Good or bad, long or short, about wizards or vampires, successful young adult novels make their fans go crazy. Really, really nuts. They adopt strange nicknames for themselves, wear T-shirts supporting one male protagonist at the expense of another, create blogs about imaginary romances between minor characters, engage in long Internet discussions about minor details of subplots, camp out for releases while dressed as a favorite character, write homoerotic fan fiction, and purchase sparkly sex toys inspired by the love interest. Hormones, man.
The hold the predominant YA novels of contemporary pop culture (Harry Potter, Twilight, and … yup) have on our collective consciousness is strengthened by the popularity of the movie versions. Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner’s roles as leading men in the Twilight films have earned them magazine covers, hordes of screaming female followers, and the threat of actual bodily harm every time they leave their homes. Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson have become virtually indistinguishable from the fictional characters they portray, representing to millions of fans three people that just don’t exist.
The worship these movie stars receive comes largely from kids who have read the books, so at least part of this crazed adulation is because the character on the movie screen corresponds to a character that was, at one point, contained entirely within the imagination of the reader. This kid, incidentally, is probably at least a little nerdy, at least a little socially maladjusted, at least a little desperate for the kind of companionship it seems only Hogwarts students can find. All it takes is the one well-chosen, oft-repeated detail in the passages describing the main character’s development (Bella’s clumsiness, Harry’s gawkiness) and, boom, our lonely reader realizes the story is actually written about her. In the (fictional) victories of other (fictional) smart, awkward kids, she receives some gratification and validation. If Bella can find love and Harry can find friends, so can she!
So when she goes to the movie theater and sees, on the screen, the living, breathing manifestation of this character who she identifies with so strongly, she is ecstatic. In some sense, this character exists, with a body and a face and a voice. And this is enough for the girl to fall in love and make fanblogs and compose angry Tumblr posts about how nobody understands Draco’s true pain and feel, for a little while at least, less alone.
The kind of person that displays this kind of rabid fandom is a relatively smart person; a bookworm. A kid who read instead of playing sports in middle school. The fifteen year old version of this person wears striped shirts and skinny jeans and would have added (x_core_x) to the end of their MySpace username four years ago while proudly touting being straightedge.
This fifteen year old version of this person thinks it’s appropriate to ask popular YA author John Green whether or not he will sign her shoe in front of the entire audience at the end of Green’s reading at Butler University in Indianapolis on November 2.
In the terms of YA celebrity, John Green is different. He’s not a movie star. He’s never been on the cover of Seventeen. His books have not been made into movies and he is nowhere near as famous as J.K. Rowling. But somehow, he receives a kind frenzied adulation similar to that which plagues as Robert Pattinson. At Green’s reading, I saw exactly the kind of people that I would expect to see at a Stephenie Meyer signing. The crowd was largely female, and when Green appeared, a high-pitched, excited noise, part squeal and part desperate attempt to stay breathing, filled the room. Every joke Green made received almost hysterical giggling of a decidedly teenage type. There were John Green t-shirts and bags. There was one kid wearing a headdress that I assume had something to do with Green or else Indianapolis has gotten a lot funkier since I left it. But weirder than headdresses is the fact that it isn’t Green’s characters that receive the adulation: it’s Green himself.
Green is famous. His name is one that, when mentioned to a certain type of introverted, angsty, stylish teenager, earns you at least a grunt of recognition and most likely a squeal of joy. Or, in my case, the exact opposite: I mentioned Green’s name to a very socially well-adjusted, charismatic, fratty friend over lunch at Wu, and heard the closest thing to a squeal a guy from Texas can let emit from his body and still call himself a Texan. Also, as Green told several students at a lunch for MFA students (which I crashed because my mom teaches at Butler and I get the hook-up), there is a Tumblr consisting of artistic representations of one line in his book Looking for Alaska. The dude’s got mad fans.
This fan club is due largely to Green and his brother’s very popular Youtube channel, the Vlogbrothers, which exploded on YouTube after Green’s brother posted a song about—appropriately enough—Harry Potter. The videos have created countless in-jokes and self-identifying gags. Fans call themselves “Nerdfighters” (not as in fighting against nerds but fighting for nerds, “like Freedomfighters,” Green explains). They have little things they say to each other like “DFTBA” (Don’t Forget to Be Awesome). They call Green’s wife “The Yeti,” which sounds to me like grounds for divorce. Their videos are the kind of nerdy, self-aware, gimmicky things that start to make my skin crawl after watching more than two. At first, I am charmed by Green’s hyper, stream-of-consciousness babble, but after a while his deadpan self-deprecation and inability to sit still get old.
