Terrible Trivium

My name is Anne Ursu. I write middle grade fiction, teach at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children, and chase around my little boy. I have cats and opinions.

On ‘The John Green Effect,’ Contemporary Realism, and Form as a Political Act

Right now, children’s literature is seeing an intense flare-up in the ongoing conversation about the diversity crisis in children’s books. While this conversation has been going on for decades, now social media has given the people having it megaphones, and they are using them to brilliant ends. The conversation is loud, important, and people are listening.

So naturally the mainstream media uses this time to publish pieces that give a straight white guy credit for revolutionizing the industry.

 Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review featured a rather bizarre review of John Corey Whaley’s Noggin by AJ Jacobs. Noggin is about a boy whose cryogenically-preserved head gets attached to another boy’s body. Remember that part for later. Jacobs begins the review, adorably, by discussing how confusing being a teenager is and how Whaley’s book is a really metaphor for teenage alienation. And then, well, I really need to quote this part:

With Noggin, Whaley is straddling two genres. Its most obvious allegiance is to the category of teenage romances featuring supernatural characters.

 Well, obviously. Guy with cryogenically frozen head gets used to new body=supernatural romance. It must be embarrassing for Whaley to have his influences be so patent.

 Jacobs continues:

 But “Noggin” actually owes more to the John Green genre, which I like to call Greenlit. Green is the master of first-person, funny-sad young adult novels. His most popular — “The Fault in Our Stars” — also has a main character who is battling cancer.

 Ah. “The John Green genre,” and “Greenlit!” Sure! Jacobs is talking with a lot of authority for someone who has no idea what he’s talking about. He’s not alone, though—lots of people who have no idea what they are talking about believe that YA is two genres: Twilight and its imitators and John Green and those he supposedly inspired. Guess which one they think is better?

 The idea that first person funny-sad contemporary YA realism is “the John Green genre” might come as a surprise to all the women who have been writing it for a decade or two or three. I’m sure it came as a surprise to John Corey Whaley, too, who thought he was writing his own books. But both books have cancer in them, so Noggin obviously owes a big debt.

 Jacobs concludes:

Whenever I finish a novel with a high concept, I do a little test and ask if the book would hold up if the conceit were magically stripped away, if you removed the gimmicks and were left with only the emotional skeleton.

 First off, the equation between “high concept” and “gimmick” is reductive, demeaning, and highly revelatory. We could spend a long time unpacking the biases there. Secondly, how is this any different than evaluating realism? Don’t we, as readers, hope for all our literary stories to have a strong emotional skeleton?

 Finally, Jacob’s “little test” is critically suspect at best. Remember the part about the cryogenically-preserved head? This isn’t a gimmick, it isn’t frou frou; it’s an essential part of the story, a deliberate choice made by the author to deliberate ends. And I’m just not sure you’re supposed to evaluate surrealism by removing the surreal parts so you can evaluate the parts you understand.

 One thing we’ve learned: it’s all-too-easy to let popular narrative guide your views on YA—certainly much easier than ever researching or reading in the field you are talking about. These articles about YA are based entirely on accepted truths from people who live entirely outside the field; they keep getting perpetuated, and everyone nods sagely as someone else proclaims John Green is saving poor teenage girl readers from those silly silly vampire books.

 Why, just yesterday the WSJ featured a big profile on Green in conjunction with The Fault in our Stars release. And it would have been so easy for them to just write a good, accurate profile of a highly successful, really interesting author with a movie coming out. But the article just has to overstep:

Some credit him with ushering in a new golden era for contemporary, realistic, literary teen fiction, following more than a decade of dominance by books about young wizards, sparkly vampires and dystopia. … He’s thrown his weight behind several young-adult authors who write realistic novels and are now regarded as rising stars, including Rainbow Rowell, E. Lockhart, and A.S. King.

Well. Yes, some do credit him with that. But not anyone who knows what they are talking about.

 Rainbow Rowell is a star, but she rose to prominence last year, so calling her a rising star isn’t wholly ignorant, just a little behind the times; more, while John Green did give her a good review in the NYTBR, it’s demeaning to Rowell’s talent and accomplishments to credit her blockbuster success to it. And, speaking of demeaning, A.S. King and e. lockhart are John Green’s peers. They are stars, entirely on their own merit. They are blazing trails, not following them.  The idea that their success has anything at all to do with John Green’s weight can only be entertained if you think that stuff men do is just inherently more important. (And that John Green can time travel.)

Of all the ludicrous and sexist things that have been said about YA of late, this one is the most ludicrous and sexist. But it’s a particularly flagrant example of what’s been happening in the conversion for years. And there’s something really troubling about it all—in a field where the books supposedly appeal primarily to teenage girls, where the stars are innovative and brilliant authors who are predominantly female, we’re telling these readers that maybe they can aspire to growing up to be influenced by a guy, too.

