Wednesday, March 20, 2013

John Green: Critical Essay

"How John Green Won the Internet" was a really interesting article for me to read while researching my final project. Anna Minard does a really great job of giving equal weight to John Green's online persona and his reputation as a writer. It's a interesting hybrid of book review and celebrity profile and helped me to think about how Green functions on multiple levels that need not be mutually exclusive. I also love the last line because I think John Green really represents a contemporary idea of what an author can and should be: someone people can get excited about. 

Process Writing

      Anything having to do with popular culture is like crack to me. When I say I’m watching the news, I mean I’m watching Jason Kennedy and Giuliana Rancic on E!. When I receive a newspaper, I completely ignore the front page stories and go right for the Arts Section. I may not be able to name all the Presidents of the United States, but I can name almost all of the Best Actor and Actress winners for the Academy Awards. To say I’m a fan of popular culture is putting it mildly. With such enthusiasm for the subject matter, I came into Arts Journalism hoping I could transition from fan to critic. I feared that, much like anything else, overanalyzing something I loved might ruin it for me but just the opposite occurred. I came out of this course not only with a deeper appreciation for the art forms themselves, but the professionals who write about them.
      Entertainment Weekly is my gospel and so I’ve read a countless number of film, television, book, and theater reviews which provided me with a solid grounding for my own attempts at critique. While some may have struggled with unfamiliarity with the various subjects and mediums we reviewed, the difficulty I faced had more to do with putting distance between myself and the work. These reviews were supposed to be our opinions, but I was unsure how to balance visceral responses with objective evaluations, especially if I was already intimately acquainted with the work, such as The Hobbit (I have an unhealthy Tolkien obsession) or the Oscars (which I watch religiously each year). So I began approaching my reviews with opposite, but not necessarily opposing, frames of thought.
     I simultaneously tried to look at things from the perspective of a fan and the perspective of someone who was an “outsider” to the artist, form, or franchise. Because what a book, movie, television program or live performance has to offer can vary from person to person based on their background and previous knowledge. Once I began considering the different facets of audience reaction, I was better able to write reviews that examined the work as its own entity as well as my own relationship with it.
     The most difficult review for me to write was for “The Submission.” As an English major, I love to read and have been trained to critically analyze texts. But reviewing required me to exercise a different portion of that same muscle. Critical analyses for English classes are meant to zero in on a focused aspect of the text and can go on for pages. But in this case, I had to attempt to encapsulate this book and its various components in 400 words. I felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a pair of jeans three sizes too small. Writing that review really taught me how to select the most important and necessary details—how to “trim the fat,” so to speak.
     Arts Journalism was my favorite class this quarter. I never thought I’d be able to find an outlet for my crazy entertainment obsession outside of online forums or fan fiction (yikes!). This class gave me the opportunity to explore unfamiliar territory (journalism) within a familiar space (popular culture). Before I was just a fan, but now I’m working towards being a critic: a fan with something worth saying.   

