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2014 columns, Young Adult literature

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

by Danielle Binks , May 20, 20147 Comments

The Fault in Our Stars

 

I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction.

Green burst onto the YA scene in 2005 with his debut novel, Looking for Alaska, which won the Michael L. Printz Award. He and his brother Hank started the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel together, and now have over two million ‘Nerdfighter’ followers. The brothers’ popularity reached fever pitch last year, when they sold out Carnegie Hall.

As well as being an internet sensation, John Green has been steadily releasing YA bestsellers, four of which are currently in the Top 10 on the New York Times Bestseller list. His latest book, The Fault in Our Stars, has been in the #1 spot for 73 weeks. Its upcoming film adaptation is being hyped as one of the biggest films of 2014.

In April this year, Green made TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People. Actress Shailene Woodley, who stars in the film, wrote of him, ‘I would go so far as to call him a prophet. No, not a prophet in a biblical sense. Don’t freak out. More a prophet in a universal, all-things-connected sort of context.’

Online responses to Green’s accolade were scornful. One female reader asked via Twitter ‘Why, in a genre whose audience is mostly female, and whose writers are in majority women, is it John Green we are hailing as a ‘prophet’?’ Another asked ‘Does YA actually need a White Knight?’ and implored readers to ‘just talk about the books and let’s pay no attention to the white dude behind the curtain.’ More backlash came when the hashtag #ladyprophets started trending on Twitter, calling attention to the many underappreciated female YA authors deserving of praise. In labelling John Green a literary deity, Woodley provoked a hornet’s nest of issues surrounding his popularity, primarily accusations of sexism and whitewashing in the young adult scene.

Generally, Green’s books have an unfortunate lack of racial diversity. The charge of whitewashing was magnified when Green was added to the already white male-dominated 2014 BookCon line up. Green’s presence was a coup for the convention’s organisers, but rapidly became a publicity catastrophe. Queried by Parade about the backlash he received for the BookCon ‘fiasco’ and diversity in general, Green expressed a desire to help promote diversity in youth literature, while admitting, ‘I do not know the solution to this problem – this is a big, complicated problem!’

John Green addressed the concerns of sexism last year, in a Tumblr post titled ‘The Fault in Our Stars has not been successful because I am male’. The covers of most YA books by female authors are ‘prettified’ to appeal primarily to a female readership. Green credited his editor for ensuring his love story wasn’t given ‘a pink cover with a decapitated girl’s head’. Green also noted his publicist had ensured The Fault In Our Stars crossed the desks of influential adult literary critics.

The New York Times falsely implied that Green invented ‘realistic stories told by a funny, self-aware teenage narrator’. It’s not Green’s fault that he’s a man, or that he’s the only YA author currently receiving this level of media adoration. However, the genre is filled with other talented and inspiring authors. The majority of these authors are female, and are largely ignored.

Green’s treatment is reminiscent of the media gender bias that occurred in 2010 with the ‘overcoverage’ of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Franzen himself conceded in a Telegraph article, ‘When a male writer simply writes adequately about family, his book gets reviewed seriously, because: ‘Wow, a man has actually taken some interest in the emotional texture of daily life’, whereas with a woman it’s liable to be labelled chick-lit.’ The same could be said of John Green right now, but this ‘overcoverage’ isn’t his fault. The media are turning Green into the inventor, prophet and saviour of contemporary YA fiction, but they’ve only started paying attention to the genre because of his record-breaking sales success.

The popularity and talent of John Green should prompt the media to seek out other outstanding young adult authors, and start treating them with the same level of literary respect Green is receiving. Yes, he’s a damn good writer but Green isn’t a saviour because contemporary YA doesn’t need saving – we have plenty of talented (if under-recognised) author-heroes already, thank you very much.

Danielle Binks is a Melbourne-based blogger, editor and aspiring writer of young adult fiction.

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  • http://www.timothyferguson.wordpress.com Timothy Ferguson

    Tall poppy syndrome? It seems no-one is ever allowed to write popular YA. There’s always someone there to make sure we know its imperfections.

    • Danielle

      According to Penguin Australia, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ has, “steadily climbed the BookScan charts, now having sold over 147,000 copies locally. Internationally, the book has over a million copies in print and has been adapted into over twenty languages. It has been a New York Times, USA Today and Amazon bestseller.”

      I don’t think there’s any harm in critical discussion about this juggernaut.
      MC Hammer comes to mind, ♪ Can’t Touch This …. Dun Dun Dun Dun ♪

      • http://www.timothyferguson.wordpress.com Timothy Ferguson

        I’m sorry I don’t understand what you are trying to communicate with the MC Hammer reference.

        You aren’t “discussing this juggernaut”: you don’t discuss the book at all.

        I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss the book, I’m saying you are treating what’s been said by one fan (Woodley) as somehow indicative of how he is seen more generally. Woodley is a young person who has this habit of saying unguarded and excessively-enthusiastic things in the twittersphere (like how she’s not a feminist because she believes in equality). Her opinion of Mr Green is not a dependable yardstick for the views of his fans in general, or the broader culture of publishing beyond Nerdfighteria, in much the same way that her view of feminism is not a dependable yardstick of how feminism is viewed by anyone except her.

