Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 30, 2014

The YA Question, Part 1: John Green, _The Fault in Our Stars_

THIS PAST SPRING, I taught for the eighth or ninth time a course called "Modern Novel." As usual, for the final paper, the students had to read, research, and write on a recent (since 2000) novel of their own choosing. No student had before proposed reading a Young Adult novel, but this year four of them did, nominating The Book Thief, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and this one.

I decided to let all four projects proceed, although I asked the students to include in their papers discussion of the question of YA's relationship to other literary fiction. Basically, they all decided YA was OK.

The question has been circulated a good deal lately, thanks to Ruth Graham at Slate, who took the not-all-that-OK position, and the many people who responded to her. Since, in the line of professional duty, I actually did read The Fault in Our Stars, I figured I was qualified to ring in.

The novel is the first person narrative of a 16-year-old girl who has cancer. In a support group, she meets a boy her age who is in remission after a leg amputation. They fall in love, partly out of shared fandom, both being devotees of a (fictional) novel, An Imperial Affliction. Mystified by the novel's lack of  a proper ending, they use a Make-A-Wish Foundation sort of gift to go to Amsterdam to interview its famously reclusive and curmudgeonly author. No luck on that front, but they do consummate their relationship. However, it turns out the boy's cancer has returned; the last third or so of the book is about his dying.

I would say this is certainly an above-average YA novel. The narrator had her appealing side--she's a reader, obviously, and she was attractively impatient with cliché and even snarky about the support group's drumbeat of positive thoughts. I also appreciated the message that love, even when brief, temporary, and abruptly terminated, even with its promise of inevitable pain, is worthwhile; "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all," as Tennyson wrote, or, as Eliot wrote of "the awful daring of a moment's surrender," "by this, and this only, have we existed." As it may not be a good idea for a 14- or 15-year-old to tackle In Memoriam or The Waste Land, it's good to have something like The Fault in Our Stars around.

However--if one is a grown-up, and capable of reading grown-up books, one is better off doing exactly that, methinks. Given that in this brief, temporary, likely to be abruptly terminated life, one has only so much time to read, you should choose wisely how to spend that time. I acknowledge that my position goes against our broad American follow-your-bliss ethos, but suppose you had a 40-year-old friend who every day had Froot Loops for breakfast, macaroni and cheese for lunch, and pizza for dinner.  Suppose further this friend got no exercise.

Wouldn't you say, "You can't keep eating like a teenager"? Doesn't that guy (has to be a guy, don't you think?) need to re-evaluate how he follows his bliss?

One has to be mindful of the nourishment one takes in and the exercise one gets, no?

The mind too needs nourishment, and the mind too needs exercise. The adult mind is not going to get what it needs from YA.

No comments: