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[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
A few days ago Aarti posted a review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I probably wouldn't have noticed, but I was alerted that the review was imminent and was specifically watching for it after being told it was similar to my own.

Ana and I reviewed the book in 2010 and had mixed feelings about it. I came away feeling like I was missing an emotional connection with the characters. The fondness I normally have for John Green's characters never quite jelled, and I didn't expect them to jell with David Levithan's but was proven wrong, because over a year later I still like Levithan's Will the best. The review posted a few days ago reflected my feelings accurately, and many people say similar things about how the book was tricky, suggesting one conceit but then delivering the Tiny Cooper Variety Novel instead. It's still a great story and says interesting things about friendship and first love and companionship, but it misses the mark emotionally as Tiny eclipses the other characters in the narrative.

Of course, then I had to go read the comments. It should be a rule for me on reviews of YA novels in spaces that don't often review specific types of YA because I often come away with all the feelings. Don't Read the Comments™, Renay! But I did!
[....] people say he uses females more as props than real characters.
I found it silly that this upset me so much. I closed my browser and I walked away to think about why this comment, why these referenced "people" had bothered me enough to dump a 900 word reply into a text box in the comments before I backed away. I admit readily that I am a John Green fangirl. He is one of my favorite authors and he re-introduced me to a reading category I thought was no longer accessible to me. In many ways, gave me the joy of reading back, because before I picked up An Abundance of Katherines I wasn't reading at all, burnt out by university and stories that felt empty. I picked his work up because I started watching his video blogs with his brother in February 2007 and I liked his thoughts and I never looked back. So why did that comment jam my buttons so hard? Oh, god, have I become one of those fans?

(Please, no.)

To be specific, I wasn't upset at anyone in the comments, or at Aarti, who was only repeating specific impressions of thoughts from other reviews by other bloggers (or so I assume). But it does leave me filled with frustration at the others bloggers because it's unfair to characterize John as the type of writer who uses girls as props in the sense that the comment gave. It gave me a "typically not an integral part of the thing supported" vibe versus "a person or thing giving support, as of a moral or spiritual nature" vibe. The first may be a good reason to stop reading an author if it's a trend. The last one I believe deserves proper context, and of course I believe that if we're going to start discussing girls and women as props, we need to define the way we're using "prop". Because there are plenty of places to see girls as that first kind of prop (Hollywood, comics, choose your own adventure) and I don't believe John Green's novels are one of them; his girls, if they are props, are the second kind, the human kind. They're the kind that can create interesting discussions around gender and humanity the way the first kind of "prop" will fail to do, because the writer didn't give them any humanity at all beyond pure sexual objectification.

It does a disservice to his female characters to define them the first way, dehumanizes them and erases them from the narrative of which they are an integral part. It takes away the actual agency that I believe every female character John has created retains in the face of whatever inexperience that caused him to write girls as vehicles of discovery and insight for dudes. Yes, his female characters aren't perfect, but demanding perfection in female characters from anyone in our culture, regardless of their gender or personal identity, is like demanding they dam a river with only their bare hands. I would much rather ask for thoughtfulness and the ability to accept criticism. Because of the ongoing discussion about girls in YA, when a male writer has issues with female characterization, it's starting to feel to me like he's quick to be written off. With him go the female characters he's created who are, if flawed, still more interesting and well-rounded than other female characters created by male authors or creators who don't actually give a damn about how they represent girls and don't care to hear your thoughts on it, either. There's plenty of those. We don't need to start putting male authors who aren't like them in the same category.

Obviously, John can speak for himself on the issue and has spoken with regards to this, several times:

"I'm fascinated by the way the contemporary world has constructed this manic pixie dream girl (to use a term coined by Nathan Rabin) who flutters into the lives of men and changes them forever with her moodiness and mystery. This idea has become the kind of female Edward Cullen, and I am of course drawn to it myself but also really troubled by it, because I think it's just a new kind of objectification of women. So I think I wrote about that in Paper Towns not because I saw it in my own life but because I saw it in my first novel, Looking for Alaska, and because in the years after writing that story, I became more and more troubled by the book's failure to point out that, like, the idea of the manic pixie dream girl is not just a lie but a dangerous one that does disservice both to the person doing the imagining and the person being imagined." [source]


Like everyone else, he's is a product of this culture. Yes, he has a manic pixie problem, but as exampled, he's grown with time and experience. He's very obviously an ally and thinking about gender and the complexities of interpersonal relationship in the context of gender. Shutting out allies with problematic and oversimplified criticism is a great way to lose those allies, deprive readers of an author who will engage with his own flaws very openly, and who is doing great work creating stories that, while not for everyone, do seek to be thoughtful considerations of the world and the people in it.

I'm sensitive about author critique. Oh well.

I was so upset over this issue that I sat down to think of what order I would recommend people read John Green's work in. I have a list like this for Maureen Johnson, but not John because he doesn't have as many titles. And I have not yet read The Fault in Our Stars, so this list is going to be awkward, but I can revise it later. For maximum Green enjoyment (as prescribed by myself, feel free to disagree in comments):

1. An Abundance of Katherines: excellent introduction to the comic aspects and quirky nature of his writing. Eases you into the particular tone Green employs in future novels, which is vaguely pretentious. I love a good pretentious tone, so that's probably a warning in itself. Colin is like Virgil, in a way.

2. Looking for Alaska: allow him to rip your heart out for a few hours and stomp it and then put it back together with the last words of dead people. Makes more sense in context.

3. Paper Towns: I really think this is most valuable read after Looking for Alaska. For reasons that are spoilerish. Watch out for farm animals and prepare to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia reading about copyright.

Interlude for short stories! John has written stories in several anthologies like Let it Snow, Geektastic and a few others.

4. Will Grayson, Will Grayson: for a myriad of reasons, I feel this is best experienced with the short story palate cleanser. To prepare further, you might also read one of David Levithan's co-authored novels with Rachel Cohn at this point to get an idea of his narrative flavor and mingle it in your mind with John's, like a delicious literary soup1. I recommend Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List, because it was the best (IN MY HEART), but Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist was more beloved.

5. Zombiecorns. Really. No, I'm serious. I have feelings about Zombiecorns, okay? So many feelings.

I don't know where The Fault in Our Stars would be on this list. Ana, you'll have to come along and correct me if I've made a terrible mistake. But this is how I would present John Green to someone new, who had never read his work. Will Grayson, Will Grayson would never be an introductory novel (sorry) but it does have its place. You might also take the dust jacket off to hide the blurb. Complete ignorance might help, too.

Ultimately, what I learned from my reflection over one comment is that author critique is probably never as easy as it seems to be in the thick of a review of a book that didn't live up to expectations. It's easy to give false impressions, or incomplete impressions, of really great work by not being thorough. I think it's useful to critique authors and hold them accountable for weak writing, shallow characterizations, and failure to render particular characters thoroughly. However, I especially believe we should always critique with a nod to the humanity those characters can come to possess once we meet them. It's worth that serious examination in today's culture and environment that is hyper-focused on these issues of representation, especially for girls, to do so in an even-handed, thorough manner for everyone.

In closing, I have a lot of emotions and tl;dr, as per usual.

1 Please do not lick and/or eat the authors.
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