It's finally happening...
After months and months of me saying that we are going to write about John Green, and then not writing about John Green, it's happening. Right now. In this blog post. For this post, former pod guest and all around cool person Todd Osborne joins me to talk about a topic near and dear to him! While this conversation began as an assessment of Green's latest novel, Turtles All the Way Down, Todd and I also take the time to talk about Green's career as a whole, how we came to know his work, and how we see it working in the sphere of pop culture. Todd and I both come from very different backgrounds in terms of understanding Green's work; I study YA literature and write about it frequently, and Todd was once an actual teen boy, which once made him the intended demographic for a lot of Green's work. So without further ado, we bring you JOHN GREEN BLOG POST 2018!
Todd: Oh, hello, it’s me, a former teen boy!
Mary: OK, this is something we should maybe start with! Fresh from reading Paper Towns and Turtles All the Way Down in fairly quick succession, I’m thinking about the differences between Green’s gendered narrators. I enjoyed Aza in Turtles, partially because of her OCD and how real that felt, but also partially because she seemed to actually think like a girl--if that makes sense. She worried about her relationships (obsessed over them, even) and constantly thought about how she fit in with the world. While these issues aren’t completely absent in Green’s novels narrated by boys, there’s the additional “manic pixie dream girl” element that I frequently (and often inaccurately, I admit) bring up. John Green’s boy narrators are sometimes unhealthily obsessed with the idea of some girl they like without--and this is the key part for me--ever really getting to know that girl. These narrators seem to like the concept of girls, or the concept of having a girlfriend, and girls’ bodies, but there’s not much talk or effort in actually knowing them. Part of me knows this is because high school is a painfully awkward time for everyone. As a painfully awkward adult, though, I’m not ready to let this excuse ride.
I can’t help but think of Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill (which also has a fabulous musical based on the novel), which also has a first person adolescent boy POV. I couldn’t get over--and I remember mentioning this to you when I first read it a few months ago--the way the boys in the novel talked about girls as if they were just bodies. Everything was about sex, everything, and girls were reduced to what they could offer in terms of sexual satisfaction. It’s just really, really off-putting. I think my words were, “I don’t want to know,” and I stand by that. I mean, I am aware that everyone--girls and boys and men and women and just everyone--thinks about sex and people’s bodies and all sorts of explicit things, BUT I think it’s a much more prevalent trope to have boys exclusively voice these thoughts in YA lit, and that’s what makes me sort of uncomfortable. Society already tells me that I’m only about as good as I look, and it weirdly hurts to have fictional teenage boys tell me that as well.
As a side-note, Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited, which Emily and I discussed in a previous blog post, does an excellent job of showing how girls also think about sex and love! Albertalli does a great job of showing that girls also have lots of sexy thoughts, and also sometimes view boys in terms of what they can do for them BUT ultimately the lesson of that novel is that looks aren’t everything. There’s also a totally heartwarming, dorky romance that I very strongly identify with. I can’t recommend this book enough.
I’m curious how you, as a former teenage boy and as a current man, perceive John Green’s narrators and if you have similar feelings about his female narrators.
Todd: As a current man (a phrase I will now use to preface all my thoughts) and a former teen boy, my thoughts about John Green’s narrators are complicated. On the one hand, and I should say this up front so everyone can recognize how skewed my own opinions are, I read the majority of these books as they were coming out when I was a teen boy, full of hormones and feelings I did not understand. His early narrators were nerdy dudes who couldn’t talk to girls, and so was I! It felt like kismet, and it was an early example of me being catered to because I’m a white dude. Young Todd appreciated that but I see now the problematic aspects that I did not recognize at the time, and it is one of the reasons that I find Hazel and Aza to be more interesting narrators now. In his first few books, it felt like all of Green’s narrators had to have a thing: Pudge loves famous last words; Colin Singleton is a genius who dates girls with the same name; even Quentin feels more like a collection of nerdy signifiers than a real person. But Hazel and Aza, especially Aza, feel more fully realized as people, which gives both books a greater sense of pathos and more depth (not to mention the fact that they are both dealing with pretty heavy subject matter which only Looking for Alaska comes close to touching).
