Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Okay? Maybe. Okay.

In the book The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (which you may have heard of), the narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, talks about her favorite book in this manner:

"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal."

I used to feel like the former towards TFIOS, but these days, I feel like the latter.


I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of my reaction when I received my copy of The Fault in Our Stars, back in 2012. Mine was pre-ordered, one of the first copies that John had signed. I knew about it for about a year - I had fallen into the sinkhole of the YouTube community sometime in 2011, and while the admiration and obsession had now somewhat dimmed, back then, I hung on to every word like it was an anchor in an increasingly drifting life.

Of course I knew what it was going to be about. John had read the first two chapters on the Vlogbrothers channel, and for most of October and November, he had been talking about (and filming) each and every process of the book's publication. But I wasn't expecting the strength of the undertow of his words to suck me in and pull me under. It's very hard to talk about a book that most people - who may have never read it or have never gotten past its label as "young adult literature" - would either deride or dismiss as something beneath their notice.

But I am, first and foremost, a lover of stories. And perhaps unlike many of my peers and colleagues, I had never "grown up" and read adult literature, whatever that might mean as well. I mean, I read books - books that people recommend and books that people say are good and books whose covers are interesting or written by authors whose earlier stuff I had read and was eager to look for more of their work. I'm not sure if that would classify as "adult literature". Many of the canon literature books, I've never read, or I've tried reading and failed miserably, relying on adaptations or transliterations in order to be able to participate in the cultural conversation. Most of what I read are considered genre literature: high fantasy, science fiction, young adult. Not exactly a place where academics come out and play.

So for the longest time, the books I love have stayed in certain circles: book clubs, Internet communities, friends. I teach the books I love to my students in the hopes that they would love them as well, but I also knew that it may have been futile to ask them to read stories that may never stick to their soul the way so many stories have stuck to mine. The way The Fault in Our Stars has stuck to mine.

It's hard to articulate what has made this book in particular something special. I've heard friends and acquaintances wax poetic about books and stories and poems that have made them writers and creators and storytellers, and for the longest time, my answers were simply variants of what I had been reading at the time. I cannot relate personally to the struggles that Hazel and Augustus experience during the course of the novel - I have never had cancer before; none of the people I knew who had cancer had survived. (To be fair, they were elderly and I was either too young or out of the country to remember them without the tinge of childhood nostalgia.) The closest I've come to it is the fact that the love of my life is a survivor of pediatric cancer, and he's been declared cancer-free for a decade and a half now.

It's also not the fact that it's an eminently quotable book. Off the top of my head, I've always been fond of phrases such as "Some infinities are bigger than other infinities," or "The world in not a wish-granting factory," or other Encouragement-like phrases that would look good on a poster or on a Tumblr post. Perhaps if you or I read these lines in a book of poetry, where life and the universe and the mysteries of existence are distilled into pure form, pure words, then many of us would not be as derisive about it.

I'm not sure if it's because of the way it handles the romance of falling in love as a teenager, which is a very different experience from falling in love as an adult. The not-jaded part of me still remembers to sheer joy and utter devastation of love and loss, when you still don't know how to build your shields against a cruel and unfeeling world that will, ultimately, not care who you are or what you have done in order to be remembered. When you fall in love for the first time, everything is magnified, made whole and new again by this buoyant, crushing feeling that is inexorably tied to another person.

Before we watched the film, I had been resistant to watching it, and refused to catch it during the opening weekend. John had been talking about the film for awhile now, ever since it was optioned by Fox, and there was that part of me that was wondering why I was so sensitive and vulnerable about the film. And even when reviews came in and people started talking about it and it became a part of the conversation - never had I seen so many people on Facebook and Twitter start asking whether they should read the book (YES READ THE BOOK BEFORE YOU WATCH THE MOVIE) or people who have been saying they like it, they hate it, they don't know what makes it the way it is, and then I suddenly realized that this novel that has been part of the fabric of my online life has now suddenly filtered into my offline life, my "real world".

And it scared the shit out of me.


Here's the thing about The Fault in Our Stars: it's a beautiful book if you are predisposed to liking beautiful things. Of course, that is a very subjective statement, and is open to interpretation. But I guess my thing about it is that now that it's become part of the current cultural conversations happening around us - among the many, many cultural conversations happening around us - is that it has opened up a whole discussion of whether or not young adult fiction should be taken seriously, should be read by adults, should be read by adults proudly, so on and so forth.

And to be, I think that if you're already predisposed to Not Liking Something, then nothing anyone says or does will make a difference to you. If you think that it's just a hype, or that it's too popular because OMG popular things = terrible things, then maybe you should also examine your own prejudices when it comes to consuming and engaging cultural content. Not everything will be on the level of Van Gogh or Mozart or Shakespeare. Of course not. These people, and many others, stand on the shoulders of forgotten creators, of failed creators, of creators who were perhaps popular during their time but never really made it through that test of time. (It's called a test for a reason.) But as another popular movie about a rat who wanted to be a chef says:

Will there always be bad art? Of course - those that champion narrow-mindedness and ignorance and reduces the world to binaries - black and white, good and evil, us and them. But who are we to say that something is terrible simply because it is popular or because it is new or because it says something universal about the human experience that is increasingly more diverse and complex than ever before? Why impose your own individual standards to creators and writers and artists who are telling good, skillfully crafted, humorous, universal stories?


Regarding the film: of course I cried. I cried when I re-read the book a couple of nights before we watched the film - quiet, heaving sobs in the middle of the night, my eyes watering over the page.

In the film, I started crying when Hazel (Shailene Woodley) was getting ready to attend Gus' (Ansel Elgort) funeral. For a moment, staring at her, I could see the echo of another pediatric cancer victim, Esther Earl, whose own life and friendship to John and her importance to Nerdfighteria cannot be ignored. And while Hazel is not Esther, in the same way that Shailene is not Hazel, there was still an echo, a trick of light and camera and movement, that made me imagine: what if?

And so I sat in the darkness of the movie theatre, I mourned the life of a person I had never met, but had inadvertently touched the life I am living now, mediated by stories and words and images, and grieving for the other "What ifs" that had been lost, their stories untold and forgotten.

And it made me thankful that there are stories like these, like The Fault in Our Stars, like any other piece of literature that has touched the very core of you not because you are an academic or a teacher or too cool for school, but because you are a person, goddammit, and storytelling is your birthright.

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