My completely one-sided relationship with John Green and his novels goes back nearly five years. Shortly after signing with Random House for the rights to SO SHELLY, my editor assigned me to read Green’s award-winning, debut novel “Looking for Alaska.” I assumed she saw similarities in our subject matter and writing styles and, perhaps, even wanted me to mimic Green. I remember reading “Looking for Alaska” and thinking, “It’s good but no better than SO SHELLY.” I now shudder at my audacity in the light of Green’s success with “The Fault in Our Stars.” Later, when SO SHELLY appeared in Random House’s spring catalog for 2011, I noticed the descriptive text read, “For fans of ‘Looking for Alaska.'” One reviewer of SO SHELLY actually wrote “Shelly reminds me of John Green’s female characters all mixed in one – over-dramatic, over-loving, and never falling for the right guy. And always with a mission in mind. The clues she leaves also remind me of Paper Towns (a novel I highly suggest if you loved this one). I couldn’t help but love her and her undying love for Gordon, the unattainable male that actually does love Shelly in a way that really cannot be described. . . . Lovers of John Green will fall in love with this novel.” Little did I know then what a compliment that would become in retrospect.
I do see the similarities in our work, if, sadly, not in our degree of success, but remember that “The Fault in Our Stars” is Green’s fifth novel. I’m only working on number three. For all of his many and obvious talents as a writer, Green may be even more so a marketing genius who was way ahead of most authors in understanding the need to build his career himself, brand himself, build platforms, and utilize all facets of the Internet to build relationships with his audience. For example, Green and his brother Hank produce a popular video channel on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/mrgz78g), and he earned an abundance of attention for “The Fault in Our Stars” by taking on the herculean task of signing all 150,000 copies of the novel’s first print run. Although my teaching career prevents me from devoting anywhere near as much time to promotion as Green does, I am learning from his endeavors. As for our similarities as writers, I see that we both write contemporary YA; we’re both dudes in a genre dominated by female writers; we both routinely explore the themes of love and death (which I have always maintained are the only two things worth writing about and that all other themes are somehow derivative of); neither of us is shy about including coarse language and portraying sexual situations in a blunt and honest manner; neither of us are particularly devoted to happy endings; we both regularly allude to classic works of literature; and we both tend to show off our vocabularies.
Since my first exposure to the work of John Green, I have followed his career with great interest (and now, if I’m being honest, envy), and I have read a couple more of his novels: “Paper Towns” and “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.” The latter he co-authored with David Levithan. Both books failed my 100-page test; whereby, I give a novel one hundred pages to hook me. If it hasn’t by that juncture, I stop reading and shelve the book. This is not to say that the problem necessarily lies with the author. Sometimes, I am not in the appropriate head space, or the story is simply so outside of my life experiences that I cannot relate to it. Many of these novels I return to later and find engaging on a second read.
I recently finished (It clearly passed the 100-page test!) “The Fault in Our Stars.” I have not yet, however, finished wrapping my brain around it. I need to ruminate a while before making any formal comments or criticisms. Knowing how difficult the craft of fiction is, I typically hesitate to write formal reviews, but I do plan to share some of my thoughts in my next blog post. So, please, check back soon.