Monday, November 7, 2011

John Green

Butler blows me away with its visiting writers series. Last week brought YA (Young Adult) author John Green. For those of you without resident tweens or teens, Green's most well-known titles are "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines." I've never given much thought to YA books, but Green's talk was eye-opening.

According to Green there are two camps of YA literature. The first is typified by the Chris Crutcher-type book, one that aims to help kids feel less alone by giving them a group to identify with. The second camp focuses on the "I," emphasizing that every person (teen) is unique. These 'second camp' books are inherently empathetic. According to Green, books that fall into the first camp miss the point. Despite that we need stories about under-served populations, these 'first camp' books are not the be-all, end-all of reading.

The most notable thing about Green was the sincere affection and appreciation he expressed toward his readers. He gave the impression that his work isn't an entity separate from his fan base, but that the two are part of a whole. He originally built this fan base by engaging in a project of video blogs, or vlogs, with his brother. The project's premise -- which became wildly popular -- was that the only communication between the brothers would be through their published video blogs.

Green spoke about his authorly beginnings, entering ISBN codes into a computer for Booklist. Despite the scut-work nature of his job Green made a point to remain friendly and helpful. When Booklist needed someone to review books about Islam, they asked Green, as he had studied Islamic culture in college. After 9/11, the number of books about Islam mushroomed, and Green's career was headed in a more literary direction. When Booklist's reviewer George Cohen died, Green given Cohen's old "carnival gig," which included books about conjoined twins, and little people. It was around this time that Green also started reviewing YA literature. At first Green looked down at the genre, thinking it would consist of simplistic, moralistic titles like "Don't Bring Your Gun to School." But at closer look he saw a community of YA writers who were writing great stuff -- unpretentious, and not overwhelmed by irony. This was when Green caught the YA bug. He joked that he thought that by writing YA he could steer clear of the cut-throat, Pulitzer-seeking competition of the adult literary community; this didn't turn out to be the case, though.

In characterizing the YA genre, Green said that, in general, stories in this genre don't employ narrative distance -- the story happens in real time. He used "Catcher in the Rye" as an example of a story that does employ narrative distance -- within those pages there is a consciousness that a few years have passed between the telling of the story and when the story happened.

Green said these things about his work: his books often change plot dramatically while he writes; he needs lots of guidance, and has had one editor who has been invaluable. Green commented that he feels a duality in his writing: both confident (brilliant, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald felt) and despondent, as if he's the "worst writer ever." Expanding on this Green said that without confidence he can't write well, but without doubt he loses the sense that he's fallible.

We MFA students had the chance to chat with Green over lunch and then at the Q&A that followed. Throughout this two-hour chunk of time, the one comment that left the biggest impression was when Green spoke about why he writes. He reported that he struggles with depression and anxiety, and writing makes him feel less crazy. Writing does that, doesn't it? It helps us to make sense of the world, and helps us to understand ourselves. Green added that modern society is one of surfaces. We skim, surf the web, and employ a million distractions to escape from the ennui and boredom of life. For Green, writing makes this feeling go away. "It's contemplative. It feels like paying attention. I need to write to be engaged in the world," said Green.


  1. This is a wonderful recap, Susan, as accessible as the writer you summarize.

  2. Was unable to attend, so thanks for taking me there, Susan.

  3. Not only does Green love his readers, but they adore him. Clowe's was filled with teens hanging on his every word during his presentation there. A treat to see.