 Also, A.S. King and e. lockhart do not write realism. There’s so much ignorant and insulting about the way they were positioned in that article, and it seems particularly cruel to deny these authors their immense sophistication and ingenuity—and then credit their success to someone who writes much more conventionally. King’s books are magical realism, as is lockhart’s latest (and her previous books all use postmodern techniques). Magical realism is actually an entirely separate genre from realism. 

 This is important: when the magic in magical realism is treated as irrelevant or erased, critics are taking a profound literary tradition and robbing it of its significance and import, erasing it altogether. And since this is a genre that rose out of and has been perpetuated by authors from Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, (and whose practitioners in this country are predominantly female and of color) that gets pretty disturbing.

 The American literary canon defaults to realism. Novels that don’t fit in this mold are seen in dominant literary culture as other—a deviation from the norm. You can see this bias all through this article—the quotes from editor Zareen Jaffery and agent Michael Bourret as presented* imply that only characters in realism can be relatable, and only realistic stories can be character-driven.

 Which is poppycock.  

 (*For the record, I don’t buy for a second that either of them said those words in that order.)

 Realism is a construct, the same as any other genre. In America, it sits in a place of privilege as something more literary and authentic—but this is about nothing but tradition. And it’s a tradition of white male authors and the white male critics who canonized them.   

 In American theater in the mid-20th century, serious plays tended to work a certain way; this is the well-made play—realistic domestic dramas with unity of place and time. This is the theater of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—all still considered the titans of American Theater. But around the 1960’s, voices started to rise up from the margins, and the dominant form didn’t work for stories they wanted to tell. The feminists, the writers of color, the LGBT writers exploded conventions in the structure and language of theater. For so long, realism was the standard, but for these writers, form was political—and they had to remake it in order to tell their own stories.

 Naturally, certain people get unhappy when anyone from the margins remakes anything. Young playwrights are still often taught that the correct method of storytelling in theater is the well-made play. And those game-changing contributions from feminist, black, Latin, Native, and LGBT playwrights still get treated as “other,” as fodder for diversity day on the syllabus instead of essential texts in understanding the history and capacity of theater.

 And, as much as those who clutch to realism as standard would deny it, this too is political.

 So the peculiar canonization of John Green and this string of bizarre articles that anoint him as the vanguard of a post-sparkly-vampire seriousness in YA isn’t simply about taking a white male more seriously than everyone else. It’s also about privileging a certain narrative structure—the dominant narrative’s dominant narrative. It’s not only that Green is a straight white man, it’s that he writes in the way that generations of straight white men have deemed important and Literary. And in art, the remaking of form has historically made the establishment very uncomfortable. There’s so much innovation in YA (and, hi, middle grade!) and its audience is wonderfully open to new stories told in new ways. By holding up Green as an exemplar, by shoving his peers into his shadow, these critics are telling writers who might be innovating: if you want to be important, write like him.

 It’s not just YA, of course. Recently the New Yorker posted an essay by Junot Díaz about his experience in an MFA program, “MFA vs POC.”

 The title pretty much sums it up. The essay is devastating if you care about literature, young writers, or, you know, human beings. Díaz recounts the misery of being a person of color in a program where whiteness is considered the norm, and where no one ever thinks there’s any reason to question that norm. Of course, this showed up in everyone’s writing:

 From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.

This is a literary tradition perpetuating itself by ignoring other voices, treating them as unserious. It’s normalizing one type of storytelling and casting the others as suspect. And, among many other things, it’s going to make our literature really boring.

 This isn’t to say that contemporary realism belongs to white men alone; for recent example, Pointe by Brandy Colbert and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina use the form beautifully, and to affecting, important, and political ends. In their hands, realism becomes a tool for speaking truths about gender, race, and class.

It is one way. But it is not the only way.

 Fantastical elements, non-linear storytelling, unconventional language, postmodernism, experimentation and innovation—these elements tend to otherize a book in our literary culture. But why? Why is a fantasy less serious? Why is it okay to strip the magic from magical realism? This is a reactionary response, based on long literary history, and it’s all about power.

 We need diverse books. In children’s literature, this is urgent for the well-being of our kids. But it’s also about the well-being of literature itself. Art thrives on being challenged and questioned and pushed—and it’s not the establishment writers and critics who are going to do it. Every single writer benefits from reading stories that play with language and structure and reality—and so do the readers.

 We need diverse books, but it’s going to be hard to get them when we keep privileging a certain narrative structure, when we keep erasing the elements that make a book unconventional, and when we ignore decades of female writers to canonize one of the white men who follow the path they laid out. This idea of a white male vanguard leading a revolution in realism is reactionary on so many levels. It’s time to stop it. It’s time to start looking ahead.