Writer cringes at sick-lit label
Fault in Our Stars creator astonished by novel’s success
A lot of what’s going on in John Green’s life right now is “a little bit silly,” the author says. There are the 10.7 million copies of his book The Fault in Our Stars sold to date, the Fox movie now playing in theatres, the 2.3 million Twitter followers and two million subscribers to his YouTube video blogs.
Then there are the superlative, verging on hysterical, epithets: “The voice of a generation;” “the It boy of YA (Young Adult) literature;” one of Time magazine’s “Most Influential People;” a “literary rock star.”
“That really is silly,” Green says, “and embarrassing. I can tell you that being on stage reading extracts from one of my books, no matter how large the audience, does not in any way feel like being a rock star.”
Yet Green is willing to concede that with The Fault In Our Stars — a teenage love story now showing as a movie starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort — the 36-year-old somehow struck gold in a literary landscape monopolized by werewolves, wizards and dystopian war games.
“I’ve been astonished by the response,” he says. “I don’t know why anyone would choose to read it.”
Green isn’t just being modest. There’s a good reason many people might steer clear of The Fault in Our Stars: The protagonists — 16-year-old Hazel, “a millennial Natalie Portman,” and Gus — are both dying of cancer. Hazel, diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13 and permanently attached to an oxygen tank she calls “Philip,” wisecracks her way through the tragedy that is her life (“the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.”).
So, too, does Gus, who has a prosthetic leg and shares her acerbic wit (“Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.”)
Theirs is a textbook teen romance, only here the verbal interplay is cancer slang — his pet name for her is “Nosetube Girl” and losing their virginity is less a case of bra-strap fumbling than getting tangled up in oxygen tubes.
The Fault in Our Stars may be good, but it’s far from being an easy read. So bleak and unflinching is the subject matter that it has even been criticized for aug- menting a new genre of “sick lit.”
“It’s hard to take that personally when some of the things that have been said about the book didn’t even line up with the plot line,” shrugs Indianapolis-born Green, who points out that, in any case, adults make up a huge percentage of its readership. “I don’t buy the idea that things are made worse by reading about illness or violence. As long as those subjects are treated honestly and authentically, I don’t see that we have to protect teenagers from the reality of them. They are living in the same world as us, after all, and while I understand that urge to maintain their innocence, I don’t think that there is any way to do that.”
Today’s young adult readers certainly don’t seem inclined to be spared the harrowing details of real-life tragedy. Jenny Downham’s 2007 novel Before I Die, which tells the story of a 16-yearold British girl dying of cancer, sold 70,000 copies in its first four months and has been made into a film, Now is Good, starring Dakota Fanning. Never Eighteen by Megan Bostic, published last year, features a leukemia-stricken hero in a race against time to tell his best friend he loves her. And Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why — about a teenage girl who leaves 13 recordings explaining why she killed herself — was also a bestseller.
“I haven’t read Thirteen Reasons,” says Green, when asked whether such subject matter is irresponsible, “so I can’t speak to it directly. I do think that romanticizing illness is dangerous and that novels about illness can be exploitative, but I tried very hard not to do that.
“Plus,” he adds sardonically, “I don’t think these books are among our larger social problems. I’m encouraged by teenagers reading for pleasure: I don’t think that books are going to make their lives worse. And isn’t it a bit odd to talk about contemporary literature that way when these kids are in school reading Dickens and Austen and Charlotte Bronte? I mean, Jane Eyre doesn’t go so swimmingly all the time.”
With teenage fiction sales up almost 150 per cent in the past six years, Green feels any kind of censorship wouldn’t just be unnecessary but harmful. “I feel it has been pretty destructive for films, actually — and counter- productive. Because instead of getting the most honest, interesting movies, we get movies where they’re very careful to use the word F-word only once, where they’re allowed to use lots of violence but no breasts. I’m very troubled by that. And I’m far more worried about what kids are seeing on the Internet than by what they’re reading. The Internet is a tool — I don’t think it’s good or evil in itself — but if you feel what’s being sold in a bookstore is the most problematic thing around, then you should think again.”
The idea for The Fault in Our Stars sprang from Green’s work as a chaplain in a children’s hospice when he was 21, having studied religion at the University of Chicago. “I suppose I felt useful,” he says, “but to be fair I have great admiration for people who do that and don’t, like me, leave after six months.”
It was, he says, “unbearable, being confronted by kids dying from illness and serious accidents. It’s a very difficult thing to be a witness to every day and not take home with you. I would get home and just stare at the ceiling.”
It wasn’t until years later when he became a father that the author was able to draw on the experience in The Fault in Our Stars. “From the moment my son Henry was born, I understood that as long as either of us were alive — and beyond — I was going to be his father and he was going to be my son. And in that way love really is stronger than death. I found a lot of comfort and hope in that. And it seemed like the kind of hope that wasn’t cheap.”
John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, says “I’ve been astonished by the response” to his novel that has become a movie. “I don’t know why anyone would choose to read it.”
Shailene Woodley, left, and Ansel Elgort star as young couple in love who wisecrack their way through tragedy.