Friday, June 6, 2014

Reading like a Teenager and The Fault in Our Stars

It was my plan never to read The Fault in Our Stars, afraid that I would find it maudlin and contrived and unable to hide my cynical critique from the teenagers who populate my life and home and car. Teenagers love John Green's book, and they love it with an unreserved adulation, a wholeness of feeling, an uncritical embrace that seems by turns charmingly and irritatingly naive. It's also slightly surprising, especially in the light of media reports that the younger generation hardly reads anything much longer than a status update anymore, and as a result is in danger of losing the capacity for empathy that novelistic reading provides.

In the end, it wasn't the teenagers who convinced me to read it after all, but a colleague who was reading The Fault In Our Stars while administering a final exam, only to have one student after another deliver a completed test booklet along with a spontaneous exchange about how much he or she loved the book. I wondered whether reading Green's novel might reveal something about this generation to me, and figured that at the very least it would give us something to talk about.

And yet I worried: would this be a story of a hyper-idealistic youthful romance cruelly riven by the tragedy of cancer, an updated version of Love Story, that 1970 sobfest that catalyzed into a source of affective shame for its early adopters? My weird solution to this dilemma was to take to twitter, as if doing so might either ward off or preemptively expose any potential for humiliation. I would tweet my reactions and responses as I read. If I couldn't privately feel this book the way a teenager might, maybe I could at least publicly think this book, the way a teacher of writing or a parent of teenagers might.


It didn't take me long to realize that The Fault in Our Stars is about books and reading, not cancer and dying. We start here: a teenage girl dying of cancer is in love with a book about a teenage girl who is dying of cancer. She meets a boy who is a cancer survivor, they exchange their favorite books, and they fall in love--with each other and with this book, called An Imperial Affliction. This is a kind of triangulated desire (A and C express their desire for each other through their mutual desire for B), but one in which B stands not for a person but for a Book. The problem is that this mutually-adored book ends in the middle of a sentence and Hazel really really wants to know what happened after that, so Augustus cashes in his own extant cancer-kid wish (Hazel has already blown hers on a trip to Disneyland) to take her to Amsterdam, where the novelist lives, so she can ask him what really happens--to its protagonist, but also to her family, her friends, her hamster.

Along the way, Hazel and Augustus and their friend, Isaac--all of whom are missing one working body part or another (lungs, a leg, one and then both eyes)--engage in charmingly wry and improbably witty banter rife with literary references. There is the Shakespeare line that provides the book its title, but in addition the novel makes reference to--in no particular order--Frederick Douglass, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Alan Ginsburg, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Anne Frank, and Soren Kierkegaard. I would like to say it's enough to make a teenage reader of John Green want to read Eliot and Dickinson and Shakespeare, except I have yet to hear of any teenager who has actually done this. What I have heard of is teenagers eager to get their hands on An Imperial Affliction, the book Hazel loves but that does not actually exist in our world. (The Beckett reference should now be kicking in.)

I tweeted much of this kind of meta-commentary as I read. In doing so, I was basically behaving exactly like all of the adults in Green's novel, who lurk in the background, waiting in cars or lobbies or kitchens, ready to offer advice their kids don't really want and which won't really work anyway. In The Fault in Our Stars, adults care, and cry, and grieve, and talk, and drink, but in the end they're pretty useless beings who can't keep their shit together any more than their kids can. As Anne Frank's father reports in the documentary playing as our two cancer kids crawl and limp through her attic: "my conclusion is ... most people don't really know their children."

I was managing to get through a couple of chapters per sitting, posting a handful of tweets each time, trying not to lose my momentum by missing too many days between readings. And then, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way through the book, something shifted. For one thing, I'd stopped tweeting, without even realizing it. It wasn't only because I no longer wanted to stop to tweet; it was because I had nothing to say. I wasn't rowing this boat anymore. I cared about the characters and wanted to get to the end, to know what happened. But it wasn't even really that, because, just like Hazel, I both knew and didn't know what was going to happen. I had fallen in.


I teach a course on theories of the novel, and the students wade through some pretty difficult prose--by Georg Lukacs, Fredric Jameson, Nancy Armstrong, Mikhail Bakhtin--before it even occurs to them to ask how novels do this, how they manage to make us feel that fictional characters (and their often improbable stories) are real to us, how they convince us to care about them, enough to lose ourselves, to let go, to cry, to fall in. Is it just a trick of language, the effect of formal realism's use of concrete particulars, the illusory consciousness created by narrated monologues that are neither entirely inside nor quite outside of a character's head?

Theorists of the novel point to a host of mostly interconnected world historical changes--like global empire, linguistic and cultural contact, nationalism, the growth of cities and suburbs, the Protestant Reformation, print capitalism, the scientific revolution--to explain the emergence of modernity and its signature genre, the novel. If there is one phenomenon running through these changes that align with the world of the novel, it is the arrival of individualism, of selves not only newly isolated from an earlier communal integration but hollowed out by a newly psychologized interior. We tend to read novels alone, in the private domestic spaces of our bedrooms or studies, where we voyeuristically peer into the equally private lives of pretend others.

It can be tempting to see this kind of identification as a self-involved act, a way of pitying or caring about ourselves through a fictional other. This explanation is even more tempting in the case of teenage readers preoccupied by the adolescent melodramas of being perpetually misunderstood, and who are easy to imagine weeping over magnified versions of their own griefs and worries.

But what if it's exactly the opposite? What if at the secret core of novel reading is an experience of losing the self, a de-individualized intersubjectivity in which we are able to forget ourselves by sharing subjective space with another self? This experience of slipping into someone else is by turns freeing and frightening, amazing and--strangely enough--embarrassing. Losing ourselves like that makes us feel like we've lost control, lost our grip, been duped into caring about something that isn't even real. Maybe teenagers can help us get past that last part.


  1. Nice post, thanks. I've taught novel theory for some time, and I agree that the novel=individualism thesis seems to miss the point for a lot of the immersive aspects of reading and enjoyment. Those are the pleasurable forms of de-individuation. Of course, one can read the gothic as a genre that shows what happens when we open ourselves up to (are opened up by) unfriendly outside forces. But I always think there's some kind of dialectic going on between the two modes of novel-reading: as a rooting around in the self, and an exploration of one's affinities with others.

  2. That's an excellent way of putting it, long18th. Maybe there is likewise a dialectic between the pleasures and the fears of de-individuation. Fears: what are we if we lose our selves in this way? Pleasures: what might we become if we lose our selves in this way?

  3. I teach an 18th Century Novel course and use McKeon's _Theory of the Novel_ along side of it. And while mine isn't a comprehensive theory of the novel course, I have (like you) found that while the theory can address the artistic & commercial side of why it emerged and how it developed, it really doesn't address the reader's side of why it was accepted and popular. Even Brewer's amazing _Pleasures of the Imagination_ doesn't get to the aesthetic of reader identification in the early period of the novel. And reader-response theory doesn't really seem to help, either, at least not in the ubiquitous way that novels connect to their readers. Even when my students discuss why they enjoyed (or didn't) _Pamela_ (for instance), they can't really articulate-in terms of a critical response-the difference for them compared with, say, _Moll Flanders_ but they do talk of interioirity and immediacy from an emotion-driven personal response. Perhaps this is the new frontier of novel theory? Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. You raise a great point--it's almost as if our language to describe this kind of emotional response is underdeveloped, and maybe in part because we have not particularly valued such a response or thought of it as having much in the way of critical value. I think we likewise shouldn't under-value the way novels like TFIOS connect people to each other through this shared emotional response. Thanks for your comment!