How do you write smash-hit fiction for teenagers? Throw in a liberal sprinkling of vampires and werewolves, perhaps? Set it in a dystopian future in which only your hero stands between civilisation and a 1,000-year reign of terror? Or write a love story about two quirky young cancer sufferers who take a trip to Holland to meet their literary idol?
Your average Hollywood studio might bank on the first two options, figuring that teenagers want a story-diet of blood, guts, adrenaline and hot young pin-ups. One writer, however, has slightly different expectations of young audiences, believing they’re capable of engaging with stories about life, death and Like, Really Important Stuff or Whatever. As a result, he’s fast becoming one of America’s most popular and important literary voices ? and not just to young people.
John Green is the author of four best-selling books for young adults. He’s also a technology pioneer, an educator, and the co-leader of a growing movement of like-minded people. And a committed Christian.
Tragedy and Romance
Green’s biggest success to date is number one best-seller The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin), a beautiful, low-concept wonder of a book, the plot of which is alluded to above. The story is told by 16-year-old Hazel, a brave and brilliant ? though never worthy ? lung cancer sufferer for whom the long-term prognosis is unclear. Unlike the stereotypical American teen, Hazel is into European literature and pondering the meaning of life. Although the mall, social media and video games feature in her existence, they don’t dominate it; she is unique and interesting, and exactly the sort of person who, from a reader’s perspective, deserves to live a long life.
Into Hazel’s restricted existence steps Augustus, a handsome former high school basketball star who has lost a leg to the osteosarcoma from which he is now in remission. Like Hazel, his brushes with cancer and mortality have forced him to deepen; the pair inevitably begin to build a connection over everyday existential concerns such as ‘the ghettoization of scrambled eggs’. Despite Hazel’s best efforts to keep a safe distance (on the grounds that her probable death will eventually break his heart), they fall deeply in love.
The Fault in Our Stars charts the journey of their relationship, which takes them halfway across the world and includes notes of comedy, poignant romance and inevitable tragedy. But the book isn’t really about any of these things. Green himself is a subscriber to the belief that the best works of art are partly defined by what you bring to them, and while on the surface this is a book about death, it’s actually a book about life, though never a sentimental one.
Hazel and Augustus are determined to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of whatever lifetime they have left. Far from making them give up, their uncertainty about the future gives them an immediacy to make life now count. That’s why their conversations contain such depth ? that’s how it’s believable that one teenager might say something as poetic to another as: ‘you are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are’
Those words, spoken by Augustus to Hazel, express perfectly how Green’s Christian worldview subtly impacts his writing. Writing on his blog, Green admits: ‘I don’t talk about it very often, but I’m a religious person. In fact, before I became a writer, I wanted to be a minister. There is a certain branch of Christianity that has so effectively hijacked the word “Christian” that I feel uncomfortable sometimes using it to describe myself. But I am a Christian.’ The Fault in Our Stars affirms a Christian perspective; the characters have unresolved but hopeful conversations about the afterlife, and are comfortable with the language of God and Jesus. Perhaps more importantly, Augustus and Hazel discover important and countercultural truths about themselves: that they are unique; that they are loved; that life is worth fighting for. What great messages these are for young people ? any people ? to read and absorb.
Far from making them give up, their uncertainty about the future gives them an immediacy to make life now count #TheFaultInOurStars
Starting a movement
Green’s inspiration for writing the book came from his five-month stint as a children’s hospital chaplain, one step in a winding early life that took him away from that possible call to ministry, and into the world of publishing. However, books certainly aren’t the limit of Green’s impact and influence. He is important because somehow, and slightly by accident, he has helped to create a movement.
While writing his early books, he also began to experiment with video as a medium of communication, rather than just entertainment. Just as he’s attempted to bring some cerebral quality into the often-vacuous world of young adult fiction, he’s also pushing the boundaries of YouTube ? the world’s most popular video-sharing site. His central concept: video sharing shouldn’t just be about ‘Gangnam Style’ and virals of cats falling off things; short-form video can also be about sharing Big Ideas.
In 2007, Green and his brother Hank cut off all text-based communication (letters, email, social media), and began recording short video messages to one another, once a week, in which they’d discuss their latest thoughts and ideas. The ensuing conversation of video blogs (vlogs) ? entitled ‘VlogBrothers’ ? drew an unexpectedly huge audience. In March of this year, the number of people who subscribed to the brothers’ YouTube channel topped 1 million; to date, their videos have been viewed more than 300 million times, not just by John Green fans, but by people around the world who have been drawn in by the brothers’ offbeat perspective.
Not only that ? the ensuing momentum around VlogBrothers has given birth to a social action community called Nerdfighters. We’re getting into the realm here of things I can’t possibly wholly understand without being a part of them. Suffice to say: self-confessed ‘nerds’ around the world, people perhaps a little like Hazel and Augustus, who don’t quite fit in but want a full life and a better future, have found purpose and fellowship through the pioneering leadership of the Green brothers. Nerdfighters perform acts of ‘awesome’ together, such as planting trees or raising funds for relief and development charities. They do it because they feel a sense of kinship; a sense of mutual understanding and shared values.
Green is an inspiration to many people, especially young adults. He’s not unaware of this, nor of the increasing level of his influence; recently he took part in an online Google ‘hangout’ conversation with Barack Obama. He didn’t set out to be a leader ? rather a novelist and experimenter ? but leadership is influence, and so he finds himself in an unexpected position of power. He’s also a man of faith who chose not to go into the ministry but the mainstream culture. God seems to be using him powerfully there; perhaps the world needs a few more like him.
John Green is a man of faith who chose not to go into the ministry but the mainstream culture