No, The Fault in Our Stars Is Not Young-Adult Fiction’s Savior

By Mary Ann Badavi

The Fault in Our Stars topped the box office this weekend with an estimated $48.2 million in ticket sales, which means the ongoing conversation surrounding young-adult fiction will only get more intense. The buzz around The Fault in Our Stars, particularly around the novel’s author, John Green, has been loud and, for the most part, extremely positive. Rightfully so: the film has pulled off a brilliant marketing campaign, and Green has worked tirelessly for years navigating the worlds of publishing and online video.

But at their core, the many articles and magazine cover spreads about Green and The Fault in Our Stars are at best incorrect, and at worst harmful. Several publications, including The New Yorker and TIME, have nicknamed him “The Teen Whisperer.” The Wall Street Journal has praised him for “ushering in a new golden era for contemporary, realistic, literary teen fiction, following more than a decade of dominance by books about young wizards, sparkly vampires and dystopia.” Buzzfeed has described Green’s legions of screaming teen girls, the predominant audience for both his written and online work. If the chatter is to be believed, Green has singlehandedly saved YA from extinction.

This notion is, of course, ridiculous, and much of the discourse stems from a misunderstanding of what YA means. Ruth Graham, writer of the much-discussed Slate piece “Against YA,” says that “there’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott. But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.” At its core, though, YA is just a bucket term used to describe stories that predominantly feature teenaged characters. Novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are technically YA; even Pride and Prejudice is often shelved in the YA section of bookstores. If Graham’s beloved Brontë sisters wrote novels today, they would most likely be published by a YA imprint.

That’s not even to speak of modern YA, a rich genre dominated by female authors who write about everything from cyborg mechanics living in futuristic Beijing to female spies being tortured for information during World War II. Each of these stories is devoured by thousands of teenagers and adults every year, and treated with as much enthusiasm as The Fault in Our Stars. Yet most of them are often derided and largely ignored by the media.

YA authors are fighting back. New York Times bestselling author Ally Carter expressed frustration on Twitter last week: “Gonna have to stop reading articles that (rightfully) praise #Tfios, but then denigrate all other YA hits. Sadly, it's all the articles. Really, the overall tenor of ‘Finally, WORTHY books for girls’ is about to get me. I'm about to SNAP.” Fellow bestselling author Maureen Johnson agreed, venting that “the last few weeks has been so much joy for the good that is #tfios, but a lot of sadness too. I have to admit to one moment, where I'd read yet another takedown of all the good work of women writers where I said, ‘What's the point?’”

John Green's book deserves acclaim, regardless of his race or gender. But by choosing him to be the crown prince of YA, the entertainment industry has continued its cycle of promoting the work of white men as “real” work, and the work of women as “simple” or, in Graham’s words, “uniformly satisfying.” It’s a triple blow, being a (1) woman who writes primarily for (2) girls who are (3) teenagers. Three strikes, and you’re out of the mainstream narrative.

There are exceptions to the rule, naturally, with the success of Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer, The Hunger Games’ Suzanne Collins, and Divergent’s Veronica Roth. But the manner in which these women are written about is fundamentally different from the way Green is written about. In the Buzzfeed profile, Green’s style is praised for being “a departure from the paranormal and dystopian series that have been clogging the shelves for the past few years”—as though Green’s books were much-needed Drano, flushing out the grime.

For the record, Green agrees that the system is flawed. During a live show on his Youtube channel, he was asked how he felt about “people lauding [him] as the savior of YA literature:”

I think it’s ridiculous, to be honest. YA literature is not in need of saving and hasn’t been in need of saving in a very long time, and if it did need saving I would not be the person to do it. From a pop culture perspective, or a general media perspective, there can only be one thing…. There can only be paranormal romance, there can only be dystopia, or now, there can only be The Fault in Our Stars. But it’s not the truth, that isn’t the way the actual world of YA books looks or has ever looked.

To me, the real story of young adult literature is not actually about whatever the big cultural book of the moment is. The real story of young adult literature is that more than a thousand books are read by at least ten thousand teenagers a year, that we have incredible breadth, that we have great dystopia and great fantasy, great sci-fi, great mystery, great romances, and all of that stuff can live together and be in conversation because they all – we all – share the same shelf.

Why must people focus on the work of one man, or the success of one film? Even before the “TFIOS” zeitgeist, critics discussed the “young adult boom.” It has sparked questions like: Does YA need help or is it doing just fine? Is the boom already over or is it just beginning?

These questions are barely worth addressing. The success or failure of an entire genre does not rest on one story. That would be like saying that sci-fi is dead because After Earth tanked, or that the success of The LEGO Movie heralds dozens of new movies about talking toys. There is no such thing as a “young adult boom”: It has always boomed, and it will continue to boom for years to come. From The Outsiders in 1983, to I Know What You Did Last Summer in 1997, to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in 2005, YA book-to-film adaptations have been continuously drawing audiences in engaging, successful ways. And they will continue to do so, possibly with the upcoming If I Stay, adapted from Gayle Forman’s bestselling novel, or The Giver, from Lois Lowry’s classic tale.

So there is no “teen-movie renaissance”—at least not a new one. YA doesn’t need rescuing. All it needs is a change in the way people talk about it. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/no-em-the-fault-in-our-stars-em-is-not-young-adult-fiction-s-savior/372441/