Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Some Criticism

This is like a Monday Excerpt intermission.

Because not many people read this blog and I'm not planning to post this anywhere it could get attention--Tumblr or some carefully picked subreddit--I think it's okay for me to write this out. It's just some of the criticism I've wanted to give a YA author for a while now. And I can thankfully do it without being afraid of angering fans/anti-fans/neutral readers/authors/whoever.

I read John Green when I was really young--at the perfect age for his books. At the start of ninth grade, I began with Paper Towns, moved on to Will Grayson Will Grayson, read about a page or three of An Abundance of Katherines where I promptly got bored, read Looking for Alaska, followed him on vlogbrothers before, while, and a bit after the publication of The Fault in Our Stars, was so invested I cried the first time I read it-

And by the time the movie came out, I didn't know if I liked or disliked the book, or if I liked or disliked any other Green books. I just knew they didn't seem as great anymore.

As per all things that become famous, there has been some heavy backlash against Green in recent years. The primary criticisms seem to be that his stories are formulaic, that the same old boring plot structure happens to the same old boring-and-quirky characters. Plus, his dialogue is unrealistic since he's too invested in making his teenagers sound super intellectual and witty and funny, so, in the end, they don't sound like teenagers but like a twenty/thirty something man writing teenagers.

But I don't mind that stuff? Actually, I kind of disagree with that criticism. I don't hate his dialogue and I don't mind that some plot structures/character arcs are repeated. I notice enough difference in the executions to not be bothered by that sort of thing. The dialogue sounds pretty dumb, but I've actually spoken with people who talked like that and I've said incredibly Stupid Things in an effort to sound Super Deep, so it's not like teenagers don't talk pretentiously. It sounds equally stupid in real life as it does in a book. My willing suspension of disbelief is not affected by his dialogue.

So those aren't my problems. I'm fine with all that. But I've still started to feel conflicted over his books over the last few years.

It took me a while to put the reason into words, but I can do it now without problem. Here's the thing about his novels--the ones I've read at least: They never shut up about their themes. They are so. Incredibly. Preachy. They are built to be quotable. They are constructed to Teach Lessons.

Paper Towns is constantly talking about the complexity of individuals, how women are "real" people, how it's such a "treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person." And I don't mean the story fully explores these themes and lets them unravel. I mean, it tells you. It explicitly tells you. Characters summarize it in bullet points, quotable lines show up at the end of giant passages. It analyzes Walt Whitman to death and gives you pretty lines like how Margo Roth Spiegelman "was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl." It's pages and pages of Let Me Explain The Theme To You. And it makes me wanna go, Oh. Oh really? Sorry, that's too subtle for me, can you repeat that again? not Manic Pixie Dream Girls, eh? Looking for Alaska honestly isn't much better since other characters have to tell Miles multiple times the themes of forgiveness and the real flawed nature of Alaska rather than the fantasy image he conjured about her.

By far the worst offender is The Fault in Our Stars, a book that never shuts up about Not Being Like Other Cancer books. It's annoying in the same way girls with internalized misogyny are annoying in their Not Like Other Girls proclamations.

It is a book that spends so much time trying to reiterate to you why cancer kids aren't inherent angels of virtue and knowledge. It's so good at praising itself. It reminds you constantly of the cliches of other cancer books and how this one subverts it. Hazel has to explicitly and bluntly tell Augustus that they were good people with good lives even if they weren't saviors of the universe. (And then in videos and interviews, John Green has to explicitly spell that out too). Because I, as a reader, am too stupid to understand or come to these conclusions on my own.

These are important themes. There are interesting discussions. They're smart and they're thought provoking and they deserve to be analyzed with teens and adults alike. But is it too much to ask the books lead me into said themes, to guide me, not push and shove and slap me around with them?

The speeches are the biggest evidence to my point, the ones that always happens at the end of the book.

(Spoilers ahead).

Paper Towns: At the end, there's a speech about the Strings, Grass, and Vessel metaphors (which are also the name of the parts of the book), how Quentin can now see the flaws in Margo and how there are cracks in the vessel but that's what makes it all beautiful and insightful and sympathetic, etc, etc, etc.

In fact, let's quote it, I have these books here, might as well use them:
"I like the strings. I always have. Because that's how it feels. But the strings make pain seem more fatal than it is, I think. We're not as frail as the strings would make us believe. And I like the grass, too. The grass got me to you, helped me to imagine you as an actual person. But we're not different sprouts from the same plant. I can't be you. You can't be me. You can imagine another well--but never quite perfectly, you know?
"Maybe it's more like you said before, all of us being cracked open. Like, each of us starts out a watertight vessel. And these things happen...And the vessel starts to crack open in places. And I mean*, yeah, once the vessel cracks open, the end becomes inevitable....But there is all this time between when the cracks start to open up and when we finally fall apart. And it's only in that time that we can see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs. When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can come in. The light can get out."
All that? It's just Quentin. He gives an entire monologue about stuff we've already been explained throughout the book. I had to scale it down with ellipses or it'd be twice as long. Plus I'm sparing you the part where Margo is all, "whoa, that's deep."

