This weekend I read Paper Towns by John Green. It was awesome. Do yourself a favour and get a copy. Never heard of John Green? Do yourself a second favour. Educate yourself. (Step one: Follow him on twitter. Step two: Buy all of his books. Step three: Spend endless hours watching his eloquent, witty and fast-talking videos on YouTube).
Back in the Fall I read another one of his books, my favourite and certainly his most popular, The Fault in Our Stars. With him now back in my life lately, I was reminded of a rather um, interesting article I read in the Daily Mail regarding Young Adult Literature. Given that the article was published back in January, my following response to it is not necessarily timely (it got lost in my “things-to-blog-about” list weeks and weeks ago), but here I go anyway.
First, for your reference, you can read the article here.
To sum up in case you’re in a hurry, this article is basically questioning the morality of novels aimed at young adults that deal with complex psychological issues and/or illnesses, and the consequent confrontation with death the books inevitably entail. It reads: “As plots go, [they’re] mawkish at best, exploitative at worst”.
The article cites such novels as Never Eighteen by Megan Bostic (following seventeen-year-old Austin who has limited time to tell his best friend he loves her), Before I Die by Jenny Downham (following a girl with cancer who makes a bucket list, one point of which is to lose her virginity before she dies), but most prominently, it features The Fault in our Stars by John Green. (Other books directed at young people regarding issues like suicide and eating disorders are also cited).
[Please note: I cannot speak for the other books criticized in this article, as I have not read them. It may be possible that they are “mawkish” or “exploitative” (but if I had to guess, I would say that they are not), instead I will focus on The Fault in Our Stars and, as the Daily Mail so eloquently dubs it, “sick-lit”].
The Fault in Our Stars if you haven’t read it (which, seriously, have you been living under a rock? Get on it!), follows sixteen-year-old Hazel who has Stage 4 Thyroid cancer and her budding friendship and romance with Augustus Waters, also diagnosed with cancer. Together they work towards making Hazel’s one wish come true while they both still can.
Like many of these books, The Fault in Our Stars is criticized for the notion that these children place such high importance on finding love while terminally ill. In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel “must weigh up if she has enough time to fall for [Augustus] before she dies”.
What is “exploitative” about that? What is “mawkish” (the definition of which is ‘sentimental in a sickly way’)? If you ask me, this is what we call realistic.
Also. I’m confused. Is it “exploitative”or unethical to portray the realities of terminal illness in an honest way to young people, or is it unethical to suggest that children should be allowed to read them at all? Or is it exploitative, unethical and dishonest to suggest that Hazel, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer, could possibly be thinking about boys when her death is imminent?
I’ll get to the first two options in a bit, but first let’s tackle the last one.
Don’t kid yourself, misguided Daily Mail writer. A sixteen year old girl (or boy, for that matter), who knows she won’t make it until her next birthday will have a lot running through her head, but make no mistake, wishing she could fall in love will be one of them. I don’t think it is unrealistic in the slightest to assume that a young person with a terminal illness would want to experience all of life’s greatest emotions, mysteries, questions, and even heartbreaks while they still can.
When it comes down to it, The Fault in Our Stars is NOT about a girl with cancer who focuses on the wrong things while she is sick, or gets distracted from the reality of her certain fate—it is a book about a sixteen year old girl leading a sixteen year old life who unfortunately has cancer. Cancer interrupts her life; life does not interrupt her cancer.
And guess what? The way it is portrayed in The Fault in Our Stars? That’s how it actually happens. I do not dispute that cancer changes people’s lives drastically and irrevocably (and neither does Green), but people with cancer don’t stop being people. And they certainly do not focus on nothing but their endpoint.
I know this with certainly because when I was seventeen and eighteen years old, I watched my father die of cancer.
And the misguided ideas cited in this article are not restricted to opinions on literature. People who have never been touched by cancer assumed from Day One that I had somehow lost him already. They thought that my father— my witty, eccentric, imaginative, soft-spoken, elegant, made-for-an-earlier-era father—somehow lost everything about him because cancer beat its way in.
Do you think he stopped hoping for things unrelated to his disease just because he was sick? He didn’t. He wished for me to get into my chosen university. He wished for meatloaf for dinner. These things didn’t change.
And that is precisely why John Green hits the mark so incredibly well with this book. You don’t, at first thought, describe Hazel as a girl who has cancer. Hazel is intelligent, hilarious and, like most teenage girls, obsessed with something—a book, not a boy.
Green, as he does with all of his novels (and videos and tweets) takes heavy-duty windshield wipers and clears away our misguided notions—he makes us see reality and acquaint ourselves with truths we often choose to overlook. He makes us think. And somehow (maybe he’s magic), he still manages to champion dreams, invoke imagination, and dare us to hope in the most impossible of circumstances. Yes, even in circumstances when death is certain.
He did not “inadvertently glamorize shocking life-and-death issues”. He told the truth. And last time I checked, a dying girl carrying an oxygen tank dating a dying boy with one leg is not the common definition of glamorous.
If you want the glamorizing of life and death, tune in to prime-time television. And don’t try and tell me that teenagers are not watching detectives make quips over dead bodies. They are. Shouldn’t we be worried that the shows that feature death with little remorse don’t drive us “‘to tears’ or leave [us] ‘devastated’”, as these books are criticized of doing? Criticized… as though it would be better to read a book about a sad topic and remain as sensationalized and numb as most do when watching people shoot each other on TV.
Why is being moved to tears a bad thing? Isn’t the whole point of creating and sharing art to elicit emotional resonance in others? We make art to establish empathy, to imagine ourselves into the lives of one another.
(JK Rowling says this far more eloquently than I could ever accomplish in the greatest, more inspiring speech ever. Watch it here).
If returning to school after my father died was any indication, today’s youth (yes, I’m including my generation in this one), have a shocking lack of empathy. For those of us who have experienced cancer (or any illness, trauma, or general human experience), it is depictions like The Fault in Our Stars that A: reinstate our faith in humanity B: let us know that people get it, C: prove that people are capable of empathizing instead of just sympathizing, and D: make us thank our lucky stars that such authors exist so that maybe, possibly, someday we can look each other in the eye and see people and not just the things that are wrong with them.
Speaking of things that are wrong. Observe this quote:
“While the Twilight series and its imitators are clearly fantasy, [sick-lit books] don’t spare any detail of the harsh realities of terminal illness, depression and death”.
Wow. Where to begin?
Twilight may sit in the Fantasy section at the bookstore, and while it details the lives of fantastical creatures, it in no way has made tween and teenage girls remain in a fantasy world. No sir.
Fourteen year old girls want to be Bella who, by the way, decides that her life is worthless, makes a man the centre of the universe to the point where she wants to let him kill her, she continually leads on two different boys and legitimately cannot function when her boyfriend leaves. How’s that for “mawkish”?
But, yup. You’re right. Let’s burn The Fault in Our Stars for detailing “the harsh realities of terminal illness” (tell kids the truth? Madness!) and go back to books like Twilight that truly enrich the minds of today’s youth.
Read The Fault in Our Stars. Follow John Green. Boycott The Daily Mail.
And also follow us @WeArtsy.