I was very interested in this book because of the literary debate it kicked up over the genre of YA, and because it is super popular. I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed to read YA, but I think the debate has glossed over the real issue: this book sucks. Not in comparison to Zadie Smith, but in comparison to other books in its own genre.
The terribleness of this book forced me to consider what I like about the genre (YA realism, or the ones with no vampires or apocalypse):
1.Great YA realism takes the emotions of young people very seriously but also takes the “fatal flaw” convention to its most mundane extreme–a lead character is brought low by such tiny things as shyness or an inability to let their best friend change and become a goth.
The Fault in Our Stars on the other hand takes the emotions of its leads seriously but these emotions are not real emotions, they are rather the existential musings of a forty year old man projected on perfect 17 year olds who are never cruel, insecure, or irrationally grumpy. They are saints whose only flaw is their immanent deaths. Puke.
2. Having terrible things happen is not unusual in the genre. One of the things I love about the genre is the exploration of how mundane problems are melodramatic for the vulnerable not-adults experiencing them. You know what can ruin your life? Selfish parents, being poor, or having your friends ignore you.
The Fault in Out Stars does not understand how dramatic stakes work because the only thing these kids think about is their deaths and the perfect foreverness of their love. They are never mad at their parents or each other. Yawn.
3. Possibly the most embarrassing thing about being a grown-ass woman who likes this stuff is the extent to which I’m in it for the we-are-just-friends/or are we?, we hate each other/or do we?, and the full on consummation of young love. There indeed might be something regressive in my love of this aspect of the genre. But at its best, this genre captures the necessity of relaxed boredom and the play of anticipation and vulnerability that makes those moments GREAT. I don’t actually think grown ups have some different way of experiencing pleasure, I think we just have less pleasure.
The Fault in Our Stars follows the Michael Bay theory of pleasure in which boredom, anticipation and ambiguity should be avoided at all costs. In one promising moment the girl wonders why she doesn’t want to jump the bones of this Prince Charming who has been heavily pursuing and wooing her since page one. The good YA book might posit, “maybe it’s because his heavy handed romance is kind of gross and unsexy,” in this book the answer instead is “because I’m afraid of letting someone fall in love with a dying girl.” To further illustrate the author’s lack of understanding of pleasure I would like to point out that their first kiss takes place in the Anne Frank house, and then everyone applauds. For reals, not for fakes.
So why is Green such a big deal to teen audiences, librarians and publishing executives? Why not Rainbow Rowell or Stephanie Perkins who deserve the attention? I am worried that it has something to do with the author being a man. The YA realism genre is very closely allied with the chick lit genre and Green’s success feels like one more nail in the “feminization of the low brow” coffin. He is a big deal because he makes YouTube videos, has created a teen following called Nerdfighters, and he can sell swag. Basically he has cracked the ComicCon conundrum of how to turn the girl based culture of YA into a subculture that functions more like the boy nerd equivalent. It’s a good idea, I just wish it had been someone else.