The John Green side of Will Grayson, Will Grayson has a giant speech about how friendship is just as, if not equally, important as romantic love/sexual attraction and how much friends matter and love each other.

Here it is:
"You are a terrible best friend," I tell him. "Terrible! You totally ditch me every time you have a boyfriend, and then you come crawling back when you're heartbroken. You don't listen to me. You don't even seem to like me. You get obsessed with the play and totally ignore me except to insult me our friend behind my back, and you exploit your life and the people you say you care about so that your little play can make people love you and think how awesome you are and how liberated you are and how wondrously gay you are, but you know what? Being gay is not an excuse for being a dick.
"But you're one of my speed dial and I want you to stay there and I'm sorry I'm a terrible best friend, too, and I love you."
He won't stop it with the turned head. "Grayson, are you coming out to me? Because I'm, I mean*, don't take this personally, but I would sooner go straight than go gay with you."
"NO. No no no. I don't want to screw you. I just love you. When did who you want to screw become the whole game? Since when is the person you want to screw the only person you get to love? It's so stupid, Tiny! I mean*, Jesus, who even gives a fuck about sex?! People act like it's the most important thing humans do, but come on. How can our sentient fucking lives revolve around something slugs can do. I mean*, who you want to screw and whether you screw them? Those are important questions, I guess. But they're not that important. You know what's important? Who would you die for?..."
I am also once again sparing you the second half of that speech and a brief moment where Tiny is all, "damn you are amazing."

Even The Fault in Our Stars has a speech via letter form that Augustus writes to someone else but Hazel ends up reading.
Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We're as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we're not likely to do either.
People will say it's sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely.  But it's not sad, Van Houten. It's triumphant. It's heroic. Isn't that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.
The real heroes anyway aren't the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invent the smallpox vaccine didn't actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn't get smallpox.... 

I can't even move on without addressing all the previous meta commentary sprinkled throughout the book, like,
[About a fictional book she likes]. But it's not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts a charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy.
 "Like, you are familiar with the trope of the stoic and determined cancer victim who heroically fights her cancer with inhuman strength and never complains or stops smiling even as the very end, etcetera?"
"Indeed," I said, "They are kindhearted and generous souls whose every breath is an Inspiration to Us All. They're so strong! We admire them so!"
"Right, but really, I mean* aside from us obviously, cancer kids are not statistically more likely to be awesome or compassionate or perseverant or whatever..."
And (massive spoilers),
According to the conventions of the genre, Augustus Waters kept his sense of humor till the end, did not for a moment waiver in his courage, and his spirit soared like an indomitable eagle until the world itself could not contain his joyous soul.
 But this was the truth, a pitiful boy who desperately wanted not to be pitiful...
One of the less bullshitty conventions of the cancer kid genre is the Last Good Day convention, wherein the victim of cancer finds herself with some unexpected hours when it seems like the inexorable decline has suddenly plateaued, when the pain is for a moment bearable...
I don't have a copy of Looking for Alaska here and I don't want to pirate it, but while it's been a couple of years since I've read the book, I am 99% certain it also ends with a speech of the TFiOS variety. Miles sits down and writes a couple of paragraphs about the Labyrinth and death and the afterlife and forgiveness. He writes you a conclusion of the book in case you were too dumb to figure things out.

Here's the thing: none of that is needed because there are a shitload of other moments where his argument is built on through actual character interactions and moments. This is just too much.

The weird thing is--while I'm complaining about this, I know for a fact there are people out there who can't see these things. They're so blatantly spelled out, and yet some readers reach the wrong conclusions. I'm cool with a lot of the criticism in the novels (like, just because the language doesn't bother me doesn't mean I can't see why it bothers other people or rings fake to them) but there's also a lot that's skewed or misguided. By far, the main thing people disliked about TFiOS is that it apparently romanticized cancer.

There's an argument to be made in that it's not particularly successful in getting across its message. Like, there's argument to be made that because Paper Towns still deals with the journey and enlightenment of a boy through the use of a disappearing, 2D girl we never know nor understand then the book doesn't really subvert the Manic Pixie Dream Girl narrative, it just uses it straightforward without realizing it.

But when a book is constantly shouting at you "LOOK, CANCER ISN'T GLAMOROUS. IT ACTUALLY SUCKS" how do some readers come out saying the opposite, often with no real evidence? (That I've seen. Maybe I'm wrong).

The other thing that sucks is that, as much as I mock these books for Trying Too Hard, I know there are books out there that are on the other end of the spectrum. I know there are books that romanticize illness and death and make characters martyrs rather than people.  I understand why there's a need for this type of writing, but it still bothers me. Bothers me to think we're all too stupid to get it unless it's spelled out every other chapter.

