EPISODE 29: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

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    What is the difference between drama and melodrama? Should books be written differently with teenage readers in mind? What is Romeo and Juliet actually about? And, if Rider rants in a forest, does anyone care?

    This week we engage in one of the most heated debates in Disco history, centered around John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in particular, and Young Adult literature in general.

    But first, we play Bookshelf Roulette. Tod will introduce you to memoirist Dinah Lenney, Rider stumbles upon his own signature, and Julia reads from one of her favorite literary journals.

    Lots of big questions and no easy solutions in this episode, so we’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
    Unknown

COMMENTS

17 Responses to Episode 29: The Fault in Our Stars

  • stephaniecaseys wrote on May 14, 2013 at 9:21 //

    I have to say, I think you guys are extremely hard on John’s writing. Although you don’t separate YA novels from adults geared towards everyone, John writes his novels with his audience in mind. He wants everyone to read it sure, but there’s a reason that all of his books are about teenagers. Rider- I think it’s surprising that you don’t believe this novel to be different than other cancer books, because I definitely thought that it was. Growing up, one of my best friends had a sister around the age of Hazel who had cancer. I’m not saying that Hazel’s intelligence and adult-but-not-an-adult-ness was present in my friend’s sister, but I don’t think you understand teenagers with cancer if you don’t find how she’s dealing with it to be believable. Hazel is at this point where she’s thought she was going to die numerous times and rather than feeling sorry for herself, she feels bad for the people she’s going to leave behind. She’s accepted her future and knows that this miracle drug isn’t going to last forever. Because of this, she’s able to still live a life that she finds worth living. A life filled with literature, her family, and eventually Augustus. However, Augustus isn’t the main point of this book, it’s how she changes because of him. She’s able to find normal teenage things to be happy about, find enjoyment in playing stupid video games, and going on dates/watching movies. Hazel, in a way, became an adult as soon as she was diagnosed. She graduated from school, was immersed in a community college atmosphere with older people, and even professed that her parents were her best friends. Not until she meets her friend at the mall do we even really get a glimpse of how she was before she got cancer.

    I’m rambling, but I think if you want to understand the book better you should watch some of John’s videos where he talks about character formation and how important it was for Hazel to cling onto Van Houten’s book.

    Also, just a side fact: John Green was a chaplain in a children’s hospital where he was around people of Hazel’s age. There was also a Nerdfighter (fan of John Green and his brother’s vlogs) named Esther Earl who John was somewhat close with before she died from cancer. So I think it’s safe to assume he has a basic knowledge of how a teen would react knowing that they’re eventually not going to be here anymore and how important it is to know you’ve left something behind.

    -Stephanie

    • Rider wrote on May 14, 2013 at 11:22 //

      Stephanie,
      Yeah, to be fair, I’ve never read the “cancer books” from which this novel spends a lot of energy differentiating itself. I like your reading of Hazel’s character and the change she’s undergone. That’s an insightful way of looking at it. I guess what it comes down to is: I’d rather read the book you describe than the one I read. In other words, I think the themes/ambitions/ideas that John Green had are really interesting and good. But I don’t think we can judge a book (or any artwork) by intentions alone. We have to look at the text itself. And that’s where this novel falls short for me. John Gardner had a great phrase for the most basic goal of a fiction writer; he believed he or she must maintain a “vivid continuous dream.” My problem is that John Green’s “dream” is neither vivid nor continuous. Instead, it strikes me as affected and heavy-handed. But like I said (I think) at some point during our recording, I love that people are reading a book that celebrates literature, intelligence, and the human ability to weather illness. As opposed to say, reading about heavily repressed, domestic-abusey vampire love triangles…
      Thanks for listening and taking the time to discuss it here. I hope you stick around and listen to other episodes.
      -Rider

      • Stephaniecaseys wrote on May 15, 2013 at 9:08 //

        Upon rereading my comment later in the day when my stress levels about finals went down (I’m currently at the end of my third year of undergraduate), I realized I was a bit harsh on you. Admittedly, The Fault In Our Stars is one of my favorite novels, closely behind Stephen King’s “The Body.” While listening, I felt (I cannot think of the best word) slightly angry that to you Hazel didn’t feel believable because of her characteristics. I can definitely understand the unlikeliness of Van Houten’s character and their traveling to Amsterdam, but as a work of fiction I felt that it gave the characters that needed break from the consistent talk of sickness and death. I think that’s why it was for important for John to have “An Imperial Affliction” to be a commonplace in the story. It gave Hazel something to fixate on while she was sick. She spent time trying to figure out what happened to the characters after the book abruptly ended. I guess while I was reading I saw the parallel between the two girls, but I was able to see that Hazel was more prepared and able to fight her illness than the daughter in An Imperial Affliction was. The reality I saw within Hazel was how she interacted with her parents. As you guys said at one point, “[the emotions we feel] when she says her mother won’t be a mother anymore.” That was really spot on in my opinion.

