John Green Addressed the One Criticism About His Books He Doesn’t Buy
"Oh yeah, you like Neutral Milk Hotel? Name every single woman who broke Jeff Mangum's heart."
The first time I read a John Green book, I was a twelve-year-old girl who still believed in the power of whimsical, nonsensical love stories. The last time I read a John Green book, I was a fourteen-year-old girl who was starting to get suspicious of books written by the likes of John Green. They were books where the girls were these miraculous, somewhat unbelievable beings who, deep down (GASP), did have flaws and foibles and fears about the world. And above every other chud and chad who tried to get in her panties (because there were always at least two or three in these books), who did she always ultimately open up to?
It was a frustration I didn’t really know how to voice back then, because nobody really taught feminism to teenage girls (especially where I went to school, in conservative catholic ya-ya land) and therefore none of my thoughts felt like they could be taken seriously. I didn’t know why these girls felt so fake to me, why these stories felt so disingenuous and creepy. I hated how smug the leads were, how we were supposed to take them seriously when they were such snotty brats, and I hated how the girls were propped up as these mythical creatures who could only be understood by such clownish leads. They felt less like human beings, and more like … I dunno, unicorns? Only to be tamed by the fair-skinned virgins who read Greek lit for fun?? I guess???
Ultimately, though, this was years ago, back when I was just an angry, judgy teenager. More to the point, I haven’t had a single noteworthy thought about John Green since the last time I set foot in a high school library. But apparently, he’s frustrated, too, and he’s not afraid to show it:
He goes on to say the following in the thread:
And THE WHOLE POINT OF THE NOVELS is the danger of such misimagining, hence the eventual revelation: “Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.” It’s not like I made it subtle.
This was my initial reaction, more or less. It’s easy to point and laugh on the internet when it comes to things you don’t immediately like, and my teenage self must still be in me, because when I saw the name “John Green” on my dash, I instantly got all coiled up like a snake. All those years of putting up with arrogant, annoying-ass nerds must have gotten to me, too. Admittedly, I projected.
But then, upon rereading those tweets for this article, I realized that, in his shoes, I’d have probably said the same thing. It’s incredibly frustrating as a writer for your words to be taken out of context and re-purposed maliciously. There’s been times where I’ve made minor, innocuous mistakes that were blown out of proportion, and while it’s ultimately the writer’s job to be on top of things, it’s also very understandable to be frustrated when people take what we write in bad faith. The two things can exist concurrently.
Plus, his books are old as hell at this point. Most of our initial readings can probably be largely chalked up to the level of reading comprehension & critical thinking skills we had when we were kids. And when I really think about the YA books that defined my youth, I can’t honestly say that his were the worst. There were plenty of shitty trash-heaps that my fellow bookworm friends tried to get me to read. At least Green had a sense of style and authenticity that didn’t feel completely born out of fanfic.
Now, does that mean that he’s completely devoid of worthy critique? No, not in the slightest. He wouldn’t be a writer if he were. And to his credit, he acknowledges that in these tweets, and I think he’s aware of the archaic themes of his books, which were unfortunately prevalent in the media of his time.
What I am still leery of is his reaction to the whole “manic pixie dream girl” thing. Hate on this archetype all you like, but ultimately, my takeaway as an actual teen girl was that these girl characters were somehow harmful to us. I didn’t have the term “manic pixie dream girls” in my vocabulary at the time, but when I finally found it, I thought it was incredibly helpful and liberating to use. It felt like the sorts of girls in John Green novels (and Green-adjacent media) were designed for men, and were only notable in the context of men finding them desirable. They couldn’t really stand on their own legs otherwise. I and many other girls therefore felt like, if we were different from the norm, our differences could only be valid if even just one person we could halfway tolerate found us desirable.
That shit did major harm to us. On my end, I just sort of assumed I was undesirable because I didn’t want to play into this, and would therefore not believe anyone’s forward intent. On my friends’ end, they completely denied their authentic selves in favor of what could earn them desirability points: listen to this band, go to this thing, do this drug, etc. etc.
Is any of this Green’s “fault?” No, that’d be extreme. But I can’t help but feel rubbed the wrong way by this tweet in the sense that it’s not really his place, as a white guy who wrote about teenagers when he wasn’t one, to assert his feelings about the subject when he never had to live them. He lived through the critiques, sure, and that must have been incessantly annoying. But it was also annoying to watch so many brilliant, interesting girls sell themselves out for boys who didn’t even know how to do their own laundry on the basis of seeming “like one of those John Green girls.”
As well as this, I’ve noticed that a lot of liberal and lefty men tend to feel that any critique on what they do or say is a critique on them as people. It’s not, guys. It’s human to err. Please let us point these things out so you can correct your mistakes when appropriate.
To conclude: As writers, we do have some semblance of responsibility over the consequences of our creations. Yes, John, readers can be ignorant and mean and not “get it” in the way we want them to, and that sucks. But if you can feel anger over this, you can probably also muster some empathy as to how people got there, too.
(featured image: Focus Features)
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