Author Spotlight: John Green

I like to say I liked John Green, bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars and entrepreneurial mastermind behind YouTube channels/programs like the thoughtfully nerdy VlogBrothers, CrashCourse, and more, before he was cool–or famous. Often he seems surprised by his own celebrity, as am I–this is the guy whose blurry YouTube videos I watched back in high school instead of doing homework. But Green is one of those people who make it not because of their talent solely, though he is a great writer and a brilliant mind, but because he is prolific and hard-working when it comes to his craft(s).

Green was born August 24, 1977, in Indiana, USA, and moved around quite a lot, but has lived in Indianapolis, Indiana for the past few years. He double-majored religion and English at Kenyon College, and worked briefly as a chaplain at a children’s hospital in Ohio to prepare for the ministry. The difficulties of feeling powerless in a place where pat answers didn’t work was part of what propelled Green to leave the ministry. He worked as a publishing assistant and production editor at Booklist for some years while he wrote his debut YA novel, Looking for Alaska, which was released in 2005, and won numerous national awards. His following novel, An Abundance of Katherines, came out two years later, around the same time Green increased his social media presence, which has since equaled his literary fame. In 2007, Green and his younger brother Hank launched a vlogging project on YouTube to communicate with each other daily, as they had come to rely too much on superficial texting as communication.  Brotherhood 2.0 mostly consisted of the brothers nerding out, delving into philosophical or political questions, and completing ridiculous challenges for humor’s sake. What started out as a year-long project morphed into VlogBrothers, which they have continued since and spawned a fanbase of so-called “Nerdfighters”. Their vlogging success, especially in the early years of vlogging, made them a fixture in the vlog community. The Greens have since launched major projects like CrashCourse (educational videos in various fields from biology to history), Project for Awesome (a charity fund-raiser for vloggers), and VidCon (a vlog-centric conference).

In the meantime, Green continued writing, publishing Paper Towns (2008), and co-writing Let It Snow (2008, with Lauren Myracle and Maureen Johnson) and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010, with David Levithan). Having established himself as a major figure online, Green was very public about his works in progress and garnered attention for The Fault in Our Stars before its 2012 release date. He promised to sign every pre-ordered copy, and ultimately signed 150,000 copies. With such early attention, TFiOS (as it became known) was an immediate success, topping numerous book lists and receiving a lot of critical acclaim. In 2014, the film (starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort) came out. Green was able to be very involved with the film’s development, as he also was later when the Paper Towns movie (starring Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne) came out the following year.

As I said before, I started watching Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 videos in 2007, near the end of my junior year of high school. I’d read Looking for Alaska circa 2006, and had liked the writing itself more than the characters themselves. The main character, Pudge, is insecure and feels irrelevant in comparison to his more exciting friends at boarding school, so it’s hard not to agree with his own low opinion of himself. The girl he falls in love with, Alaska, is in many ways a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a vivacious, sexy, spontaneous girl (from Pudge’s POV) even as she is spiraling towards self-destruction.* But the writing is compelling, and the characters feel real even when they are not likable. Pudge’s obsession with “last words” adds a fascinating dimension to the book, especially as it deals with the finality of death and the brevity of life. I liked Green’ mind as it came across in his book, and it was that voice of his and the constant references to him by authors I admired, like Scott Westerfeld, that got me looking him up and following his work. In his vlogs, Green is passionate, talking at a rapid pace, but still with extreme articulation and thoughtfulness. He is an intellectual, but he is funny and doesn’t take everything so seriously. My teenage crush was his brother Hank (always and forever), but I related to John most strongly.

What I admire the most about John Green is his creativity and his work ethic. His success in literature and success in the vlogosphere happened almost simultaneously, with only some overlapping between fanbases, and he balanced that in a way that most people couldn’t do. His creativity has multiple outlets, something I–as a visual artist who feels sometimes like I must choose between art and writing–can relate to and learn from. Sarah and I (and her sister Hannah) saw the Greens do a show once at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in SoHo. Hank performed his music (with guest appearance by the amazing Kimya Dawson), both brothers told stories, and John read aloud from TFiOS. It was an emotional experience, listening to words I’d loved so recently read in a familiar voice that I’d listened to in my late teen years.