        The main point I wanted to clarify with this reply was that I think the reason why so many people of my age range and younger love John Green’s books in general is because how open he is to having dialogue about them. Not very often do authors have such a connection with their audience, and it makes all the difference to know that there’s probably someone out there with the same question as you and it might actually get answered. (He has an entire tumblr account devoted to answering questions about it.) Anyway, I agree that books should stand on their own and need no knowledge of intentions by the author, but when do you come across the chance to know them it makes the book even better–at least sometimes it does.

        Again, I encourage you to check out some of John’s videos on youtube. He’s a really down to earth guy for being such a successful author. In some ways his discussions about the book have encouraged me to reread and reanalyze my preconceived notions. In the end, everyone has their own interpretation and none of them are wrong.

        “Books belong to their readers.”
        -John Green

        -Stephanie

        • Stephaniecaseys wrote on May 15, 2013 at 9:11 //

          I apologize for any misspellings or grammatical errors. It’s currently 4am where I am, and you website isn’t very mobile friendly on my iPhone.

  • Lynne wrote on May 16, 2013 at 3:54 //

    I read this book because I like what John Green does with his Crash Course History videos that I sometimes use with my classes ( I am a high school social studies teacher)and frankly, my students lobbied pretty hard for me to join them as they read it. That said, I wanted to like this book. I really did – and, to be fair, there were moments that I truly loved. I grew up with a parent who was ill and hospitalized frequently, and in the moments when the illness scenes pointedly lack that lifetime-movie affect, this book is fantastic. There are rare glimpses of deep truths that anyone who watched someone suffer will nod along with. That said… I wanted to like the book – doesn’t mean I did.
    I like what Rider said above about wanting to read the book described as opposed to the book he read. What bothers me most is the way I think the book COULD have been, in a scenario with less beat-you-over-the-head heavy handedness and a LOT less forced unique-ness. If those rare great moments had been strung together into a book that stays grounded in honesty, I would have loved it. Instead, I waded through about 100 pages of John Green hammering home just how spunky Hazel Grace is.
    In other news – Rider, everything you said about Steinbeck makes me feel 15 again. Thanks for that.

  • Codi wrote on May 16, 2013 at 4:21 //

    I am going to be perfectly simple with what I have to say about your podcast on this book. I disagree for the most part, and this stems, most likely, due to my personal bias of outright love for this novel. As a twenty year old who lost her mother from cancer at eighteen just one or two months from before this book came out which was months from her birthday and months from my birthday. This book felt so real to me in the fact of it’s pain and also I did know people who actually conversed like these characters. This book was what I needed and it understood me and my pain. This is a cheesy cancer book and it was perfect. This book is beautiful and it was felt the way was supposed to be felt. Everything about it was great. I understand your takes on it and I respect it and I don’t agree with it. I have faced so much death already, and I can honestly say that this book captured my pain. Also I would like to point out that I felt this podcast was pretentious in the fact that while you said you did not discriminate YA from Adult literature it does feel like you discriminate teens from adults. I love this book and I read it in my latter teens, but I also read Lolita, Prin, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, One Hundred Years of Solitude and many more in my early teens with no reason other than the fact that I wanted to. I loved them. All of the books I listed and The Fault in Our Stars have merit.