Mary: I think “full of hormones and feelings I don’t understand” is a phrase that can be used to describe me now, even! It’s a fair point that what we enjoy when we’re in high school is often VASTLY different from what we like after years of training in English literature, and for me, years of training in children’s literature specifically. In high school, I loved Chuck Palahniuk more than any other author. Now I see the errors of my ways, and that’s OK!
I think your mention that Hazel and Aza feel more fully realized might have something to do with Green’s progression as an author, too. Looking for Alaska has received heavy criticism for being, well, kind of bad in terms of representing women. In interviews and online, Green seems like a genuinely nice and caring person who really loves his wife and promotes equality for everyone, so it’s always seemed weird to me that his female characters are kind of terrible. But they are getting better, right? The Fault in Our Stars has issues for different reasons (which I’m happy to talk about if we want to go there), but Hazel is a pretty realized character. And Aza is one of the best narrators he’s ever written, in my opinion. It’s unreasonable for us as readers to expect perfection on all fronts from an author. They’re people too, and trying to work out the same issues for themselves that we all are. John Green--like all of us--is capable of growing and changing and forming new opinions and beliefs as time goes on. I think it’s good that his audience has gotten to see him grow as an author while they are also growing from young adults to adults.
One thing that I’m interested in with Turtles specifically, is Green’s representation of mental illness, and specifically Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Green has OCD himself (and has talked about it in many places, but recently with Terry Gross on NPR), and his perspective on it stems largely from his own experiences. While America as a whole has become a lot better about de-stigmatizing mental illness, there are still PLENTY of hang-ups about it, especially in literature. I’m thinking specifically of The Couple Next Door, which suggests that postpartum depression is akin to some dangerous instability, or My Mad Fat Teenage Diary, which seems to conflate mental illness and weight. This is the kind of stuff I study anyway, so I’m always looking at how authors talk about disability and the body--and admittedly, I’m usually prepared to be mad about it--but Green depicts Aza as, well, a person. And really, an incredibly mature-for-her-age-or-maybe-any-age person.
I’m curious what you thought about how OCD was represented in the book as someone who isn’t always on the hunt for this sort of stuff, and as a longtime-reader of Green in general. Is this something that was maybe always hinted at in his work and is just now being fully explored?
Todd: You’re right that I have only recently been on the look out for things like the approach that a text takes to disability, whether mental or physical, and in the case of John Green I feel almost like I am cheating because I am and have been an avid watcher of the Youtube series he creates with his brother Hank (who has his own book coming out this fall!). Over the hundreds of videos that Green has made over the years, his own issues with OCD have come up many times, and they have given the community of people who watch his videos a real insight into how Green deals with those issues. So, in that way, I was not surprised when I heard that his new novel dealt with mental health issues, but I was still kind of curious how Green would marry what I normally think of as a pretty light tone--even when the subject matter is heavier--with a Serious Topic like OCD. It almost seemed like Turtles would be Green’s Very Special Book, but I was pleased and delighted to find that that is not the case at all.
Instead of writing a novel that treats Aza with kid gloves or tries to totally diagnose what is wrong with her, Green just lets Aza be who she is: a teen girl with understandable issues and a less-than-great way of coping with those issues. That the novel mostly lets Aza’s OCD percolate in the background until Green really lets it loose near the end is unsurprising in the way that any novel needs to eventually come to a head, but I was still continually surprised by the way the novel, like The Fault in Our Stars before it, doesn’t allow Aza to become a saint who is dealing with a difficult problem. Instead, Aza is kind of a crappy friend and daughter and girlfriend, while also being completely sympathetic. It is one of the great gifts of the first-person narrator: even when they break bad. I am the one who knocks?!), we still root for them, whether or not we should.
