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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

TFIOS

I've become minorly obsessed with a book, but in a strange way.
The book is The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.
This book was originally recommended to me by my brother, who loved the book.
I read it eagerly, fully expecting to also love it. We usually agree on these things.
Unfortunately, I didn't. I hated it...with a passion.
In my Goodreads review I called it "the worst novel I have ever read".
So why have I become so obsessed with it?
Well, because practically everyone else on the planet absolutely loves this book, and I am genuinely confused about how my experience can be so vastly different from the masses.
When things like this generally happen, I assume that people are stupid and have bad taste. That usually holds true with most popular movies that get scathing reviews from critics, but then are loved by the general public.
The problem is that this book is loved by people who I already know to generally have good taste. Thus my confusion.
The book has been a #1 best seller for quite some time now, and has an average 5 star rating on Amazon, with over 20,000 reviews.
I gave it 1 star.
If Goodreads had allowed it, I would have given it half a star. Maybe even no stars.
I've been sincerely trying to figure out why everyone loves this book so much, but so far no one has provided any kind of perspective that has shed any light on the issue. All I'm hearing is people saying that this is the best book they have ever read, or that it is the best book they have read it years. They talk about how beautiful it is, and how it made them cry. They talk about how much they love the characters and the dialog, and how relatable it was. I didn't get any of that...

(If you love this book and chose to read further, buckle up, because I'm going to get into my criticisms. But if you stick it out to the end, hopefully you will understand what I am trying to do.)

Here is a brief summary of my complaints:
-Amateur writing. (I felt like I was reading the poorly-developed philosophical musings of a blogger.)
-Unrealistic, overly-mature teenage characters. (I've never met teenagers who act, or talk, like that.)
-Inconsistent literary style and grammar. (He switches dialog methods seemingly at random, and uses a lot of trendy blog-style grammar.)
-Non-stop pretentious philosophizing from the main characters. (Obvious observations about life, but when you throw an existential twist on them, suddenly they are supposed to be profound.)
-Boring, repetitive, incredibly predictable and formulaic. (I kept notes on my thoughts while reading it, and I specifically predicted several major events.)
-Generally cheesy and overly-sentimental. (This made the book feel unauthentic to me, and had a distinct romance novel feel, which, let's be honest, is not great literature.)
-Cancer kids AND the holocaust worked into the same book? Talk about over-playing your emotional hand.

Literary qualms aside, the thing that ruined this book for me was how unauthentic and insincere it felt. The main characters were so thin and unbelievable, that it prevented me from forming any kind of emotional connection. Basically, I just didn't care about the characters or the story, and I couldn't wait for the it to be over.
I had a friend in high school who died of cancer just a few months after graduation, and I feel like the approach John Green takes just doesn't translate to real life. It's just emotional fantasy.

My best working theory so far is that there are two types of people when it comes to media. Those who experience things intellectually, and those who experience things emotionally. I don't think anyone is solidly in one camp or the other, everyone is mixed; but I think our acceptance of a work is primarily based on our initial reaction from whichever side we favor. For me, if something doesn't work on an intellectual level, I won't be able to form an emotional connection. For others, it seems that the intellectual aspects are validated because of the emotional response the novel generates in them.

