Alyssa Vincent (Twitter) and I go way back to our college days, where we were fellow English majors and worked as co-editors-in-chief of our school newspaper. When we were emailing about her contributing to the second issue of the Simba Life Quarterly, I made an allusion to The Fault In Our Stars, which elicited a strongly worded retort very much in the negative about the John Green mega-best-selling book. Intrigued, I suggested we hash it out over Google Chat. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our (slightly obscene) conversation, which powered through a few bouts of spotty WiFi to touch on the effects and implications of the TFIOS phenomenon.
Alyssa Vincent: IT BEGINS.
Chad Comello: Okay… First question: Is Gus a Manic Pixie Dream Boy?
Alyssa: No. He is not. It’s impossible for a boy to be a manic pixie, because a manic pixie fulfills someone else’s destiny, or helps them achieve it. Gus could be a manic pixie dream boy for himself, but I don’t know if that could actually work. I already sound like a kooky feminist (HUZZAH), but in literature, male characters are rarely going to help female characters get along. Unless it’s Peeta in Hunger Games.
Chad: But isn’t that what happened? Poor (Understandably) Sad Hazel has her spirits lifted by goofy, positive cute boy who helps her discover the meaning of life.
Alyssa: But her spirits aren’t lifted! HE DIES. OK, they’re temporarily lifted, but a manic pixie never leaves their mark unhappy. She may be ~**happy**~ because she has felt love, but she’s immediately sad because it’s been taken from her. (Quick note: have you read the book or seen the movie? I’ve done the book but not the movie.)
Chad: I’ve consumed both. I realized after watching it, though, that in the future I think I’ll pass on reading books before seeing the movie if I can help it. Since I knew what was coming, it was hard to fully engage with the film and let it be what it wanted to be. As librarians we know that the book is always better than the movie, so I think both should get their fair shake. I’m curious as to what triggered your very visceral, expletive-laden reaction to it.
Alyssa: PEOPLE THINK HE IS ROMANTIC BUT HE IS JUST SAYING ROMANTIC SHIT AT HER RATHER THAN ENGAGING WITH HER. That is not love. Love is not saying someone’s full name and pushing yourself on her even though it’s pretty clear she doesn’t want a relationship. But fuck her boundaries! She wants love, she JUST DOESN’T KNOW IT. And EVEN WHEN HE DIES, he’s basically just like “Ugh, my life meant nothing because all I did was nothing.” All while Hazel’s like “My life meant everything because of you!” CLASSIC.
Chad: I think this book/movie suffered from the Twilight Syndrome: a plain, depressed girl with low self-esteem and a charisma vacuum has a shallow yet (to her) powerful encounter with a supposedly charming, good-looking dude who notices her. While Hazel’s transition to True Love took a bit longer than Bella’s, it seemed like an equally low bar that she needed to hit.
Alyssa: Exactly. And thank you for saying “supposedly” charming. Because that’s exactly what he is. He’s well-read—good for him! I’m not about to be like “OMG WHAT HIGH SCHOOLER EVEN SAYS THE SHIT HE DOES,” but what bothered me was her complete lack of engagement with it. She smiles, and that’s great, but we’re treated to such a clever girl who’s basically downgraded to fun retorts every so often in Gus’ wake.
Chad: Which causes me to wonder whether this is another example of adolescent girl wish-fulfillment in disguise of a putative love story. They’re high schoolers! Like Romeo and Juliet, if they had survived I’m guessing they wouldn’t have lasted long.
Alyssa: Ooooo, good call. I guess on a bigger level that’s what worries me about these books. Not like books are the only way for kids to learn things, but how are girls supposed to have real relationships when they’re presented with this shit?
Chad: And your quibble about Gus’s charm and eloquence is on point, though perhaps directed at the wrong target. From the little young adult literature I’ve read, teens who talk way more eloquently than in real life seems to be the status quo.
Alyssa: I think it was exacerbated in this book. I’ve read a bit of YA, and while the kids are clever, they’re never this blasé about it. And we can’t chalk that all up to “Well, he had CANCER so he’s so mature.”
Chad: While he did seem to be a better-than-life character, I recognized his type as the goofy, likable guy in high school that everyone pretty much liked, including the teachers. As was the case with Sutter in The Spectacular Now, I was glad to see an un-Edward-like male character.