To be honest, I am not sure I would have believed that Green had this novel in him before reading it (WHAT IS THIS GRAMMAR). Having been a fan of his for many years, I always knew I would read the novel, but I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. By the end, I think I was in tears (which is not difficult, by any measure, but still). What did you make of that ending, Mary?
Mary: I don’t feel great about how Green portrayed terminal illness in TFioS, but I agree that it’s important to portray disabled people as, well, people. No one is a saint, no one is perfect, and Green never dips into ~inspirational~ territory in Turtles All the Way Down. I didn’t think Green had this book in him either--but in the best way. I’m so happy that he’s found a way to express some of the struggles he’s experienced in real life in a way that makes sense.
The ending though. The end of the novel has a shift in perspective, and Aza zooms out her focus a bit to contemplate the time in her life we’ve just read about. It’s a move that reminds me a lot of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (which is a classic YA tale if not the first YA tale); at the end of the novel Ponyboy reveals that the entire book has been--DUN DUN DUN--a book report for his English class.
And the end of Turtles, Aza doesn’t reveal a book report, but she does hint that the remembering of her story could be part of therapy. She thinks,
I know that the girl would go on, that she would grow up, have children and love them, that despite loving them she would get too sick to care for them, be hospitalized, get better, and then get sick again. I know a shrink would say, Write it down, how you got here. So you would, and in writing it down, you realize, love is not a tragedy or a failure, but a gift (284-85).
The entire novel is part of Aza’s therapy process, in a way, and as an adult she realizes that even though she and Davis don’t have a future together, their relationship was important. It taught her things. And hey, that’s nice, right? This is the type of perspective we could only get from an adult narrator, but I think Green does an incredibly good job of keeping the scope small until the last few pages. We don’t get the impression (or I didn’t) that Aza is an adult until we need to.
In my experience--and trust, I have read a lot of YA books--it’s highly unusual for the novel to end with saying that the big high school romance you read about isn’t forever. It’s hard for actual high schoolers to have that worldview, probably, and their relationships seem very important to them at the time. But I think Aza’s perspective is really refreshing, even if it took her years and therapy to get there. Her relationship with Davis is definitely a good thing, a thing that taught her about herself and how she is with other people, but it wasn’t something she was bound to for the rest of her life. I’m a pretty practical person, I think, and was even more practical and to the point as a high schooler, so I wish I’d had this book then. I wish that there’d been a story for me that said, hey, you’re feeling things now that are important, but it’s not like this forever.
Aza’s therapy seems like a process, which is great. She doesn’t magically come to any conclusions. She has to WORK to make sense of her life and her OCD. BUT we know that she still has a great life with kids and someone she loves! That is the best sort of ending, the realistic sort that tells the reader, you know, life is really crappy sometimes but the good things make it really worth it.
I’m just happily surprised by the portrayal of OCD and I can’t stop recommending it to my friends. Overall, I wish I’d had this book when I was younger, and I think it’s a good read for anyone, all-ages. It’s also made me curious to hear more about Green’s personal experiences with OCD via his YouTube videos. As someone who has previously felt apprehensive of Green’s work in the past, I give this book a 5/5. It’s good and important stuff.
Todd: Agreed! It seems obvious, looking back now, that Green felt a little apprehensive about what to write after the success of A Fault in Our Stars. Five years is not that long in the grand scheme of things, but can feel like forever, especially, I would assume, in the YA market. But Green took his time and ended up with what I think is one of his greatest works as a writer. Aza and all of the other characters in the book feel like specific, real people. The stuff that normally annoys people in Green’s novels--overly articulate teens, loose plotting--are still there, but the novel is, as you said, “good and important stuff,” and I think it rises above whatever preconceived ideas people may have about John Green and his other novels.
If nothing else, the novel has a tuatara. 5/5. Read it already!
Mary: *insert pic of Tuatara here*