Here are a few discussion points I've heard from people since reading the book. First, my literary qualms. Ok, so this book is written in first person perspective, and it isn't made clear if the book is supposed to be Hazel's own writings, or just her internal narration. I can see how if this were her writing, a teenager, some of the strange dialog and grammar choices might makes sense. I still don't like it, but it would at least be fitting of the context of an amateur teenage writer.
Also, many people are saying that I can't complain about the grammar because grammar is more of an art than a science, and grammar is used artistically to convey the meaning of the story. I fundamentally disagree with this statement. Writing is an art, and grammar is a tool of the art. I believe that anything you can express through writing, can be expressed using proper grammar. If you start using certain punctuation marks in ways that they were not intended, it becomes confusing, and will not endure, especially as the societal understanding of that grammar fad shifts. Furthermore, how can you ever critique, or correct, or edit a work when the spelling, style, and grammar are vapid? Yes, I know of great works of literature that are great because of words they invent, or ways they play with language and grammar, but I believe that those exceptions are rare, and self-evident, and I don't think there is anything about TFIOS that proves that it is better with unconventional grammar.
Next, the unrealistic characters. I have been informed that it is just John Green's style to have overly-mature quirky teenage characters. Ok, fine. I don't like it, it doesn't work for me, but that's his thing, so if you can relate, good for you.
I will say that even though I think John Green is a terrible writer, I like him as a person. When I first read TFIOS, I had never seen, or heard, anything else he had done. Since then I have become aware of his popular YouTube channel. Generally, I like him. I like his style, I like his personality, and I like the content he presents. I have nothing against John Green, but as an outsider looking in, it is obvious to me that the majority of his success comes from the cult-like following he has gained. His self-named nerd fighters obsessively absorb every word that comes out of his mouth, and immediately agree with everything he says or does. To them, John Green can do no wrong. Instead of thinking about things for themselves, they wonder what John Green thinks about something, watch one of his videos, and immediately adopt his opinions as their own. He has basically set himself up as the figurehead for every lonely, awkward, social outcast. He's made it cool to be uncool. This seems to be the primary reason why an otherwise mediocre writer would be catapulted to the status of bestselling author. It's basically the same as Twilight hysteria, but for nerds. I have no problem with John Green, but I do have a problem with the hundreds of thousands of obsessive followers. There is something wrong there.
Lastly, I understand that John Green's writing of TFIOS was influenced by his time as a student chaplain at a children's hospital, and from his interactions with a real girl who had cancer, named Esther Earl. While I admire and respect any effort to memorialize this girl's experience, that doesn't mean that the resulting product is worthy of the same respect. Basically, Esther Earl's story is touching and inspiring; John Green's resulting novel is not; at least not for me. I feel like he would have been better off actually writing the story of Esther Earl rather than a teenage romance novel with terminally ill cancer patients.

Ok, if you've made it this far, good job. Hopefully you don't hate me because I hate  your favorite book.
So why am I writing all of this? Like I said, I've sort of become obsessed with figuring out why people like this book. In an attempt to understand the appeal of the book, I've decided to read it for a second time. This time, before reading it, I am going to educate myself with all of the material I can find on Esther Earl, and John Green's experiences that led up to this book. I am also going to take notes while reading, but this time I am going to focus on things I like about the book. I am also going to temporarily adopt, for the purposes of this experiment, the idea that an author of YA lit can take liberties with language that I otherwise disagree with. Basically I'm trying to be more open minded about TFIOS and see where that gets me. I'll still be honest about my impressions of the book though. I'm even using my favorite book mark, as a token of good will, so to speak.
After I read the book for the second time, I am going to see the movie which was just released, which is getting extremely positive reviews.
After I do all that. I'll write a new review and see how my impressions have changed.

So that's my plan. Wish me luck.


5 comments:

Samantha Tek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samantha Tek said...

Dang it. I shouldn't have read this UNTIL I was done with the book. LOL

Robby Spratt said...

I wouldn't worry too much. Clearly I'm in the minority. You'll probably like it just fine. By the way, I'll give you a little advanced info that I actually am enjoying it more the second time. :)

Emmy said...

I'm shocked that you're reading this again! After reading your post on Goodreads a few months back, I was a bit surprised you didn't just burn your copy! But, I am curious to hear about how you liked it the second time around. Be sure to share your thoughts.

I attempted to read the book and had to stop. I thought it was that bad. My coworkers have been bugging me about reading it again, but I just don't think I can bring myself to do it. Still, best of luck to you!

Robby Spratt said...

I don't actually own a copy. I'm borrowing my brother's copy. Actually, the first time I read it was an eBook on my phone. Not exactly the most pleasant reading experience. When I started talking about reading it again, my brother recommended that I read his copy that has his favorite parts highlighted.
So far I am liking it slightly better, but only marginally. I'll write another review as soon as I finish.