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Image from Pexels

Warning: Spoilers. 

It’s “funny, thrilling, and tragic.” It’s a critical and commercial success.  It’s the #1 blockbuster based on the #1 bestselling novel: it’s John Green’s breakthrough hit, The Fault in Our Stars. 

For those who have been living under a figurative rock for the last few months, The Fault in Our Stars recounts a heart-wrenching romance between two teenagers diagnosed with cancer– witty, tenacious Hazel Grace Lancaster and charismatic, navel-gazing Augustus Waters. Without giving too much of the plot away, tear-stained pages and tissue-ridden theaters ensure. Put simply: The Fault in Our Stars has been a triumph, a veritable cultural behemoth. The novel has been lauded by critics as a high-water mark for Young Adult fiction, while the film adaptation has received near-universal acclaim. Between the two, Green’s magnum opus has attracted hundreds of thousands of devoted fans.

Yet, to use an Augustus-esque metaphor: every rose has its thorns, and TFIOS is no exception. Let’s have a look.

Johnny Green and Nicky Sparks

Now, first things first: is there really a difference between The Fault in Our Stars and a Nicholas Sparks film?

Well, The Fault in Our Stars is certainly better written than Sparks’ phoned-in drivel, and Green’s an awful lot more likable than the presumptuous Sparks. Nonetheless, I believe that many of the criticisms of Sparks’ work hold true with Green’s novels. No matter how different The Fault in Our Stars is from The Notebooksoppy melancholia, both stories follow a remarkably similar formula. Whitebread cast? Everlasting love? Tear-jerking twist ending? Check, check, and check.  I’ll admit that that was a little harsh– cancer and illness is an integral theme of TFIOS, deftly portrayed with a humanistic slant, and Hazel Grace’s strong voice stands in stark contrast to the throwaway deus ex machina calamities found elsewhere in “sick lit”. And, to be fair, John Green has made an excellent response to many of these criticisms, readable here. However, I still don’t see how TFIOS is a legitimately deconstructionist novel– e.g., I’m hard-pressed to find it subverting any clichés whatsoever.

In my eyes, the infamous “it’s a metaphor” scene patently romanticizes the “tough guy” cigarette cliché. I understand that Augustus’s blockheaded pretentiousness is a deliberate choice by Green, lampshaded (beautifully) by characters within the book– but at the end of the day, poetic or not, cigarettes kill a lot of people. As the saying goes: if you want to make an anti-war movie, make a movie about flowers. If Augustus really didn’t want to give the killing thing “the power to do its killing“, he could have left the methanols in some sketchy gas station instead of handing money over to tobacco corporations and reinforcing the Joe Camel aesthetic. Furthermore, exploiting a site of real-life suffering– Anne Frank’s house–  as a shortcut to achieving emotional significance is massively disrespectful (and pretty messed up).

Finally, some problems have arisen from John Green’s status as an author, in and of itself. To quote a wonderful op-ed from

. . . We can’t pretend John Green’s whiteness, his maleness, and his heterosexuality aren’t central to his brand. They’re essential to his brand. The adorkable, young, slim, non-threatening, able-bodied, bookish, handsome guy who took YouTube by storm (with his adorkable, young, slim, non-threatening, able-bodied, bookish, handsome brother) would not have had the same response if he was a white woman (she’s a fake geek girl), or a black man (he’s angry/scary), or a fat woman (she’s unhealthy/a poor role model/gross), or a genderqueer person (think of the children), or a Muslim woman (let’s debate her hijab or lack of hijab), or a man with cerebral palsy (aw he’s so inspirational!), because he would not have been the fantasy. John Green is the fantasy boyfriend of nerdy girls everywhere, and he combines that with his not insignificant writing talent to be a BIG CULTURAL DEAL. I am not blaming John Green for these things. His success is not undeserved simply by virtue of his privilege. But we can’t divorce him and his success from these things, either. John Green is aware of his privelege, and I think that’s rad. But, you know, unless he acts on it . . . it seems empty when all we’re hearing is silence.

Okay, okay. Now, before I finish this article, I’d just like to say that these issues do not invalidate TFIOS. No, I don’t think that TFIOS is a bad book, and no, I don’t think it’s a bad movie. I think that its phenomenal success is largely justified– but I think that’s all the more reason to take on a critical eye. After all, most masterpieces hold up to repeated scrutiny– so lower your pitchforks! Instead, let’s have a discussion. What sort of responsibility does John Green have as an influential YA author?  Does the novel romanticize illness, or is it as subversive as it purports to be? Is the cigarette really a metaphor?

This op-ed was greatly inspired by the superb articles listed below. For further reading, please check out: 

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  1. Taylor on June 25, 2014

    Chris, your article was great! It was an amazing perspective on a larger cultural event. Keep writing!

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