Words by Catarina Vicente
Image: Richmond Free Press
When I read ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, John Green was enjoying a newfound wave of popularity. There was a rush of adoration and praise towards the book-turned-movie, and any criticism the book received was ignored amidst a crush of positivity. For months after the movie’s release, social media was awash with black and white photos of the most emotional scenes, pictures of quotes from the book, liked and reposted and shared by teenagers and YA lovers alike. Uncharacteristically, even I liked the book. John Green amassed a huge teenage reader fanbase… and lost its majority in the following years. “The Fault in Our Stars” longest cultural impact is a bunch of jokes about “It’s a metaphor, see?” and John Green’s popularity took a downward spiral – so how did this come to be?
We need to first delve into why John Green became popular in the first place. Though he had written two solo novels before, “The Fault in our Stars” was Green’s breakthrough success. The book stood apart from other YA books – the protagonists, Augustus and Hazel, were remarkably (unrealistically?) smart for teenagers, uncommon in the YA genre, where characters tend to be one-dimensional. It discussed heavier themes that other YA books shied away from, and most importantly, the two protagonists were dying. The last element, although seemingly unimportant, actually made people root more strongly for the characters, subsequentially become more invested in their relationship – and this element becomes more important when we look at Green’s other books, which we’ll get into. From his fame as a writer, Green cultivated a pretty influential online presence, spreading his popularity beyond his reader base: his active role in the YouTube community led to his founding of the internationally held Vidcon, his widespread charity work, his active role in Twitter and especially Tumblr (which most authors didn’t have) gave him the image of an approachable and very chill person. I still believe he is a good person – he has done nothing so problematic to question this – but he has definitely suffered a blow to his reputation, mainly due to…
His writing, in my opinion. I speak from experience – having read “The Fault in our Stars”, I was excited to try out some of his other books. I bought “Looking for Alaska”, hearing raving reviews of it, and I dug in. A sense of disappointment built up, and I did not finish reading the book; when people started to criticize Green’s work, I completely understood why. Green’s books can be described as formulaic: nerdy white boy struggles at life finds quirky, conventionally attractive girl who he falls in love with. The criticism Green got was aimed at the latter archetype, with many criticizing the frequency of “manic pixie dream girl” characters in his novels, female love interests who existed for the male protagonist’s character development. In “Looking for Alaska”, this was painfully clear and was the reason I lost all
interest in it. Once you cracked down on the archetypes present in all of Green’s works, many aspects start to fall apart: the heavier themes come off as pretentious, the stories feel repetitive and the romances forced. And if you start to look for these patterns, more problematic ones emerge: there is a distinct lack of diversity in Green’s books: protagonists are always white, everyone tends to be straight, and we always get a story from the perspective of the nerdy, white, upper-middle-class teenage boy. As these problems became clearer, and – honestly, fans got tired of the same story – John Green fell out of favour with his fanbase.
And that was the rise and fall of John Green. Although his reputation took a hit, he continues to be a positive presence online. His upcoming 2021 book, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is scientific non-fiction, and his latest book, “Turtles All the Way Down” was received pretty warmly. His work on
Youtube channels “vlogbrothers” and “CrashCourse” is pretty interesting. Yes, he might still remain a joke and meme in some circles, perhaps remembered by some as the cringy author who wrote manic pixie girls and self-insert male protags, but it’s fair to say he’s been working to move away from this image and cultivate an even more positive and beneficial presence.