But if I were (still) a lonely, awkward middle schooler who liked to talk about the kind of things that nobody else I knew liked to talk about, Green’s videos and books would be bright spots in rough and lonesome days. I would like that he liked songs about Harry Potter, I would like being a part of running jokes that made me feel like I belonged to a community, I would like the assertion that “nerd girls are the romantic world’s most underexploited resource,” and most of all I would like him. Green is likeable. Green is personable. Green is the kind of person who, while telling a story to a room of college students, can go on an entertaining digression that encompasses the meaning of life—or lack thereof—and the nature of distraction while making people laugh and without seeming like a pompous, self-important jerk. Not seeming like a jerk is kind of his thing, and why he does what he does, and why he won’t do anything else.
For many authors, journeys into the YA section are stepping-stones into the adult fiction world, which Green scorns as “fancy and pretentious.” For others, publishing a YA novel is a way to recharge their artistic batteries. But Green has no desire to be anything than what he currently is. He says he has found the niche he likes and he doesn’t ever want to discuss “Foucault and semiotics” again. Though the main character of his most famous book, Looking for Alaska, is a sort of modern Holden Caulfield, Green says he just doesn’t want to be the next J.D. Salinger. Franny Glass would applaud this lack of selfish drive, and, as someone who thinks a lot like Franny Glass about a lot of things, knowing there is at least one person out there who actively resists his own greed and ambition is comforting to me.
But I have to reject the logic behind Green’s decision to settle. By his rendering, this decision to write YA novels is also a refusal to participate in the larger world of contemporary adult fiction. Amidst his justifications (he likes his readers, he likes the genre) is a more telling excuse: he’s “just not as good” as Salinger. This is bullshit. Most writers aren’t as good as Salinger and write anyway. As someone who cares about literature and art and believes in things like “beauty” and “perfection,” I just don’t think I can support an intentional refusal to reach a higher level of craft. The “eh, good enough” mentality is antithetical to what I hope to achieve in my own life and it’s downright discouraging to hear out of the mouth of a successful, talented author.
Yes, this interpretation of the YA genre places it below novels written for adults, and dismissing an entire genre like this probably means I’m a pompous, self-important jerk. But most artists, especially successful ones, are—at least some of the time—pompous, self-important jerks. They can be total egoists, crazed by their own ambition, convinced every drop of their sweat is a national treasure. Or, as Green puts it: “Only someone enthralled with themselves would walk into a bookstore and think, ‘Know what this place needs? Another book!’” But this is how it has to be. Artists have to be enamored with themselves. They have to think what they create is good enough to show other people. That’s just how art works.
Green understands how much envy and ambition control the literary world. But he also understands that the flip side of artistic egomania is depression and self-loathing. We all know the stories of artists and their suicides, of Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace. Intense self-hatred is coupled with the artist’s egoism, and Green, who alludes to personal problems of anxiety and depression, has chosen to avoid these unpleasant parts of the artistic personality by simply refusing to participate. And, if this refusal means an exclusion from the literary canon, he’s fine with it.
Good for him. I’m glad he’s found a way to make a living doing what he loves and I’m glad he’s happy. I like his novels and clearly there are people who like his videos a lot. Nonetheless, it’s discouraging for me, as an aspiring writer, to hear a successful author excuse a fear of failure with expressions of contentment. I just wish someone so obviously talented and able to communicate with a substantial group of people wouldn’t settle so easily.
The young adult novel is a powerful, powerful thing, but it is its audience that makes it so. It is the teenage tendency to freak out, fall in love, and obsess that lionizes these characters, that makes stars out of young actors, that turns authors into public figures. It is also the pressure teenagers exert on the media that makes these idolized characters, actors, and authors so public. But real works of artistic greatness are not decided by teenagers, which is a good thing (ahem, Twilight). It should be scholars, critics, academics who recognize and appreciate really, really good art. If Twilight proves anything, it’s that having fans doesn’t prove literary merit (come at me, Twi-hards). Just because a lot of tween girls comment “<3<3<3” on Green’s YouTube videos doesn’t mean he should stop trying to do what we all should try to do when we create art, which is transcend our inherent egoism and selfishness and try to create the most beautiful thing we can. The world of adult fiction may be a taxing, sometimes unpleasant world to be involved with, but the benefits exceed the personal glory that Green scorns. There’s more to writing something really good than winning a prize for it: there’s the knowledge of having contributed something beautiful to the world. That’s what the prizes Green avoids should celebrate and that’s what every artist should strive for. Salinger, one of the authors Green uses over and over again as an example of literary perfection, was famously anti-ambition and anti-publicity, yet still managed to reach great critical acclaim. Yes, Salinger was a genius. No, Green probably isn’t. But I, and all young artists, need to believe creative perfection is at least worth a shot.