Alyssa: Really? I have to see TSN, but I feel like Gus would look down his nose at Sutter. But that’s neither here nor there, since I can’t back that up with actual facts. Yes, it’s awesome to see a diversity (at least in personality) of male characters as they relate to women. And I will applaud John Green on the book-realistic sex scene. I think that if you really love the person you first have sex with, that’s basically how it goes down.
Chad: Clearly I’m not the target audience for this property, but I’m baffled by its mega-success. Perhaps John Green’s deep cult following helped elevate it. It hit a nerve somewhere for the legions of tween and teen girls who eat this stuff up. What’s the appeal in this book specifically?
Alyssa: I’m wondering the same thing. I picked the book up because it came out right near the tail end of my MLS schoolin’, and all the YA librarians were LOSING THEIR SHIT OVER IT. I think the appeal might lie in the fact that he’s a funny, nice, super-cute guy who is into a “plain” girl who’s very smart. And if there’s something that plain tweens comfort themselves with, it’s a) that they’re smarter than the pretty girls, and b) that a boy will finally notice them for that before college. That sounds so mean, but I would also sign that comment with “xoxo, a plain former middle-schooler.” Really, I think it’s the idea of a boy wanting to talk to you about what you’re interested in. For all the shit I give Gus, he read a book that was very important to her. For girls of all ages, that is total catnip.
Chad: How would Middle School Alyssa have reacted to it?
Alyssa: I WOULD HAVE LOVED IT. Honestly, I really think I would have. I’m a little cynical to his comments now, but I think I would have told my stuffed animals “See! He’s out there! There’s a funny, nice boy who likes reading as much as I do who’s going to love me forever!”
Chad: Naturally I see things from the male perspective, and as a young lad I think I would have seen Gus as a cool, nice, fun guy who got the girl because he was himself and actively sought her. Big difference from the angsty bad-boy types who were terrible role models yet still got the hot babes. Sure, he was pretty driven in his quest, but what did Hazel lose from being with him? (Aside from him.)
Alyssa: I don’t disagree with you. It is great to see two people who are honestly being themselves come together. That’s hard enough to have happen in real life. I guess I just feel for Hazel because Gus needed to be the star. Hazel is the type of person that would happily hold the spotlight, but I guess I wish she wasn’t? That she somehow also wanted to be the star? But then that’s total projection, and not fair to the story.
Chad: I also saw a bit of myself in Hazel. For a long time I tended to be a “no” person, preferring to do more solitary things and enjoy being introverted. But it was, of all things, watching the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man that helped to jumpstart me out of that. He was the same way: always saying no to things out of fear, worry, or boredom. But that leads to a small, lonely life. Though it was the Queen of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls herself, Zooey Deschanel, who helped pull him out of his existential funk, I sympathized with his, and likewise Hazel’s, journey from a sedentary, insular person to someone who would do crazy things like go to Amsterdam.
Alyssa: I think I just can’t get over their supposed “banter.” I’m not against a driven dude, but I guess I viewed early-book Gus the same way I view a cocky guy at a bar. Like, Cool it, dude. I know I’m hot and funny. Maybe give me a chance to know you before you launch into another soliloquy?
Chad: I struggled with the banter too. Again, that seems endemic to YA. I really struggled with Eleanor & Park for that reason. (I also struggled with Eleanor’s very tortured inner monologue, yet TFIOS was a much easier read for me despite still having a female protagonist.)
Alyssa: Another one I have to pick up. And I applaud that reading of it—that who cares if he’s a little grandiose—she came out of her shell and she’s better for letting her life be touched by someone. I guess I just wish the genre could fast forward to a time where we see a teen girl opened up by something other than a boy. Why can’t it be a movie? Or a book? For a few moments, I thought the book that meant so much to her would… do more? Be more? But it just ends up being a device in her relationship. I’m not trying to be like “down with people!”, but I do think it’s super dangerous to have girls think that the only way their worlds can be shaken (in a good way) is by romantic love. It’s not the only thing. That’s something I tell myself a lot, because I met Kurt (fairly) young, and it changed so many things in my life that I find myself trying to remember the other ways in which life changes. And I think more girls need to know those ways.
Chad: Clearly as a culture we’re still trying to shake off the Disney pixie dust that has clogged romantic storytelling for decades. But like glitter, that stuff does not come out easily. I thought having the book being central to her identity was a great step forward. Who was the last young female protagonist for whom that was the case? Belle loved reading, but it’s not like the Beast helped her reenact scenes from Shakespeare. Hazel had a very keen interest, Gus (sincerely) took effort to share in it, and they were both better for it, despite being grenades.
