Is 'The Fault In Our Stars' Author John Green His Generation's Pop Philosopher?

TEDx Indianapolis video still

John Green delivers a TEDx talk in Indianapolis on November 27, 2012.

The young-adult novelist John Green rose to fame in 2012, following the publication of his breakout hit The Fault in Our Stars, but for years he has channeled an outsider’s empathizing ethos to fans called “Nerdfighters.” YouTube hosts Vlogbrothers, the popular video diary Green keeps with his younger brother Hank, and Green’s personal website hums with reader feedback. The arrival of The Fault in Our Stars, now a movie starring Shailene Woodley as Hazel, a sardonic teenager with terminal cancer, has only served to energize Green’s wholesome it-gets-better brand. In anticipation of TFIOS–mania (the clunky acronym and hashtag fans are using), Prospect writing fellow Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Prospect contributor Clare Malone decided to explore the Nerdfighters’ universe and compare notes. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Clare Malone: I was skeptical of a book about teenagers and cancer, so I avoided reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for three days after it arrived. The opening pages, in which the two young protagonists, Hazel and Augustus (Gus), meet at a cancer-patient support group—their eyes lock across a crowded room—are a bit overwrought. There’s talk about hotness. Jaded quips are traded. The dialogue is written like Gilmore Girls, the WB show of the early aughts, with quick, syncopated banter. It’s exhausting.

Green’s writing is highly stylized. No matter which character speaks there’s a tone, a surface cynicism pricked by bone-deep ruminations on life, death, and what it all means. But I softened up once I realized why the book is a best-seller: It’s an absorbing little story of guileless love, easy intimacy—talking about the existential things that hit you blind while clipping your toenails, or getting pheromone-drunk every time you see the person. Teenagers are often portrayed as living in the moment, but Hazel and Gus’s story is a meditation on how we become adults, sorting out the frenzy inside our minds while trying to show the outside world it’s all sunshine and summer shandies. So, I’m inclined to forgive the book for its pretentious moments on that account.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux: I remember a high-school sick day I spent watching Sweet November, a movie starring Charlize Theron as Sara, a soulful woman who dates troubled men for a month, offering sexual favors and promising to change their lives. Halfway through, Keanu Reeves’s character discovers that Sara is dying. The trope of heroic cancer sufferer is icky because it makes dying without suffering seem romantic and beautiful. Theron remains lovely, in body and spirit, until the bitter end, which is simply not possible for someone dying of a terminal illness.

I put off reading The Fault in Our Stars for almost a year, ever since posts about how heartrending it was began to drift into my Facebook feed. I finally read it in one sitting a couple of weeks ago. Green’s style is unsentimental, and he doesn’t shy away from the less salubrious aspects of the disease. But the book is unusual because Green realizes that as teen cancer patients who have to squeeze their lives into less than two decades, Hazel and Gus get to ask big questions with conviction. There’s a scene where they’re in Amsterdam, eating a fancy dinner. “The oblivion I fear is that I won’t be able to give anything in exchange for my life,” Gus tells Hazel. “If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good, you know? And I fear that I won’t get either a life or death that means anything.” Most of us take decades to come to terms with the fact that we won’t get that hero’s journey.

At one point Green was slated to attend divinity school, although he didn’t go. He got the idea for The Fault in Our Stars while working as a hospital chaplain. I don’t think he was ever interested in pulpit ministry, but is it overstating it to say he’s kind of a preacher for the Internet? There is something undeniably charismatic about Green’s demeanor, and his message—if not explicitly religious—inspires devotion.

© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A still from the film The Fault in Our Stars, based on the 2012 novel of the same name by John Green.

CM: He’s the magic ingredient in this whole stew of Young Adult phenom-ism —a publisher’s dream author for today’s young reader. @realjohngreen has nearly 2.5 million followers. For literary(ish) world comparison, Jennifer Weiner, the author of popular breezy books like In Her Shoes and Good in Bed has nearly 88,000. Both authors are savvy about using Twitter to connect with fans, but Green has been living online since the early days of YouTube—around 2007, the Mesozoic era of social media. He’s vintage Internet—confident enough about his thoughts to have sent them out into the world but insecure enough to care what people thought about them. He has parlayed that shtick nicely; I would like to know his current net worth.

