Monday, July 7, 2014

The Flaws in Our Stars

I saw a video today called "I Dislike 'The Fault in Our Stars'" by Rebecca Brown, known as Beckie0 on YouTube. I found several of her points to be very interesting and I started to comment on the video but I soon found that I had more to say about it than I thought so I transferred it to my blog, and here we are. You should probably watch the video before you proceed. My thoughts will make a lot more sense that way.

I agree with some of the content of the video and disagree with other parts, but I absolutely respect and support Beckie0's right to express her opinions regardless. She shouldn't have to be nervous about negative comments because we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard of discourse than that. Of course, I'm not naive; I've read YouTube comments before in my life. But I won't tolerate that kind of thing here. Feel free, as always, to disagree and to state your own opinions, but comments that I feel are abusive or inappropriate won't be approved. My readers are mostly my friends and family, and everyone's always been civil around here so I doubt I even needed to say that, but I felt I should just in case someone who doesn't normally read the blog wants to have a rant. Please have it somewhere else.


Also, I haven't yet seen the film (I know, I know) so my comments are based only on the book.

From this point on, I'll direct my comments to Beckie0 because I'm talking about her video, but rest assure that I'm really addressing all of you.

Ms. Brown:

Most important: I'm sad to hear that you've been criticized for having a differing opinion. This would be a boring world if we all agreed on everything, and we should feel comfortable expressing our opinions under any circumstances. And honestly, I think John Green would welcome the discussion. Those who put you down for expressing your opinions aren't imagining you complexly and therefore I think their ill-conceived "defense" of the book would only make him sad.

Having said that, I agree with many of your criticisms of TFiOS. That is, in fact, the reason your video interested me in the first place. I've written about TFiOS here before and one of my criticisms was, in fact, the same as one of yours. However, for various reasons, I'm a bit more forgiving of most of its flaws than you are and I do, in the end, like the book. With that in mind, I'd like to address a few of your points at more length.

I've followed John Green since 2007 and, while I think he's super cool and a very good author, I'd be lying if I said that his books aren't predictable. They absolutely are, and I complained about it myself when TFiOS came out. But upon reflection, it seems to me that almost all authors are pretty predictable when it comes down to it. Give me books that I've never read by 10 authors that I'm familiar with (and a list of the authors), and -- as long as they're not actively trying to disguise their writing styles -- I can almost guarantee that I'll be able to tell you which one is written by whom. It's just the way our brains work.

And I personally like John's style very much so the predictability doesn't bother me as much as it might from someone else. I love the literary, artistic, and cultural references, I love the way he puts words together, and I even enjoy his tendency to make his teen characters very articulate. I taught high school for 20 years and I promise you, while it's far from typical, some of them do talk like that some of the time -- and switch between that and modern vernacular at high speed. So even though I more or less knew what to expect from TFiOS, I enjoyed it just the same. 

(Last warning, guys. I'm not kidding about spoilers!)

Spoiler buffer. Also: Was I or was I not ADORABLE?! :D
Like you, I knew very early in the book that Augustus was doomed. (For me the first major clue was on something like page 17, when he says that a leg is a small price to pay to keep his life.) The fact that it's telegraphed so broadly annoyed me a little, I have to admit, as did the bit in the Anne Frank house. The constant screeching "foreshadowing" regarding Gus bothered me more though, as the kiss feels like a simple lapse in judgment on John's part (and he's human, after all) while the other is just plain bad writing in my opinion and should have been toned down in editing.

Similarly, while I agree that Hazel's mother should have gone to van Houten's house with them, it didn't bother me from a writing standpoint because I don't think John is saying that she (or anyone else in the book, for that matter) always makes the right choices or does the right things. It's possible for an author to report things without condoning them, and John has spoken and written about some of those issues in this book as well as his other books. His characters often say and do things with which he -- as a real, nonfictional human being -- doesn't agree, either because they're patently incorrect or because John personally disagrees with the notion.

I don't feel that the book "romanticizes" cancer, exactly, but I do agree that it somewhat softens the impact of the harder truths regarding terminal illnesses. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, though. I don't mean just truths about death and grief, but day to day truths about watching someone you love waste away physically, and about things we don't like to think about, like vomit and pus and thick, infected mucus and bedpans and times when the bedpan maybe doesn't get there soon enough and sponge baths and terrifying seizures and sometimes decreasing mental function or loss of the ability to communicate effectively, and the fear and confusion and frustration that goes along with all of that. I've been through this process in an intimate way with two close family members (once with cancer, once with a different condition) and I'm honestly glad the book didn't go too far into that stuff. There's a place for it, certainly, but in my opinion this book isn't it. I think John did a reasonably good job of showing the reality of the condition in a way that is appropriate to his audience without dragging readers into the most horrifying corners of that reality.

I don't think your analogies to the cigarette metaphor are exactly accurate; I think better (but still imperfect) analogies would be matches that aren't lit at all and guns that don't have bullets. Also, you talk in this section as though the book and film are targeted toward pre-teen children when in fact they're meant not only for teens, but for older teens. That's a very different audience, obviously.

However, even if we agree that it's not the best metaphor for Augustus to use, it doesn't feel to me like irresponsible writing on John's part because, as I said earlier about Hazel's mother, John doesn't necessarily condone everything his characters do. I don't think he wants teens to get the idea that walking around with an unlit cigarette in your mouth is a smart or cool thing to do. I think he's purely making a point about Gus' attitude toward life and his illness and he chose this particular (possibly flawed, but undeniably powerful) visual to do it. I can accept that in a book for older teens.

I wouldn't call TFiOS a "condition story", but I absolutely agree that the character development, including the romance, is rushed and sometimes weak, and that this is sorely disappointing. I certainly couldn't do better, so I have no specific suggestions, but I would hope that a professional author working with a professional editorial team could do better. Maybe the book needed to be a little longer. Maybe some passages needed to be dropped to make room for more character development. Maybe the story should have unfolded differently in places. I don't know the answer, but I too felt that things were hurtling headlong toward the inevitable ending without enough solid connection for the reader.

To be honest, I find this to be the case for a lot of young adult literature. I love YA as well as the next person but, with some notable exceptions, the story lines and the character development generally do not have the depth and complexity that literary fiction usually has. Most YA novels leave me feeling that I've experienced a good, engaging story and glad to have done so, but they also leave my brain feeling a bit left out. I am, admittedly, weird and I enjoy reading deeply and in an attentive, detailed way that challenges my brain. I fully understand that most people don't read like I do. But for me, most YA feels emotionally engaging and creatively stimulating but intellectually weak. I definitely don't think this makes YA authors bad writers, though! A balanced "diet" of books includes all sorts of things, from picture books to classic literature to nonfiction to poetry. I love it all!

I think that covers my thoughts on your video. I hope none of it felt inappropriately critical. I only want to share my perspective with you and thereby maybe alleviate some of your disappointment with the book. In my experience, excessive hype almost always leads to disappointment and I know how frustrating it can be to want to like something but not find much in it to like.

Thanks so much to all of you for reading this far! Feel free to leave comments here, or to find me on Twitter. Either way, I'd love to hear what you think.

Best wishes! <3