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The Fault In

The Fault In Our Stars

Image by Sebastien Wiertz and used under a Creative Commons license.

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Young Adult Literature Can Speak To The Masses — Yet Even The Most Popular Writers Make Poor Judgment Calls And The Work Of John Green Requires Closer Reading


By Stacy Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 4, 2014 — Young adult literature (YAL) performs many valuable services for youthful readers. For instance, proponents argue that it provides kids from all backgrounds with a mirror of their experiences, it invites dialogue on contemporary issues that some adults prefer to suppress, it facilitates critical reflection valuable to academic training, it inspires students uninterested in reading, and it assists struggling readers.

This requires mention because YAL is often dismissed as an inferior form of literature instead of acknowledged for its intellectual and artistic merit. Still, it’s necessary to critique one of YAL’s most popular figures as a problematic representative of the genre.

I read widely to represent the range and utility of books available to young people in the courses I teach on YAL. My first acquaintance with the writing of John Green was his book titled An Abundance of Katherines. That book, like the Glass family wunderkind created by J.D. Salinger (referenced by Green), traces the progress of a child prodigy in a journey toward humility. Green’s protagonist is described as half-Jewish and is sometimes characterized by reference to his “Jew-fro.”

This term is also used in Judd Apatow’s films; I first heard it spoken by Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up. But I wondered about the narrator’s use of the word in the Green text. If, as Derrida claimed, the meaning of a text can turn on a single word, then what window does “Jew-fro” open for interpretation? Neal Lester, Professor of English at Arizona State University, has argued that hair is an intensely political subject and that descriptors for appearance have been marked by specific histories of condemnation and oppression. In light of cultural studies, could that word really be considered a hip, impersonal, pop-cultural meme? Does everyone get to say “Jew-fro,” and in what context, and why would people want to?

It seemed like word choice that Green hadn’t thought through carefully enough and I wasn’t convinced the book represented the best of YAL. So, for me, An Abundance of Katherines moved to being a “choice” text as opposed to “required” in the language of course design.  

I didn’t give Green much thought after that until I read a film review for The Fault in Our Stars describing a scene in which the principal characters, two young people (Augustus and Hazel) engaged in a battle with cancer, share a passionate kiss in the Anne Frank House. Astonished, I read The Fault in Our Stars and saw many of the problems identified by critics.

For instance, Ariane Lange notes that Anne Frank is demoted to the status of “prop” in the drama of Hazel and Augustus’ lives. Lange further explains how the history of Anne Frank is erased and the meaning of her life and death is revised by Green to represent a call to “seize the day.”  

I was thinking about the bizarre montage sequence framing the kiss in the book, the surreal fusion of Hazel’s erotic thoughts spliced with audio commentary recorded by the murdered girl’s father. It demonstrated no logic of composition. In no universe could those experiences fuse together plausibly except in the narcissistic fantasy Green created.

In the book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart argues that the logic of the souvenir “reduces the public, the monumental, and the three-dimensional into the miniature, that which can be enveloped by the body, or… that which can be appropriated within the privatized view of the individual subject.”

Applying Stewart’s theory, the problem with The Fault in Our Stars is that the Anne Frank House is converted into a souvenir. That is, the Holocaust monument, in the context of Green's book, is trivialized and reconfigured as a personal memento. This point is literalized by the “interruption” of Otto Frank’s voice inserting itself into the reverie of Hazel’s sensual thoughts. Counter to the flow in the scene, the voice seems like an intrusion on Hazel’s reality. Similarly, Hazel’s breathless struggle to ascend the stairs suggests the context is not World War II but Hazel’s war. The Anne Frank House acts like a mirror for Hazel and Augustus; it doesn’t show them the past but reflects only the present in which they are perpetually at center. And, instead of being the object of critique, this self-absorption is celebrated under the banner of an incoherently defined youth consciousness.

Poor judgment is a characteristic problem in Green’s work. That is what explains the imprudent use of the term “Jew-fro” mentioned earlier, and why he would equate cancer with genocide, and further propose that an audience of European tourists would applaud the teens’ idiotic PDA, and finally suggest that the Anne Frank House could be reimagined as the setting of an erotic fantasy.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, critical theory and semiotics.
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