I guess that's the sucky thing about internet culture in general, too. John Green might go around stating that Books Belong To Their Readers, but he sure likes to explain them a lot mostly because he sure gets bombarded by a crapload of questions constantly--as if the answers weren't already obvious enough--and he sure has a really grand platform to deliver those answers.

And that's the unfair but truthful reason for why I started to dislike these books: it is impossible to have a good conversation about a John Green book with another reader because they will inevitably parrot back exactly what he's already said in interviews or internet posts.

(Side note: and it's not limited to him either. While there are a lot of great conversations to be had, it's difficult at times to talk about A Song of Ice and Fire with people without them saying the same old, "oh you see, it's great because, like, it's so morally grey, and there are no true villains or heroes." Yeah, yeah, yeah, I read that GRRM interview too, can we talk about something else?)

It wasn't really until I started gathering things for the Monday Excerpts that I could put it into words. I hate it when authors try and hold my hand and spoon feed me their philosophies. I hate it when it feels like someone is preaching at me. And you know what? I may not hate that the dialogue is pretentious. But I can hate that it was the author's choice to write it that way not because some teens talk like that, but because it's just another vessel to spout the message.

Ultimately I think the root of this criticism is on an author level as much as it is on a reader-and-writer level.

He and I write for different reasons. He's said before that he constructs his narratives entirely on huge ideas about the human condition or whatever--the ambiguity of death, the nature of heroism in ordinary life, the way we "misimagine" (I hate that word...) other individuals--particularly girls--and fail to see them complexly, etc. And it shows. It really shows that he had a concept and overarching theme and then constructed characters and narratives around them.

I'm not going to pretend I'm entirely removed from that. No, I'm not going to pretend I didn't write this last sci-fi book on the idea that Amber's cybernetic nature and the eventual conflict with the robots of Vanir aren't my attempts to understand and maybe define what makes someone "human." But that wasn't written with the expressed purpose of giving an answer. If anything (spoiler alert?) I don't think Amber comes to an answer at the end of the book. I don't think she comes out saying, "well I guess I am/am not human because of X Y and Z reasons." In the end, it doesn't matter.

I spent years trying to figure out an answer for her. Amber and Miranda were people that came into existence somewhere at my start of high school, opposite sides of a Order vs. Chaos theme I was trying to build up on. I kept thinking, "when I write their stories, I need to have something worth saying, I need to have an answer for what makes us human."

And years later, older-me said, "uh...I don't know. Who cares?"

It isn't because that kind of thing doesn't warrant an answer. It's because I've just realized the story can feel complete without it.

I want to clarify: I don't really think I'm as a good a writer as John Green is, nor do I think that I'll ever be as famous or as analyzed as he is. You can make the argument that he'll be read dozens of years after his death and analyzed in the way we analyzed Catcher in the Rye, or something, and I won't. That's fine. But in this regard, in this approach to writing, is there more merit to one over the other? Am I the one who's mistaken?

Am I a bad writer because I inherently don't care enough to ask and answer complicated questions? Or is he?

I don't really want an answer to those questions because a part of me thinks they're the wrong thing to ask. Plus, writing is some complicated and full of so many little components, that it's difficult to define a truly "bad" writer.

And I don't think John Green is a bad writer. There is some lyricism to his prose at times. He pays attention to word choice and tenses to build certain moods and emotions for particular scenes. And he can be really funny. Side characters are great too. Radar and Lacy in Paper Towns are pretty awesome, Kaitlyn and Isaac in The Fault in Our Stars are equally awesome. So no, he's not a bad writer.

This entire time I've been writing and thinking about this post, I keep wanting to say something like, "I just don't think that kind of thing--pandering, explaining, being about concepts over people--is what fiction is supposed to do."

But truth is, I don't think fiction is supposed to do anything. And I don't know, nor do I think I'll ever know, what fiction is "supposed" to do other than be good. I guess it depends what my definition of "good" means in this context.

*Note: A couple of weeks ago, while revising and writing, I noticed one of my verbal ticks was showing up in a lot of the dialogue. This: "I mean, [clarification/reiteration/what have you]." It showed up with Kaede, Monroe, and Miranda, and I think briefly with Amber once. It'll probably be in my other books too.

I'm taking it out of everyone except Miranda. "I mean..." can be her verbal tick.

I realized, while thumbing through the books I have here, that "I mean" is also John Green's verbal tick. He's said it in a few videos and Tumblr posts, and his characters say it too, over different books.

So to other writers: be aware of your own mannerisms and gestures, etc, while writing.

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"Science and science fiction have done a kind of dance over the last century... The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are excited, and inspired to become scientists...which they do, which then feeds again into another generation of science fiction and science..."
- Carl Sagan, in his message to future explorers of Mars.