Green and Read All Over

Screams and cheers exploded when he and his brother took the stage at Carnegie Hall, one of the stops on their “world tour.” One would expect to see a pre-teen pop star gyrating onstage for all energy and excitement in the performance hall. But it wasn’t a rock star that has these fans in a raucous twit, but rather an author, and not even one whose books have anything to do with heroic wizards or harlequin vampires.
John Green is the author of highly-praised young adult novels, notably Looking for Alaska, winner of the Printz Prize for Excellence in Young Adult Novels. A gangly 35 year-old whose look reminds one of a sexy (male) librarian—wire-rimmed glasses, blazers, a full head of hair—he resides in Indianapolis with his wife and son. His most recent book, The Fault in our Stars, appeared as one of the best books of the past year on numerous lists, taking TIME Magazine’s number one spot. The film adaptation is currently in pre-production.
In many ways, Green is just as much of a commodity as any of his books. A silhouette of his face adorns limited edition Barnes and Noble gift cards where there is also a special display of his work encouraging customers they should “Resolve to read more John Green.” Furthermore, his name is given almost as much space on the cover of The Fault in Our Stars as the title. Never before has an author sold themselves as well, if not more so, than their work.
Yet many of John Green’s fans haven’t even read his work. While Green made his money through his writing, he arguably made his name through video-blogging. Along with his brother Hank, he runs a variety of YouTube channels, most notably “Vlogbrothers” which has over a million subscribers (Oprah Winfrey’s YouTube channel only has about 68,000.) Even in today’s obsessive celebrity culture, an author with a following based more around them as a person than their imagined characters is a rare beast.
The brothers Green have created an identity for themselves and their followers as “Nerdfighters,” complete with their own slogan –DFTBA, “don’t forget to be awesome”—and Vulcan-esque greeting. The videos range in topic from the Syrian revolution and relationship advice to travel logs and the “Top 5 Zombie Apocalypses of All Time.” Their popularity comes from a unique ability to express meaningful sentiments without talking down to their viewers. NPR’s book review of The Fault in Our Stars described how Green “writes for youth, rather than to them,” and the same can be said for his videos.
Book authors can feel the least accessible of any type of “entertainer.” Often they are no more than a name on a book cover or an unchanging thumbnail on the back flap. But John Green has broken the fourth wall and has made himself not only recognizable but relatable. Perhaps the most distinctive quality of John Green as a celebrity is his willingness to share so much of his personal life with his fans. His videos literally take audiences inside his home, have introduced them to his now three-year-old son Henry from the time he was in the womb, and share stories embarrassing, heartbreaking, and humorous.
But what does this mean for the level of publicity or recognition expected from authors? While such exposure does not necessitate success –just look at Hunger Games author, Suzanne Collins, an exceptionally private person, or even classic literary recluses like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger—but in Green’s case, it sure didn’t hurt.  
While John and Hank Green began vlogging in 2007, only in the past couple of years have the brothers become a mainstream phenomenon. Without a doubt, their increased online popularity has had an impact of John’s popularity as a writer. Looking for Alaska found its way onto the New York Times Bestseller list for the first time in July of 2012, seven years after it was first published.
He even caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who allowed Green to interview him in January during a livestream broadcast. In the interview, Green announced to President Obama that he and his wife Sarah (an art curator Nerdfighters refer to as the “Yeti”) were expecting their second child. The news sent fans into a social media spiral of unbridled excitement, as if he had announced the impending arrival of a new book rather than a new baby.
John Green spoke to this level of passion so often ascribed to “nerds,” defending the particular label in one of his online videos: “Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff…Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.’” Nerd enthusiasts can even buy a print of this quote at (wow, a living author with his words branded on merchandise).
But the fandom that surrounds Green has certain critics questioning the quality of his written work, unconvinced that readers can distinguish between their love of the author and their love of the book. After all, there is no publicity without backlash as some online commentators accuse Green of being self-indulgent, overrated, and thematically repetitive in his books.
However, many critics believe that Green adds a semblance of legitimacy to the genre of young-adult fiction so often dismissed as trite. The New York Times book review for The Fault in Our Stars, praised his “harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type…These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving.”
A line from Green’s book, Paper Towns, reads “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” But what a wonderful thing to believe an author can be more than an author…maybe even a rock star. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wrestling with "The Submission"

     Amy Waldman said at a special lecture at Kalamazoo College that she is interested in “fiction wrestling with the times we live in.” In her debut novel, The Submission, Waldman wrestles with the xenophobia heightened in the aftermath of 9/11. 
     The story revolves around the selection of memorial to be designed for the victims of the terrorist attacks. But when the architect of the anonymous submission turns out to be a Muslim man, latent prejudices rise to the surface. An emblem intended to unify a broken nation serves as a catalyst that instead deepens personal and political wounds.

     Waldman interweaves the stories and perspectives of different characters including the architect Mohammed Khan, the reporter who broke the story, and family members of different victims of the attacks. Setting up these various threads takes up nearly half of the book, and makes for a sluggish start. Not until the narratives begin to overlap does the reader decide to fully invest in the characters and their stories.
     However, investment should be used as a loose term; curiosity more so than genuine emotional interest in the characters’ fates propels the reader forward. This is primarily due to Waldman’s style of disaffected prose. A former correspondent for the New York Times, Waldman proves she is a good journalist, but not necessarily an effective novelist. She reports their personal histories and comments on her characters’ feelings, offering readers more of a profile than a person to relate to.
     The conclusion of the novel would have done well to occur before the epilogue, which seems to diminish any resonance gleamed from the resolution of the conflict. The added material tidied up the mess that made the book at all interesting in the first place. Waldman already broke decorum writing about religion and politics, but seemed afraid of complicating these notions with a more ambiguous ending.  
     Writing about any sort of large-scale tragedy is a daunting task and requires an acute balance of emotion and reverence. Waldman, it seems, tipped to the side of the ladder, forgetting that when it comes to “wrestling with the times we live in,” it’s the blood, sweat, and tears that make it a fight worth fighting…or at least a book worth reading.