Alyssa: OH MY GOD CAN WE STOP WITH THE GRENADES.
Chad: It’s a metaphor. Get it?
Alyssa: UGH YES. You do not have exploding cancer. I appreciate that that was probably the most teenager-y thing either of them thought, but still. I definitely agree that it’s important that a book played a central role in her identity! It’s great! But it’s not enough.
Chad: You don’t think people with terminal illnesses worry about their effect on their loved ones?
Alyssa: Honestly, I don’t know how younger people with terminal illnesses react. I’m not saying that they don’t worry about their effect, but I don’t think it becomes their whole lives. Now, do I think Hazel has a personality that lends itself more to that more solitary “I’m gonna hurt everyone so I should keep to myself” assumption? Yes. But I don’t think that’s true of all people.
Chad: I do hope more female-driven, non-romantic stories get made in every medium. Frozen had the romantic element, but at least the sister dynamic was front and center. (A conversation for another day, to be sure.) TFIOS didn’t break through as far as you would have liked, but to me it went a little farther than you give it credit for. Though maybe a little far at the Anne Frank museum.
Alyssa: RIGHT OH MY GOD. Though again, I thought that that might be something teens would do. I sound so old. I’ll admit that this conversation has me seeing it a little more fairly, but my first (and likely only) read just had me sort of thinking “Um, I can’t take this smooth of a talker-atter seriously.” And I probably should have, but it’s just a tic I have. Boys: STOP TALKING AT GIRLS.
Chad: I’m with you there. I’m suspicious of anyone who talks that much with that much eloquent banter, let alone a high school athlete who loves violent books. I knew those types of guys. Some of those guys were friends of mine. Gus, you’re not one of those guys.
Alyssa: Exactly. So that’s where the book lost me from start to finish.
Chad: I had to keep saying to myself that “This movie is not for me.” This shouldn’t excuse the filmmakers and John Green from making something excellent, but there’s a difference, from goal and execution, between TFIOS and 12 Years A Slave. Same with the book too. The recent “Should adults read YA?” debate brought all this out onto the Internet. Should we hold YA to a different standard?
Alyssa: I had such a hard time with that article. Because the core of her argument is ridiculous: just like 13-year-olds probably won’t get a lot out of Anna Karenina (though they could technically read it), adults may not get a lot out of 13 Reasons Why. I don’t know if it’s about a different standard. I mean, I think it’s more about why you’re reading a book. More often than not, I’m reading a book to be a) challenged or b) entertained, or c) both. As long as a book does that, it’s been worth my time. But I do understand that people have much more developed standards than me. In terms of 12 Years A Slave and Anna Karenina, I worry that those types of works get credit immediately because they’re about difficult subject matter. Do they really deserve credit? Or are people just nervous about “not getting it”?
Chad: Yeah, there’s plenty of material for adults that just sucks.
Alyssa: I think that’s why adults reading YA is such an easy target—like, how could “kids books” teach you ANYTHING or be good at all unless you’re simple?
Chad: Whatever I’m reading, I want to learn from it. I’ve also concluded that I’ll read for myself, because I want to. Reading TFIOS allowed me to learn what young people (pass my false teeth, grandma) want to read. Even if it sucks, it tells us something about them. My response to the article was that adults should definitely read YA, the good stuff at least, but that they shouldn’t stay in it. There are SO MANY BOOKS out there, especially for adults. Expand your horizon!
Alyssa: No, absolutely. I find it weird when people are like “Well, I only read mysteries/YA/chick lit/ETC.” Um, really?
Chad: I felt compelled to read Eleanor & Park and TFIOS because they were high in the zeitgeist and I wanted to challenge myself to read something other than history or nonfiction. But I don’t see myself going down that road. They are also easy reads, so after a hefty history tome they are welcome palette cleaners.
Alyssa: I dip my toes into YA every so often, but I feel like I need something more to chew on. That makes me sound like the insufferable Slate writer, but I didn’t really read YA when I was a young adult, so it makes sense to me that I wouldn’t be drawn to it now.
Chad: Which is why I’m generally OK with TFIOS selling a bajillion copies. If young’uns or even adults read it, who knows where it could lead them?
Alyssa: Exactly! And like you said, the characters are better than what’s been going on in the past, so at least it’s forward motion.