Watching the videos, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Green considered divinity school. He and Hank are just oatmeal-wholesome blond guys. Their haircuts alone make you think they might ask if you’ve been saved. In a 2008 blog entry, Green explains why he’s voting for Obama. He goes on to discuss health care and all that, but his intro is most telling:

I don’t talk about it very often, but I’m a religious person. In fact, before I became a writer, I wanted to be a minister. There is a certain branch of Christianity that has so effectively hijacked the word "Christian" that I feel uncomfortable sometimes using it to describe myself. But I am a Christian.

I do want to take a moment to mention Green’s video “presence,” which is … frenetic. Like a peppy young high-school teacher, before he’s had his spirit crushed. He gets wide-eyed, gesticulates, and runs both hands through his hair as a physical exclamation point. He seems genuinely upbeat, but I also think that people who focus on being happy—who make being happy their thing—are sometimes people for whom it doesn’t come easily. Green has a video about his life when he was 24 and had broken up with a girlfriend; he was depressed. Therapy, medicine, and watching the Jimmy Stewart classic Harvey brought about a sort of epiphany. He cites this line from the loopy but lovable Elwood P. Dowd:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be"—she always called me Elwood—"In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

In a way, Green’s aim is to mainstream the concept of the examined life. He specializes in being quotable. His aphorisms seem ready-made for the Pinterest age. They can be taken out of context and shared with a friend who’s down or posted to a virtual inspiration bulletin board. BuzzFeed, in fact, has a list of John Green quotes: praise from Caesar.

ATD: I wonder how much of John Green’s Internet savvy comes from his younger brother, Hank, a self-proclaimed “Internet Guy.” We haven’t talked about Hank much, but he’s an essential part of the Vlogbrothers’ energy. Hank is well versed in the craft of “going viral,” as one of his recent projects, the Web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, proves. Imagine video blogs in the vein of the Vlogbrothers. But instead of two clean-cut young men discussing climate change and the joys of optimism, a trim young woman with radiant skin tells the rollicking tale of being set up with rich men in the neighborhood by her gold-digging mother. You will not be shocked to learn that people loved a version of Pride and Prejudice where “Bing Lee” and Darcy tweet.

Hank does not believe in God, and he does not seem to relish discussing theology, theodicy, or the other big questions that clutter his brother’s books. His background is biochemistry, and today he’s the proprietor of a website called Eco Geek, where one can discuss the finer points of tractor-trailer fuel efficiency.

John’s theologian side pervades another book I just read by him, Looking for Alaska (2005). To give you a quick sense of what the book is about, a high-school guy from Florida (like John Green) goes to a boarding school in Alabama (like John Green) in search of a life-changing adventure—what the dying Francois Rabelais referred to as “The Great Perhaps.” There he finds friends and a dazzling girl named Alaska, acquires the incongruous nickname “Pudge,” explores a wide range of illicit substances, and learns firsthand about the depths of human grief. The book is now taught in many high schools, though because of a brief and awkward sex scene, it’s been banned and un-banned in a couple of states, inspiring John Green to make the perennial Vlogbrothers favorite “I Am Not a Pornographer.” Despite its lack of nuance, the book is often poignant. A religion teacher makes some cameos to reassert the message: The only way out of the “labyrinth of suffering” is to forgive.

Green has even referred to Alaska as “Christian fiction.” He writes on his website:

It has always seemed odd to me that all the people who want to ban Looking for Alaska from schools claim it is offensive to their Christian values, when the core Christian values—radical hope, universal forgiveness—are the core values of the book’s final chapter. (For the record, I think the people who argue the opposite—that the end of the book is a bit didactic and heavy-handed—are not wrong. I just don’t really care that it’s a bit heavy-handed. I wanted Pudge to be able to write that essay. I wanted him to be able to give and receive the forgiveness he so desperately needs, and I wanted him to be able to imagine a beautiful somewhere for Alaska.)

Of course, Green doesn’t care about being heavy-handed. He wants that beautiful somewhere for all of his readers or watchers or followers. But he understands that it comes as much from asking big questions as patiently embracing the quotidian, alternating a video about the nature of mass incarceration in the United States with the occasional cute video about velociraptors (made with his four-year-old son).

