Wednesday, March 20, 2013

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. 

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