Writer cringes at sick-lit la­bel

Fault in Our Stars cre­ator as­ton­ished by novel’s suc­cess

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - CELIA WALDEN

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.”

The As­so­ci­ated Press/Files

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.”

James Bridges/ 20th Century Fox/The As­so­ci­ated Press

Shai­lene Wood­ley, left, and Ansel El­gort star as young cou­ple in love who wise­crack their way through tragedy.

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