This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-side. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
No, John Green has not been officially “canceled.” In fact, his work remains quite popular: His latest book, “Turtles All the Way Down” (2017), debuted at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and in 2018 Green confirmed its film adaptation. Last August he announced that he will be publishing his first work of non-fiction in May 2021. So, no, Green isn’t canceled in the sense that we have all agreed to stop reading his work and unsubscribe from his YouTube channel, but he is canceled for me. And he has been for quite some time.
To be truthful, I was always a great admirer of Green’s work, particularly in middle school. His Young Adult fiction is known for its young female readership, something that held true in my school district and friend group. I can’t remember which novel I picked up first, but “The Fault in Our Stars” was undoubtedly my favorite — a love story between two young and beautiful cancer patients? It was as if its sole purpose was to attract romance-giddy teens.
Regardless, by the time I reached high school, I separated myself from his work and most of YA fiction. This isolation wasn’t provoked by a controversy surrounding Green, nor had I simply grown out of the genre; I still loved the glorious romances that were stuffed into my bookshelves. I was just afraid to admit it.
It was around the same time others did fervently stop reading Green’s books because they were “for girls” or “not actually that good” or “overrated.” Maybe other YA fiction readers have encountered the same sentiment — that because we enjoy books with cheesy friendships or coming-of-age themes, we must be superficial. So I can’t blame my first dissociation with Green on him, but I can hold him responsible for the second.
Unfortunately for me and John Green, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when I was 17. It was an odd experience: The diagnosis and the scans and the surgery didn’t feel like they were happening to me, but to someone else. Maybe another me in a different universe, or someone else entirely. Either way, like many survivors of cancer, I had adapted a new perspective. A new way of seeing things, both things trivial and significant, including the way society treats disease and diseased people. Especially John Green.
When I reread “The Fault in Our Stars,” it wasn’t so I could relate to Hazel or Augustus or the other cancer patients depicted. I subconsciously started reading it on one of the dark days anyone fighting illness, whether it be mental or physical, knows well. I picked it up out of muscle memory: I had read it on multiple occasions when I was in need of comfort or a distraction. It was simply one of those times. I depended on the trustworthy characters and their cliché remarks to provide some degree of relief. Something to softly pull me out of my reality and into another.
And the truth is, I both enjoyed and detested the book. Lines like “Grief does not change you Hazel. It reveals you,” and “But I believe in true love, you know? I don’t believe that everybody gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does” stuck out to me. As tacky as they may appear, they were successful in distracting me from my metastatic cancer.
But what also stuck out to me were the fallacies. Green invents the therapy that keeps Hazel alive. It’s not real. In the acknowledgements section of the book, Green writes: “The disease and its treatment are treated fictitiously in this novel. For example, there is no such thing as Phalanxifor. I made it up, because I would like for it to exist.”
And that’s not fair. Not for cancer patients like me whose cancers don’t have definitive treatments; not for those who live in constant uncertainty and fear; not for those who are told that we will just have to monitor our bodies for the rest of our lives, as long as we may live. And I know this is a work of fiction; I know that Green is entitled to create any fantasy he would like. But does fantasy belong in a book about cancer?
Perhaps it is shocking because of Green’s other statements: “This is hopefully not going to be a gauzy, sentimental love story that romanticizes illness and further spreads the lie that the only reason sick people exist is so that healthy people can learn lessons.”
But if the only reason his main character is alive is because of a made-up treatment, isn’t he glamorizing the scarce miracles and hope some cancer patients may have? By keeping Hazel falsely alive to share with us her newfound wisdom upon Augustus’s death, does it not turn into her and her experiences becoming a lesson for healthy people?
And Green does not stop there. The other principal character and cancer patient, Augustus Waters, is said to have just been re-diagnosed with cancer right before embarking on a grand adventure to Amsterdam with Hazel. In what world is that possible? Having Augustus endure the long trip and the exhaustive tours around the city while simultaneously maintaining his emotional and mental capacity is another delusion I cannot forgive.
It is also difficult to ignore the other unreasonable decision to have the two cancer patients share their first kiss inside the Anne Frank house. Not to mention the heedless combination of cancer and the Holocaust, something like a kiss should — and would — never happen inside so sacred a place. Did Green think it would not matter because it is cancer patients performing the act? That they were not normal, healthy people, so in turn their actions should be excused in exchange for pity?
My particular position might make me overly sensitive to Green’s mistakes — but that’s another comment I’m sick of hearing. My sensitivity stems from my truth, as does my criticism. The errors of authors like Green do not deserve to be disregarded because of their merit or their well-intentioned ventures into sensitive subjects. Instead, that’s exactly why they should be held accountable. By putting their work and themselves into the world, they are inviting both criticism and praise.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is expertly problematic because its flaws can be easily overlooked. However, other errors of Green are not so deftly unnoticed: His repetitive usage of the same rudimentary character tropes and his lack of diversity in terms of race, gender and sexuality (noting a few exceptions: Tiny from “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” Hasan from “An Abundance of Katherines,” and Radar from “Paper Towns”) make me wonder why Green has been, and continues to be, such an influential figure in YA fiction, and why he hasn’t been canceled before.
Daily Arts Writer Lilly Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.