this is a love story. But they also like strong female characters who face dying with a steely-eyed determination befitting the epic battle that it can be, as we’ve seen in everything from The Hunger Games to Divergent to this novel. I would even argue that Hermione Granger fits this mold, and quite beautifully so.
Why not? Death is a big, beautiful, terrifying theme, just like Love. These are perfect vehicles for story telling. I say: go to it, John Green! Exploit away! That’s what great writers DO.
Note: though I could, admittedly, do without another YA novel about vampires, ever. Or any novel about vampires, really. I just don’t like vampires. Vampires are stupid. There, I said it.