Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Starmakers

(Expands upon a comment to Laurie Halse Anderson's post, shared by Jo Knowles.)

I've been pretty conflicted about the whole John Green controversy. To summarize said controversy: in any given week in at least the past few months, John Green has held a huge number of the top slots on the YA bestseller lists. Often, other slots go to authors he has mentioned on his blog or otherwise promoted. John Green is a straight cis white male, and most of his main characters fit into most or all of those categories.

My conflict: these complaints come from a place I respect. As you probably realize if you've read this blog before, it is very important to me that literature for young people and otherwise represent people who are not straight, not cis, not white, and/or not male. But at the same time, I respect John Green. I enjoy his work, I can't in all honesty deny that I'm at least a little bit of a nerdfighter, and I can't imagine he'd disagree that it's important to show characters who are not straight, not cis, not white, and/or not male. Becoming anti-John Green doesn't feel right to me, but neither does dismissing the representation concerns.

Here's the view I think I've settled on, and it's quite similar to Laurie Halse Anderson's: John Green is one of many good YA authors. (To add to LHA's impressive list: Sara Farizan! Benjamin Alire Saenz! Walter Dean Myers! e.E. Charlton-Trujillo! Nova Ren Suma! Jo Knowles! Laurie Halse Anderson!) And JG does write outside his own experience. Hazel Grace is a notable exception to the "male" category and is also a well-rounded portrayal of someone with a significant illness. One of the two Will Graysons is an exception to the "straight" category; yes, the wonderful David Levithan wrote half that novel, but I bet JG's involvement helped it reach many of its readers.

The problem is that when the mainstream media, especially the media outside of exclusively kid/yalit outlets, focuses so much attention on one author, it puts pressure on that author to be the answer to all of YA's problems. It's not necessarily JG's job to check off every representation box. It's The Damn Media's job, and it's our job as gatekeepers, to show the public how many choices are out there.

ETA: It was pointed out to me that many writers simply feel uncomfortable writing about the experiences of other races, which I think is reasonable. I've made some very tentative attempts at it in my own writing and hope to do more, but I'll admit that I second-guess myself constantly. To my mind, this is another reason why it should not be on one writer's shoulders to represent everyone who needs to be represented; it's also a good reason that we need to pay attention to a variety of writers.


  1. This is the first I'm hearing of this. I like to keep my head in the sand when the complainers swarm but I have to call BS on this. Diversity should be a priority in YA, in all fiction, and quite frankly in anything. You're right that it isn't John Green's job to cater to everyone but I think he's done an above average job of addressing the issue.

    You make a good point about Will Grayson; even if David Levithan wrote the gay characters JG's name is on the book and that gave it some clout. Aside from Takumi in Looking For Alaska I can't think of an ethnic character in a JG novel. That said -- hello, has everyone forgotten Looking For Alaska? The whole story revolves around a very dynamic and complex *female* character. (to say nothing of Margo in Paper Towns) I don't know how many male authors are writing from a female POV like he did in TFIOS but I bet there aren't many.

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    2. The main character's best friend (Hassan) in Abundance of Katherines isn't white.

      Most of his female main characters do fall into the manic pixie dream girl category, for better or worse.

  2. Ah good catch, thank you. I read Katherines so long ago it completely slipped my mind.