This is why it breaks my heart to find out that he isn’t sure he can write anymore, that, like Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird, he is intimidated by his own previous success. That news didn’t surprise me at all. The protagonists of Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines are similar–both Pudge and Colin are intelligent enough to question their own adequacy and be terribly insecure as they explore (and accept) their own seeming irrelevancy in a complex universe. The main difference between them is that Pudge’s story is hard-hitting and tragic while Colin’s is more upbeat and bizarre (maybe that’s why I like Looking for Alaska more). They are very much reflections or aspects of Green’s own teenaged insecurity. The female characters in these stories are interesting, but mostly exist from the male protagonist’s perspective and go no deeper (Alaska remains an enigma; Lindsey is hardly memorable). In Paper Towns, Green challenged his own Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype usage with Margo Roth Spiegelman, who Q, the protagonist falls in love with though he hardly knows her. Without spoiling the story, the lesson is similar to the film 500 Days of Summer–people are at once simpler and more complex than we imagine. In his last novel, The Fault in Our Stars, Green had a female protagonist, Hazel, who has cancer, and who in a semi-reverse Manic Pixie situation, falls for a compelling boy who is at once weaker and stronger than she expected. But unlike his other novels, adults are major features in TFiOS, primarily parents and interestingly, the author Hazel so admires. It is easy for people to make certain analyses for TFiOS–not only does Green share his fictional author’s view that a novel is a shared work between reader and writer, and there are no cut-and-dried explanations of events, but he did have a teenaged female fan whom he met before she died of cancer. That’s an obvious connection that Green aggressively denies and insists isn’t as relevant as people think (Hazel is NOT that girl). TFiOS, whatever all inspired it, is a break away from his previous work. Again, Green is speaking of relevancy and making your mark in the world, but the parents’ pain and the famous author’s own mental problems are components that make the story bigger than Hazel’s suffering or her first love. It is the pinnacle, or crescendo of Green’s work, and it is understandable that he sees TFiOS as his swan song.

In interviews and on the FAQ on his site, Green has said he is not interested in writing adult books. He likes writing YA, as all his books, even the co-written ones, fall into that genre. Since TFiOS, he has tried and failed to write other books. I didn’t know this for sure, though I suspected it, as I’d stopped watching the VlogBrothers consistently when they became hugely successful–right around 2012, when TFiOS came out and I became exponentially busier working and volunteering while in college. I knew Green had a lot to live up to after TFiOS, so anyone would struggle to write something after that, but I’d forgotten that it has been five whole years since that book was released (and I got my signed copy). But while prepping this post I came across this Sept. 2016 video, where Green confesses that he may never publish another book. He has started to see himself as not being a “person who writes books…a present-tense job title” but as a “person who wrote than one book…a past-tense job title”. He runs through various plot ideas that he can’t make into actual books, then reflects that writing is no longer a “release,” but is “miserable” and is something he can “just stop,” as he focuses on his other projects. He discusses missing writing, “but in the way you miss someone that you used to love”. Even as he starts another writing project for fun and tries to not let the pressure get to him, he knows that no matter what it will never reach the heights of success that TFiOS did.

Like Harper Lee and J.K. Rowling, Green will always be compared to his greatest success. All of Lee’s private existence and the later release of her unpublished manuscript that was a semi-sequel to Mockingbird were always scrutinized for that stroke of genius from her debut. Rowling wrote a morosely intricate story in A Casual Vacancy and later, mystery under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, but she will always be judged by Harry Potter. Lee could never have matched Mockingbird and we all know Rowling will never match Harry Potter, even with co-written plays and films set in the wizarding world. Even if following work is as technically good as the previous work, the expectations of fans and critics will be impossible to live up to. Green has two choices. He can continue on the path of Lee and do other work, but not attempt to publish another novel. Or he can do as Rowling did, and write something completely different–to hell with all the expectations. He smashed his own stereotypes by challenging his Manic Pixie heroines and insecure whiny male protagonists. What else can he do except create something new?

Green has grown older–the grey at his temples in his last videos makes me want to cry even as it makes him even more attractive to me–and he is turning 40 this year. But this really hits me because I’ve grown older too. I’ll be 27, officially on the late side of my 20s. And I’m selfish enough to want Green to write adult fiction, because while I still enjoy YA, it’s not written for me. I want Green to write adults. Not teens starting out in life, being disillusioned by reality as childish dreams pass away at the very end of the book, but people who have gone around that bend and are still going, trying to figure it out. I don’t want Green to write another Bildungsroman. I want something that talks about how we keep on changing but still stay the same. I grew up with Green, and I want him to grow up with me.

Whatever he does, in five more years or ten more, I’m looking forward to it. He may never top the intense storyline and character moments of TFiOS. But I’m here for his creativity, in whatever form it takes.

*I use this term because it’s useful, though I have some reservations about how reductionist it can be. It was coined by Nathan Rabin, and if you’re interested in it, please read this article Rabin wrote about his regrets regarding the term.

Brittany Ann Zayas


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