I’m surprised not more people have responded to the link I shared last week to the New York Times Book Review of Andrew Smith’s Winger which spends a hefty chunk of the review discussing John Green and “Green Lit.”
I’ve read Winger and I have read Looking for Alaska. Yes, both books are set in boarding schools. Yes, both books are narrated by male protagonists. Yes, both books are contemporary/realistic. Yes, both books are written by male YA authors.
But that’s about where their comparisons end.
This post isn’t about those two books and comparisons, though. It’s about the fact we need to stop being so damn reductive in how we talk about YA books.
It wasn’t too long ago when all associations to YA fiction came through Twilight. The joke was that all YA books were bad knock offs or were filled with sparkly vampires. When books like The Hunger Games came out, people took to it a little slower, skeptical because it defied some of the expectations of what YA lit was and wasn’t — Collins’s book is no Twilight, so suddenly, the frame of reference shifted.
Now, of course, we’re in the hey day of John Green mania. He’s racked up almost every accolade possible, and everyone and their mother and their aunt and their uncle has read The Fault in Our Stars. It’s GREAT that the world of YA grows as more people read it. And it’s great that good, strong books are getting recognition and are getting recognition as books written for a young adult audience. No one is comparing John Green’s oeuvre to Twilight because his books are “nothing like that.” Even though Green writes for a YA audience and even though this book is being seen as an amazing contribution to YA from readers who’d otherwise eschew these books, many readers only have him as their frame of reference. That then limits their own view of YA and — in this case — contemporary realistic YA.
Going back to the New York Times review, AJ Jacobs, who is himself an adult non-fiction writer, talks in depth about all of Green’s accomplishments. He’s sold out Carnegie Hall. He’s never off the NYT Best Sellers List. Even though he didn’t “invent” realistic YA (that honor is given to JD Salinger who, I note, didn’t even write books for young adults, let alone invent realistic YA), Green’s books pretty much define contemporary realistic. Jacobs calls these books “Green Lit,” and they’re books featuring strong dialog with self-aware narrators who have crushes and deal with twists and disobey authority. Writers of realistic fictions are chasing the Green dream, as they want their books to do what it is his books do.
Here’s the thing: not everyone wants to read a John Green book. Not everyone wants to write the John Green book.
Not every book that is set in our world, featuring authentic teen main characters is worth calling “Green Lit.” Because the hallmark of good contemporary realistic fiction is authentic teen characters. They can be funny. They can be heart breaking. They can defy authority. They can fall in love or out of it. They can go to boarding school. They can suffer pain. It doesn’t mean these characters, the readers who want these books, or the authors who write them, are all aiming for the Green dream.
Reducing an entire genre to one person’s books as a source of comparison is limiting and reductive of the nuances, the depth, and the range of voices that exist within it. Believe it or not, John Green is not the be all, end all of contemporary realistic YA fiction. Many amazing authors came before him and wrote with goals to portray real characters in real world situations — Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, SE Hinton, Robert Lipsythe, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier — and many amazing authors came after him and will continue to come after him. Yes, he has spent a long time on the NYT List. Yes, he’s achieved a lot for having such a young career. Yes, he’s easily recognized as one of the great YA authors. Yes, he’s done a lot for the YA community.
But, he’s one person who has written just a few books. He is not the definition of a genre, nor is he the definition of YA.
Comparisons among authors and books are inevitable. They’re an important element of reader’s advisory and they give grounding to new books and voices for readers who want to get a sense of a book’s style. In short reviews, sometimes those comparisons to big, well-known authors is valuable — it’s a quick glance at what readers may like a book. But in an outlet like The New York Times, which is a big space with big readership, why is all of the richness of YA fiction reduced to a single name? And why is the review of Smith’s novel really about Green’s contributions to YA? Why is it written by someone who hasn’t done their homework on the breadth of this field of work?
This chance to offer valuable insight into contemporary realistic fiction — and insight into the broader spectrum of YA — was a blown opportunity. It does service to no one.
I don’t want to spend too much longer thinking or blogging about this, but I do want to raise a question to anyone willing to weigh in here. When we reduce YA to Twilight, it’s meant as a sting and as a means of belittling the field. But when we reduce YA to John Green’s books, it’s meant as an ultimate compliment? Both authors have done exceptionally well. Both have appealed greatly to readers who are young adults and those who aren’t.