As usual, the “Summer Fiction” issue of the New Yorker had its fair share of good things. In years past with these issues, I’ve often had to look elsewhere than the actual fiction to find those good things, but in 2014 the magazine has been on the run of its life for short stories, and this issue is no exception. There’s quite a bit of quality stuff here, my favorite being David Gilbert’s “Here’s the Story” – although I should qualify that, I suppose: in the middle of the issue is a two-page cartoon on the issue’s “My Old Flame” theme called “Gradual Impact” by Alison Bechdel that’s easily the best, most affecting work of fiction in this issue – a strange, utterly true-feeling (purely autobiographical?) little story about the weird, hesitant paths an unexpected love affair can take.
But as enjoyable as the fiction in the issue was (and the nonfiction too, for the most part, including Christine Smallwood’s better-than-she-deserves profile of stunt-reader Phyllis Rose, the distaff A. J. Jacobs), how could anything recover the issue for me after the howling blight at the heart of it, the thing that will cause this issue to sell out of every newsstand and distribution center all over the country?
I refer, of course, to Margaret Talbot’s piece called “The Teen Whisperer” about YA novelist John Green.
I’ve made no secret of my dislike for this charlatan and “Nerdfighteria,” the vast, sprawling cult he leads with his brother Hank. I have no beef with the strictly average Young Adult novels he writes – somebody’s got to write such things, and they serve a useful training-wheels function in conditioning young reading muscles for the more rigorous joys of the reading awaiting them down the road (at least, they used to perform that function – but I’ll come back to that). No, my problems with John & Hank Green, with “Nerdfighters” and “Nerdfighteria” and their idiotic motto “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” is the way the whole lock-step conformist mess undermines the very individuality it alleges to celebrate. The ranks of “Nerdfighers” in their thousands quote back and forth the catch-lines from The Fault in Our Stars; they pattern their every last behavior according to these limp, overwritten little things; they check their smallest stray individual thought against the consensus of their chat-boards – and they worship the Green brothers with a blind idolatry that would have embarrassed the golden calf at Mammon.
And they put their money where their Vidcon screams are. When Talbot quotes Hank Green saying “We really believed in the importance of online video as a cultural form,” she’s performing the PR function she serves throughout most of this well-written piece; the “Vlogbrothers” don’t care a rip about cultural forms – but it’s pretty easy to care about the surging Alpine river of cash funneling through their numerous “merch”-revenue-generating sites, including the online “DFTBA” clearing house for gimcracks and music by handpicked artists. It’s true that Talbot is occasionally very gently critical; about their “Crash Course” videos, she writes, accurately, that “if you watched them all you’d know a lot, but you’d also think you knew more than you did.” But at no point in her piece does she even so much as hint that the Green brothers have carefully positioned themselves at the top of a gigantic money-generating empire – much less that they care about such non-awesome things.
Instead, she goes for hagiography of so egregious a sort that you immediately start wondering if the New Yorker is owned by the same parent-company that owns the move studio producing the adaptation of Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Talbot quotes YA expert Lizzie Skurnick saying that Green’s books have hidden depths: “They’re sophisticated points, but they’re there.”
They’re not. His books are shallow – not only necessarily so, since they’re written for children, but also intentionally so, with the young characters all sounding like grad school students and the adult characters zombie-shuffling around as one-note caricatures of how an adult guy thinks young kids think adults think.
Talbot is a smart writer, and when she gets going on the meat of her subject, she forgets to shoe-polish and makes some shrewd comments on the tremendous changes the Internet has wrought on the very act of reading:
In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.
But she keeps coming back to the uphill task of elevating Green to sainthood and his books to an entirely different section of the Keokuk Public Library. She recounts a video-chat Green has with a group of young cancer patients like the ones in The Fault in Our Stars, including one young girl who has the same kind of cancer as one of the book’s characters. At one point this young girl tells Green “At least you got me right,” and the scene unfolds like something out of the Gospel of Mark:
Afterward, a teacher wrapped the session up, and everybody waved. The screen went blank. Green put his head down on his arms and cried.
The only thing missing is “Not my will, Father, but thine be done.”
But even that’s marginally pardonable in a New Yorker profile (although the magazine’s long tradition of biting observation is summarily abandoned for the length of the piece – Talbot makes no mention, for instance, of the fact that the DFTBA site has been at the heart of a string of sex scandals involving some of its popular YouTube stars and singers, and she raises no questions, not even the self-evident ones involving what John Green knew about all that and when he knew it). No, it’s Talbot’s (I hope) unthinking elevation of Green’s books that really rankles me, especially one bald line:
Y. A. novels are peculiarly well suited to consideration of ethical matters.
This isn’t true. This just isn’t true. Dammit, this isn’t true. ADULT fiction is peculiarly well-suited to consideration of ethical matters. YA fiction is for children, and no matter what John Green would like his legions of followers to believe, the ethical matters in the world of children are less complex than the ethical matters of adulthood. Entire arms of government are created, funded, and staffed in every Western country specifically for guarding the welfare of young people – not just their physical needs, but their personal welfare. There is nowhere in the world an adult version of these services, because adults are expected to live face to the wind – their risks are greater, their penalties harsher, their sorrows more poignant, and their joys sweeter for being as autonomous as only freedom can make them. I’m sure the ranks of “Nerdfighteria” are per capita smarter than any comparable aggregate of children has ever been – and the Green brothers should take a bow for that – but mouthy precocity is a pallid substitute for hearing the youngest daughter of an Italian nobleman say “I love you” at the exact moment you realize you’re in love with her brother; it can’t compare to the astringent sadness of losing to a mystery illness a lover you thought would live forever; it has no claims to the weirdly uplifting feeling of relief that rushes over you when you revisit a place you haven’t seen in half a century and realize you remembered it all wrong; it can’t even imagine the loss of hope, much less the bleakly centering realization that you can live without it. What sane adult would trade even yesterday’s sunset for all the years of days between age 12 and 16?
“Young adult” fiction used to know these things. Readers of young adult fiction used to be characterized by their eagerness to sneak into their parents’ study and read real books – those books were a recognized prize, like a driver’s license or the rescinding of curfew. Carefully-bowdlerize “Stories from Homer” and “Tales from Shakespeare” used to be vaguely embarrassing things for readers who were finally able to move on to Homer and the “source material” for “the fault in our stars” – those books were carefully shelved in an attic corner as mementos of a more innocent reading time (if you probe my own shelves, for example, you’ll find a delicately-preserved copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy), and in their place on the nightstand came things like Pride and Prejudice and King Lear and Middlemarch and The Magic Mountain and hundreds of books and poems like them – works in which the full, adult range of the authors’ experiences was reshaped by the full strength of their creative powers – not hobbled by slang and cookie-cut for a target demographic.
Adults who follow the modern fad of lazily, arrogantly confining themselves to YA fiction deprive themselves of that greatest of all human inheritances. And adults who take that fad one step further and start equating YA fiction with adult fiction – who try to mainstream their lazy fetish and assure their fellow 35-year-olds that it’s perfectly OK to still be reading books written for 15-year-olds because those kids’ books have “sophisticated points” (as an incredibly depressing near-unanimity of commenters did on a recent Slate post that was, in its every word, completely right) - are advocating the mental equivalent of the obesity epidemic that’s now making Americans the most unhealthy and most easily mocked people on Earth. These fetishists can talk until they’re blue in the face about how YA fiction has relevances and resonances and what-not, but the simple truth is, they read these books because these books are easier than books written for adults. And as reasons go for reading things, that’s not very awesome.