John Green and the gift of learning and empathy in TFIOS
At university, I studied English Literature and as you may assume, I happened upon my fair share of pretentiousness. For the most part, I could grit my teeth and think happy thoughts. Sometimes, however, it truly bothered me.
“As long we don’t study any John Green.” And everyone laughs, trying desperately to escape any association with something that has entered the void of pop culture.
Allow me to be a tad dramatic, but this tore the fabric of my soul. The same feeling hits me when someone undermines Coldplay (that’s a whole other story).
I wanted to defend him, stand up and give a persuasive, eloquent speech about how he inspires and empowers millions of young adults and how his writing is something we should embrace.
I didn’t though. I let the anger swell inside of me and now here we are.
So, it’s time for a persuasive and eloquent look at the leader of the popularised YA movement, John Green.
John Green and his pursuit
John Green inspires youth to believe they are worthy of learning, to be participants in the world and to be empathetic.
His pursuit to inspire the youth to learn, care and show empathy to everyone’s journey is something that intrinsically makes up his identity as an author.
After the release of The Fault in our Stars, John Green was interviewed by the Guardian, where he cites a Daily Mail article criticising the so-called ‘sick-lit’ genre, calling the teens “too undeveloped to deal with issues such as cancer.” (Sourced from The Guardian).
John Green responds with,
“The thing that bothered me about it… was that it was a bit condescending to teenagers. I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful, and I feel like that article made those arguments.”
His collection of YA novels and the creation of the online subculture Nerdfighteria, also known as Nerdfighter, is the embodiment John Green’s youth empowerment. Despite the fact that Nerdfighteria sounds like a deadly disease, it’s cultivated a loyal following of young adults across the world.
Coming of age is something we all trudge through and we need companionship. For me, and a lot of other youth, John Green was that companion. Personally, he inspired me to believe my existence and identity is valid and has value. He crystallised the seemingly unreachable concepts of politics, philosophy and global economy into a choc banana smoothie with the perfect blend of sound intelligence and delicious humour. He believes the youth have the formidable ability to comprehend these concepts. That the youth may provide insight into issues where adults may be predisposed due to bias from experience.
The Fault in our Stars rose from the obscurity of the YA addicts bookshelf to becoming a cult classic for the youth in 2013. It was soon converted to the movie screens where it grossed 307 million worldwide (sourced from Box Office Mojo). You could argue the book became a phenomenon that has inspired a respect for YA novel culture.
The Fault in our Stars inspired a subculture within YA that stands outside of beloved stories like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter (both fantastic stories). It expanded the reach of his older works, like Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. The novel popularised intelligent, social empathic and complex novels for pre-teens and teens. With the beautiful portrayal of Hazel’s character and her life, John Green was able to inspire not only the youth but reach across the generations to touch the lives of adults too.
Hazel and empathy
The Fault in our Stars protagonist, Hazel Grace inspired youth to seek intelligence and show empathy. Firstly, it taught readers the linguistics of cancer treatment. It addresses ignorance’s like how chemotherapy affects a patient, and how cancer slowly affects your body. Every reader turned the last page of the novel (many in tears), earning a greater compassion and understanding for cancer patients, particularly patients that shared their age.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” she said. “Especially for the author not having cancer. He was spot on with how you’re feeling.”
Allison Cisz is a 20-year-old majoring in Business at Central Connecticut State University who was diagnosed with brain cancer in high school. She loved how the novel brought attention to the effects of cancer treatment. (Sourced from Fred Hutch).
Hazel has many moments in the novel where she is faced with dissecting very frightening and complex thoughts. A prime example is when she is sitting with her family at dinner and worrying about a headache and sore shoulder,
“I told myself that imagining a met in my brain or my shoulder would not affect the invisible reality going on inside of me and that therefore all such thoughts were wasted moments in a life composed of a definitionally finite set of such moments.” (97)
There are moments such as this that showcase insightful and complex thought. These moments inspire us to deliberate over our thoughts. Are they rational? Will they help us? How do we think differently? She is rationalising her psychology and consciousness and distancing herself from her disease.
But then, there are these moments that pierce your heart.
“Sleep fights cancer, Regular Dr. Jim said for the thousandth time… “Then I am a cancer-fighting machine,” I told him. “That you are, Hazel.” (109.)
And the moment the rolls of tears turned into waterfalls.
“I lit up like a Christmas tree, Hazel Grace. The lining of my chest, my left hip, my liver, everywhere.” (214).
All these moments tip us over the edge, where you are so overwhelmed with sadness that water leaks from your eyes. That’s the moment where empathy is etched on the hearts of readers of TFIOS. For me, the tears ran from the source of a greater realisation that there were people my age battling this, and I wasn’t. That is what YA does. What it does best. Documents the stories of young adults, the mental challenges we face, the physical obstacles and how we come of age.
Hazel and learning
Hazel’s favourite fictitious novel, The Imperial Affliction, inspires a lot of her thinking and appears several times throughout The Fault in our Stars. Hazel bases her philosophical attitude on the teachings of The Imperial Affliction. She constantly works towards a greater understanding of complex questions, such as the meaning of life and why suffering and pain exist.
Hazel capability and interest in such questions, set a precedent for young adults to have a valid comprehension of these very inquires. It also inspires young adults to investigate for themselves, seeking out philosophy and ponding complex thoughts. Not to be afraid to dissect what we believe about our existence. That this journey doesn’t simply start when society deems that you have entered ‘adulthood’. Hazel’s dad sums up this idea perfectly,
“I don’t know what I believe Hazel. I thought being an adult mean knowing what you believe, but that has not been my experience.” (223).
Hazel’s father gives power to Hazel’s thoughts and feelings. He doesn’t dismiss them as uninformed or too naïve. He listens and comprehends what she says. Even reads her favourite novel after she recommends it. Reading this dialogue between an adult and a teenager throughout the novel, I believe, has empowered teens to believe their opinion has value and is valid.
John Green inspires young adults through learning and social empathy to believe that their opinions are valid. I am an advocate that YA reading is the most important in your life. And John Green honours that decree with The Fault in our Stars.
In the recent uprising for gun change in America, we see young adults at the front of the campaign. We see young adults with the belief that they have to say has value. So, any literature that inspires that idea and gives it power, is worth a place in any literature course classroom.
Get to know the editor
Sean Bradley is the editor behind the scenes at Fatally Narrow. He is a true literature enthusiast and feminist comrade, who never fails to pick up on my misplaced commas.