  • Tod wrote on May 16, 2013 at 6:39 //

    Why do you think it’s pretentious for pointing out that teens are different from adults? They are different from adults. That’s not something that is up for dispute, just as senior citizens are different from children; it’s just a fact. You can love a variety of things and not have one mean more than the other, culturally or emotionally. So when I say I love the movie The Cutting Edge and I also love the movie Quiz Show, it doesn’t matter that they aren’t equivalent films in most people’s opinion, it just means I happen to like two things that aren’t the same, for whatever reasons. And the difference between Adult and YA literature is what we really we’re talking about most of the way through — does one (YA) need to be as nuanced as the other (regular adult fiction). In your opinion, no, they don’t, and that’s great. In (some) of our opinions, it does. But here’s the thing: what we feel about the book doesn’t change what you feel about the book, just as if you like the way tomatoes taste and I don’t it doesn’t change your opinion of tomatoes. Both opinions can exist without detriment to the others’ enjoyment.

  • annon wrote on May 16, 2013 at 7:20 //

    i think rider should do GMW

  • Mona wrote on May 22, 2013 at 5:07 //

    Julia, did you know that Otsuka piece in Granta: Aliens is actually an excerpt from Otsuka’s book Buddha in the Attic? I really liked the full-length book.

    (And yay! shoutout to Granta, I love them.)

    • literarydisco wrote on May 22, 2013 at 8:25 //

      Mona, someone else wrote to me about that! I am very excited that I now get a whole book to read. It sounds fantastic.

  • Melissa wrote on May 23, 2013 at 2:43 //

    Rider, I love you but I completely disagree. Sure, many of the characters like Van Houten are non-believable and there are some cheesy things like the cigarette thing but as a 19 year old who had cancer at the age of 15 this book is completely accurate. Their feelings and actions are true and much of this book is how I felt when I was battling cancer when I was 15. I would think about death and leaving the people I care about behind, especially my mother. I was afraid for everyone except myself. I had a wish given to me by the Make A Wish Foundation and went to Spain. While it is true that there are guidelines to the wish, and that you can only go with family members, you would be amazed at what the foundation can do to grant a wish. You have no idea how much I wanted to meet a boy in my oncology clinic and just wanted this cancer romance to happen. All of these small details that you are hung up on are so unnecessary and you are truly missing the whole point of the novel. I’m truly interested to know, have you had a close family member/friend who has battled cancer? This book isn’t just written for teenagers, it depicts the life of a teenager living with cancer, there’s a difference. I appreciate your opinion but I think you have to understand the book a bit better, and not just say the entire book was so unbelievable. I have read a lot of “cancer books” to see if any of them actually portray what I have experienced first hand, and this one is the closest I have come to.

    • Lorraine wrote on May 25, 2013 at 1:21 //

      Do you mind expanding on your comment about how ‘this book isn’t just written for teenagers’? I’d like to hear your views, because I strongly disagree.

  • Tod wrote on May 23, 2013 at 11:19 //

    Melissa, we’ve all had someone in our lives who has had cancer — my mother died from cancer, for instance — so we understand your passion. Your love of the book is your love of the book — that’s not going to change. But that’s what makes all art interesting: it’s up for interpretation. We understood the book just as you understood the book — saying we DIDN’T get it because you DID isn’t literary criticism, which is just fine, but we’re reviewing the books not trying to figure out how every other person experiences it, just how we experience it.

  • Melissa wrote on May 24, 2013 at 5:45 //

    Tod, thanks for the response. I understand that everyone experiences the book differently and I wasn’t trying to say that you didn’t get it and I did. I understand that everyone has their own opinion, and I wasn’t trying to undermine your interpretation of it, I was only trying to offer some examples of how some of these things in the book that Rider said were so “unbelievable” can be believable. I didn’t mean to sound harsh and my intentions were not to discredit your experience, but to provide Rider with some evidence for what he deemed unbelievable. Again, thanks for your response, I appreciate it.

  • Rider wrote on May 25, 2013 at 6:50 //

    Melissa,

    I’m going to pick out two terms from your second sentence — “non-believable” and “accurate” — because I think the fact that you don’t see them as contradictory is telling. On our show, we talked about the aspirational quality to this book, and I think that’s totally true. Like you said, you “wanted to meet a boy” in your oncology clinic and wanted this “cancer romance.” And so this book strikes a chord with you on a very personal level, it reminded you of the thoughts and feelings you experienced.

    But beyond a personal connection, we have to agree that it’s John Green’s goal as a writer to take a specific, imaginary situation (a teen dying of cancer falls in love with another cancer teen) and convey it, create details that enumerate a made-up world. That process of enumeration IS the art form, and so when I’m critical of the book, I’m critical of that process, not the thoughts and feelings of the character, or the author, and especially not of other readers who love the book.