CM: We haven’t spent a whole lot of time talking about the audience that the Brothers Green are sending their video missives out to. But they’re the people whose clicks make this world go ’round. This Vlogbrothers movement is a sort of “revenge of the nerds” type of thing—except the movie based on it would probably be called “the civil disobedience of the nerds,” because John and Hank are about encouraging people to channel outsiderness into something productive, like living well through small acts of kindness. I can imagine a person getting into the habit of watching these daily and thinking about their meaning (maybe not actively, more by osmosis), almost in the way a monk goes to vespers or a devout Muslim prays five times a day. I’m not even being theological; I’m just thinking about the importance of habit. Prayers involve repetition to get a person into a meditative state. To a certain extent it’s Pavlovian, but we need that push into a different headspace to think about things outside necessities of the flesh (and as someone staring down the barrel of a long day, I am currently doing all I can to not think about a couch and a bowl of noodles).

ATD: There’s something immersive about John Green’s universe—the books you can swallow in one gulp, more videos than I could ever watch because the jump cuts make me a little nauseated, Internet forum upon forum, conference upon conference—that makes me wish we had gotten to go to that princess event. We were, I’m sure you recall, going to dress up as princesses with other Nerdfighters on a Saturday morning and hand out books to kids on the National Mall. Truth be told, I was dreading it a little, and at the time I was relieved when it got canceled because the organizer was sick. But now I’m sad we didn’t get to meet the people who try to take Green’s philosophizing into the world. What does that modern, contemplative—yet active—life look like?

CM: I’ll admit that I was not looking forward to going to the Mall, either. The idea of riding public transportation in a party dress and tiara on a Saturday morning was not appealing, if only because spring tourists visiting Washington might get the idea that I was walk-of-shaming home from a very odd night out. Of course, the larger idea of handing out books to children was nice.

I’ve been scrolling through the Nerdfighters of D.C. Facebook feed, and I have to say, it’s fascinating. People seem to be pretty interested in stereotypically nerdy hobbies like gaming/fantasy (Sample post: “If you got a button that could teleport you to one [keyword: one] fandom world, where would you go??”) But there are also general crowdsourcing “asks” about what to do in certain cities when you visit, calls to sign a petition for the White House to legally recognize “non-binary genders.” One post did catch my eye. It was a Nerdfighter airing grievances: “so i’ve noticed that gatherings planned by people who are not wizard cops tend to have low attendance.” (I have no idea what a wizard cop is—a person who is in charge of Nerdfighter activities on Facebook?)

The aggrieved party goes on to vent insider frustrations over the low attendance of events she and her friends had planned and ended with this:

dont know if it’s a popularity thing, or if people just dont trust gatherings that arent planned by wiz cops, or what. i just know that it doesnt seem fair. it’s frustrating and even hurtful to have put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into planning a gathering and then have extremely low attendance. this is a problem that needs to be solved. i welcome any ideas or suggestions on how to solve it. thank you.

So, an uncomfortable display of hurt feelings. But the comments are interesting. Other group members respond to the original poster in as soothing a manner as possible. They give her constructive criticism about her socially inept way of handling conflict. It’s the sort of banal “crisis” that happens every day to people. The idea that your character is tested by how you deal with these moments came to mind; so did that famous David Foster Wallace graduation speech about how you have to choose how to feel about life while you’re living it. I think about it almost every time I’m in a crowded grocery store after work.

ATD: Funny that you mention David Foster Wallace. His graduation speech took place at Green’s alma mater, Kenyon, so there’s that. But Green, like so many earnest and angsty men of our generation, also loves Wallace’s Infinite Jest obsessively. It’s the inspiration for An Imperial Affliction, the book within a book that drives much of the plot of The Fault in Our Stars and ends midsentence. Since I only managed to get 200 pages into Infinite Jest before surrendering to a particularly long footnote, I can’t speak to the references that apparently litter The Fault in Our Stars. But I did find an essay Green wrote for a DFW fan site back in 2009, where he explains that Wallace helped shape his understanding of what it means to be “smart and talented and scared and 17.”

© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A still from the film The Fault In Our Stars

What makes Nerdfighteria so potent does seem to be the moral imperative that the Brothers Green throw at their bajillion viewers’ feet: to take their weirdness and anxiety and turn it into empathy. It’s become kind of a culture. Away from Facebook and into the wilds of Pinterest and Tumblr and beyond, I discovered that people get Nerdfighter tattoos. There are Nerdfighter samplers and onesies, and videos “executive produced” by the Green brothers about sex education and doing your taxes. There are also lots of forums—some feel like LiveJournal in its heyday—with fan fiction and youthful poetry.

Which brings me to a subject I have been avoiding up until now: how I feel about John Green and the cult of Nerdfighting. We’ve been approaching this whole phenomenon with a sociological eye, but your comment about the Facebook page reminded me that I’ve been subduing some of my discomfort with this project. The books are one thing; I don’t love them with anywhere near enough evangelical zeal to qualify as a Nerdfighter, but they are witty and moving, if occasionally maudlin. The videos, on the other hand, are too slick and zingy to keep me coming back. Maybe it’s John Green’s genius for branding. The trailer and production schedule for The Fault in Our Stars is a frequent subject among the Vlogbrothers these days. When Green’s not talking about life on the set of TFIOS, too many of the videos feel like they’re trying to deliver a bite-size moral.

Sometimes, I want the Green brothers to admit they’re having a bad day. Which is not to say that I want the mean-spiritedness that often coats the Internet like an oil slick to seep into Nerdfighteria. But John and Hank’s bouncing boyish pratfalls can get tiring.

CM: So often discussion of Internet phenomena comes back to a discussion of realness, whatever that means. I don’t say that to be flip. What’s real and what’s not about people has been distorted by the onset of the “personal brand.” I’ve heard on more than one occasion people discussing their “Internet persona,” which they proclaim to be different from how they “are” in “real life.” But aren’t those thoughts you express or personas you take on always lurking inside your mind? Aren’t they you?

For those who live some significant portion of their life on the Internet, as John Green does, whom they project to be online, all day long, is how most of the world knows them. For Green, perhaps that affects the choices he makes in his presentation. People have started to look up to him as this inspirational figure, so he can’t have an off day. I agree with you that some of those videos would be more powerful if he were just palpably down in the dumps. But as with fashion magazines and car ads, the Green brothers’ videos are aspirational, not real life.

Which is funny, because we expect writers to be a bit above the fray of all this, don’t we? You can be more “real” in writing. You don’t have to stare someone in the face while you say difficult things and watch their lips quiver. It’s easier to parse your thoughts artfully if you do it on a page or input cold letters into a Word doc. It’s bloodless, even when the words are bloody. Expressing thoughts and emotions off the cuff is messier—which is why, no matter what we think of their politics, a virtuoso retail politician is such a sight to behold. I don’t blame Green from shying away from being raw and unscripted in his videos, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back to them. I prefer his earnestness manifested in prose. It seems more natural.

© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, and actor Nat Wolff from the movie based Green's novel, at a 2014 promotional event for the film.

ATD: If the Green brothers are like fashion magazines and car ads, how can they also be lonely and awkward and scared? I get that they’re selling something to people. But to return this conversation to where it began, the thing I liked about The Fault in Our Stars was that it did not try to whitewash the minutiae of what it’s like to die from cancer or what it’s like to watch your child die. There’s a moment in the novel when Hazel is lying in her hospital bed, struggling to stay alive. She hears her mother tell her father, “I won’t be a mom anymore.” Hazel doesn’t die then, but she carries her mother’s words around with her, knowing that when she does die, she’s going to take a part of her parents with her.

I mean, that’s it, right? That’s the punch-to-the-stomach, unflinching empathy that makes the book worth reading. More than the love story, Hazel’s relationship with her parents is the tragedy that animates The Fault in Our Stars.

Where’s that vulnerability in the Vlogbrothers? What we see in the best parts of TFIOS—and on the Nerdfighters of D.C.’s Facebook wall—is raw emotion on display, unafraid to be embarrassing or schmaltzy. John Green just got named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. There’s a sense, I think, that when you get to that point—especially as a young-adult writer, not the most lucrative or powerful of trades—you must have it all figured out. What if John Green talked about the moments when he doesn’t? I’m about to be schmaltzy here myself, but how compelling would that be?

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