The Problem With John Green


Most of us have read at least one John Green book by now, maybe you even call yourself a Nerdfighter and proclaim DFTBA as your personal mantra. But does John Green sometimes Forget to be Awesome? Many think he does. With the recent boom in popularity of “The Fault in Our Stars resulting from the film release, more and more criticism is popping up on both Green’s skills as an author, and his character. It’s rare that an author is so well known for projects other than their writing. Authors of equal popularity among YA readers such as Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling are, for the most part, known for their books and that’s it, their fame is limited to the respect they’ve gained within their field. But John Green is a bit different. With his heavy presence on YouTube with his brother, Hank, as the vlogbrothers, much of the controversy surrounding John has more to do with his character than his writing. Most of this criticism has come from social media users who claim that Green has proven himself to be misogynistic, racist, and generally undeserving of his success due to his position of privilege as a white, straight, cisgendered male. The Tumblr community has been particularly up in arms regarding the issue, with blogs like nerfighterhate and nerdfighterfighter preaching that Green is the downfall of English literature. I must admit my bias on the subject; I consider myself a Nerdfighter and have read “TFiOS” as well as Green’s other novels numerous times, but this hate seems undeserved, at least to this extent. Let’s look a bit closer at the issues in question:

Race: One major problem with Green’s books is their lack diversity: almost all of his characters have been straight, white, and cisgendered, the few exceptions being Tiny (“Will Grayson, Will Grayson“), Hasan (“An Abundance of Katherines“), and Radar (“Paper Towns“), all of whom are supporting characters. There’s no doubt that representation is a huge problem in literature, and John Green is contributing to it. Whether he likes it or not, Green has a major influence on the YA landscape and it’s important that he use that power to tell more stories than just that of the nerdy, straight, cisgendered, middle-class white kid. This is something that we as readers need to keep in mind, as well as John himself, which he does. Despite Time calling him a “prophet”, John has repeatedly stated that he does not consider himself to have some sort of supreme authority over YA literature, in fact he has said quite the opposite. In keeping with his pledge to put diverse books in the hands of his readers, Green promotes “The Last Summer of Reason” by Tahr Djaout, “The Untelling” by Tayari Jones, and “Fly on the Wall” by E. Lockhart, among others in this video, and declared Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” this summer’s Nerdfighter book club book. That being said, the criticism of Green on the grounds of racism are, at least in part, warranted, and I would hope that John acknowledges the lack of diversity within his own books and has plans to change that in his future as a writer.

Gender: Most of the criticism surrounding Green as misogynistic comes from his use of the manic pixie dream girl trope: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” as defined by A.V. ClubGreen’s characters such as Margo in “Paper Towns” and Alaska in “Looking For Alaska” are prime examples of this idea. “Paper Towns” in fact is entirely devoted to it and its destruction, though many have seemed to somehow miss the destruction part. I’m not quite sure how, because from my understanding it could not have been any more obvious that a major theme of the book was asserting that the manic-pixie-dream-girl is a false concept and should be cease to exist in literature and otherwise because of its blatant sexism and objectification. Quite frankly, people who argue that Green is sexist on the grounds of his use of the manic-pixie-dream-girl concept are missing the point entirely, and this criticism is unwarranted and misinformed.

Writing: Like I said before, “The Fault in Our Stars is probably my favorite work of contemporary literature, however it’s somewhat an isolated case: I’m not overly fond of John Green’s writing as a whole. “Looking For Alaska fell short of my expectations, “An Abundance of Katherines” was amusing at best, and even though it’s my favorite, “TFiOS is far from a literary masterpiece. The biggest problem I find with his books is his reliance on the ideas rather than the content. John has a lot of profound and interesting ideas about relationships, suffering, our place in the universe, etc., and those ideas always come through in his work but often at the cost of the richness and depth story itself. Plot lines are often random and not entirely well put together, characters are sometimes flat and unrealistic, and theme seems a bit forced and unfocused. For me, “Looking For Alaska” is a prime example of this. I don’t find the characters to be terribly realistic or relateable in any way, and I thought the plot was choppy and poorly constructed, with events being oddly placed and confusing. I think a large part of the charm and allure of John Green are those quotes that he’s so famous for on social media, like the “If people were rain, I was drizzle, and he was a hurricane” and “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities” that we’ve all seen fan art doodles of.  These lines hold a heavy weight in our minds and they are often where the theme can be seen most clearly. The ideas come through beautifully and make us see past the imperfections in other aspects the writing. While I don’t think many would deny that these lines are poetic, it’s unsafe to declare a book a masterpiece based on a few profound quotes.

Overall I think most of the criticism towards John Green is perfectly valid. He has been over popularized possibly for the wrong reasons. Although he may not be the “prophet” of modern literature that people seem to believe, there is still value in his books, and I believe he has had an overall positive effect on the YA community, as well as social media.