        You note that it’s not John’s fault he’s a man. That’s a strange construction which seems like you are pleading a mitigating circumstance on some sort of error. If you read a review saying that it was not a person’s fault that they were black, would you assume the author was in favour of people of colour?

        I do agree with the broader point that may hope that his audience tries out some of the female authors who are working in the field. I’d note that he has suggested this himself in his web videos (he’s a particular fan of Maureen Johnson, who was one of his writing partners),

        • Danielle

          Hi.

          Yes, fair enough. I didn’t take the time (or have the word-count) to go into discussions of how TFiOS is a really great book and what makes it a really great book. But there are plenty of places that do discuss that (and, actually, I reviewed it back in 2012 and raved about it http://tinyurl.com/q6knb39) I was more interested in the repercussions that have since come from that really great book.

          I would say Woodley both is and isn’t indicative of how he is seen more generally. You can’t go past the fact that she was chosen to write his Time spiel, partly or entirely because she’s appearing in the movie adaptation of his highly successful book. And I don’t know how much a Hollywood starlet can speak on behalf of Green’s young fans, but she has certainly spoken about becoming aware and immersed in the TFiOS fandom and being witness to the mania around Green and this book since she started preparing for the role and now that she’s touring with him for the movie. I actually think she was in a really good position to write his Time listing, personally.

          Agree it was not the best turn of phrase she could have used, but interesting that you mention her feminist views because that wasn’t an off-handed Twitter remark either. That was Woodley, again, speaking to Time Magazine (http://tinyurl.com/llvc59v) in an interview. Of course Woodley’s views on feminism are misguided and not actually true to feminism, but she’s echoing views spouted by many women in Hollywood lately (Katy Perry, Kirsten Dunst, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift…) so while they’re not dependable views, it’s interesting that she’s one of many who shares some amalgamation of them. The same way her “prophet” remark may be misguided, there are those who think similarly of Green (and I should point out, that for all the #ladyprophets scorn that remark received on Twitter, there were also plenty of people applauding the title for him and agreeing with Woodley)

          Sure, it’s a strange construction.

          And very true regarding female authors and Green. And, actually, he has told his Penguin publicists that he won’t sit on any more all-male panels at various literary events (which is commendable, but also frustrating that he’s ever been put in a position when he had to spell that out for event organisers). I’m not saying that Green himself is sexist in any way, shape or form – which is why I was discussing the aesthetics of his book and the marketing which ensured his contemporary YA novel (a genre that has primarily female authors writing in it) bypassed any sort of genderized cover. And, again, why I bought up Franzen who is also not sexist, but spoke to the media’s gender bias which has him (and many male authors) being taken literary-seriously over their female counterparts, even when they write to similar themes and topics.

  • kate o’d

    Hi Danielle, interesting article. You see the thing is, though, is that our man Green is selling – and don’t you think that’s why the media is taking notice? In Australia he’s up there at the top of the weekly Bookscan sales, giving Divergent (etc etc) a run for its money. And it’s awesome to see (I do adore Colin and his Katherines). The problem is, the media can’t be farked seeking out other outstanding authors just so we can celebrate them. It’s just easier to follow the money. Let’s not waste too much time thinking about this.

    Instead, let’s try to figure out a way to get readers buying books by other outstanding YA authors. Why aren’t they? I’m the first to declare how amazing our authors and their books are. But why are most Australian YA print runs only 3 to 5K? Maybe our expectations are too low. Maybe it’s our tiny market?

    But it’s the same tiny market that’s buying up TFIOS from BigW at a rate of knots…

    • Danielle

      Really good points, Kate.

      I do love Green, and if anyone is going to take out the #1 Bestseller spot I’m damn happy it’s a YA author, regardless of saturation. My hope though, is that lots of readers are now starting to ask; “I’ve read all of John Green’s books, now which author should I try next?” and creating reading pathways.

      Regarding Australia – our YA print runs are too small, and that probably is to do with tiny market, globalisation and trepidation on behalf of the publishers. I don’t know if, say, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ would have had the same outstanding debut now as it did back in 1992 (when the first print-run sold out within two months of its release) and that wouldn’t be because it’s not an incredible book. Now, ‘Alibrandi’ would be competing with a big global book market thanks to online bookstores and chains like Target and Big W pushing those international authors they know will sell. If anything, it’s even more reason why the lit-media in Australia should treat YA and children’s authors the same as adult authors – we’re such a small market that every little bit helps, and putting everyone on a level playing field for coverage would maybe make a dent. It certainly wouldn’t be a remedy, but it’d be a start.

      If the likes of Wesfarmers Limited could make a concerted effort to stock and promote local authors over international bestsellers (who don’t need help in boosting sales – readers will find those books, regardless) that’d make a bigger dent, for sure. But I don’t know how publishers would start to even broach those conversations with the likes to Big W and Target.

  • Sana

    Excellent article!

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