    However, the fact that you (and others above) defend the book with appeals to personal experience and/or John Green as an individual, only further reinforces my feeling that the book is better in concept than it is in execution.

    Because this book is not an essay. It’s not a memoir. It’s a work of make believe. So for me, the small details that I’m “hung up on”? That is the art of fiction. I don’t pick up a fiction book in order to be impressed by the emotions of the author, or merely impressed by the emotions of the characters. The job of a fiction writer is to spin a believable web for me to get caught in: a web of events, settings, and characters that makes ME feel and think certain things. You’ll never hear anyone say, “You know, in order to truly appreciate Moby Dick, you have to have been whaling…” or Jane Austen by saying “You just don’t get Emma until you’ve been a single woman in 19th Century England.” In both cases, the rigor of the author’s imagination has convinced us of these worlds and of these characters so thoroughly, that their actual relationship to reality is besides the point. And if a work of fiction is fantastical (magic, elves, etc.) then the author has an even higher level of obligation to convince the reader of believability — NOT in the magic, but in the humanity. The reason Game of Thrones is a stand-out fantasy book isn’t because it’s any less “fantastical” or “made-up” than other fantasy books — it’s because the characters ring true in terms of their level of complexity: contradictory feelings, desires, a sense of history, familial obligation, etc.

    I’ve been trying to think of an analogy, and I could only come up with American Idol…which has been on my mind since I watched every episode of this season. This book is like watching someone with a great personal story or personality (Lazaro) who’s picked the right song and gives it their all, but just. Can’t. Hit. Certain. Notes. We can love the tone of the person’s voice, we can love the person, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. If they can’t hit all the notes correctly, they are singing poorly. Every moment that rings false in The Fault in Our Stars — Van Houten showing up at the funeral, a blind video game that perfectly parallels the inner life of the characters, every time Augustus utters a line of dialogue — is like a wrong note hit by a singer. That singer can still be incredibly popular, and some people will enjoy the song — but offering MY review, I have to point out the things that didn’t strike me as honest and true, the equivalent of Randy Jackson saying, “You gave it your all, dog, but dude…it was pitchy.”

    I think it’s difficult to parse this stuff out because of the changing way we think of fiction these days. We’re getting to the point where we think of a novel as sort of just one part of a bigger project. It’s like a book is just the pre-text for the film adaptation, or TV show, or web community. So when we pick up a popular or successful book, we’re all kind of thinking of it as a script. The actual writing, the words on the page, become secondary to the world, the ideas, the author, and the fan base. It’s hard to think of a successful book in the last 5 years that didn’t also have an entire universe of available information, products, and sub-communities to accompany the text. This seems as true for adults (50 Shades of Grey) as it is for YA literature. Part of my personal goal with Literary Disco is to make an effort to discuss the text itself more. I mean, I think that’s kind of impossible, but we try.

    Thanks for your comment. And, regardless of how I feel about this particular book, I’m really glad that it meant so much to you. I mean, that’s the whole point of all of this, right? Finding those books that change our lives in some way. Loving books, discussing them, and finding more to love or hate. Even just writing this response has been fun, forcing me to really think about these things. And everyone’s opinions are changing and growing constantly, so who knows, maybe 10 years from now I will be inspired to re-read this one and have a completely different opinion.

    And, cancer is the worst. I’ve had plenty of personal experience. I’m really happy you’re doing well.

    Thanks again,
    Rider

  • Flora wrote on May 26, 2013 at 5:58 //

    Response to ‘Tod’:
    “Why do you think it’s pretentious for pointing out that teens are different from adults? They are different from adults. That’s not something that is up for dispute, just as senior citizens are different from children; it’s just a fact.”

    Seriously?! That’s mainstream fact. You have to admit that there are many adults who function at an age much lower than their chronological age and the same goes for teens. Chronological age does not always match emotional or intellectual maturity. You can be a 40 year old in a 17 year old’s mind (not body) and a 17 year old in a 40 year old’s mind. Going back to teenagers, some teens never get to experience the joys of childhood…simply because they have always functioned like adults despite their chronological age.

  • Flora wrote on May 26, 2013 at 6:15 //

    Sorry for going off track. I know this is a discussion about a novel only, but I wholeheartedly disagree with that point made.