Written by: Fajar binti Benjamin
If you’re an avid YA reader, you’ve probably heard of and read The Fault In Our Stars. And if you’re an avid YA reader who has not read TFIOS, it’s probably because of a strong opinion expressed to you that you’ve decided to believe. There are no alternatives.
I’ve heard these strong opinions time and time again. Often preceded with a “I know everyone loves this book but I can’t see why” and a “don’t come after me for having an opinion”. (A bit of a tangent here, but why put out your opinion if you don’t want others to acknowledge and respond?)
“It’s so phony”, “The romance happened way too fast”, “It romanticises cancer”, “Real teenagers don’t sound like that”, “*insert quote* *insert scathing sarcastic remark relating to quote* *insert nauseous emojis*” and maybe, the only valid observation of all – “It’s overrated”.
“If something or someone is overrated, that person or thing is considered to be better or more important than they really are.” – The Cambridge Dictionary
See, we can argue all day over a bunch of the aforementioned things. In fact, I am going to give rapid fire responses to each of the common critiques I’ve come across online. But at the end of the day, it’s all a matter of opinion and personal preference. What can be measured though is a consensus, and the extent to which that consensus is accurate.
But first! A summary and a couple of disclaimers.
TFIOS is about Hazel Grace (a pseudonym I used for myself while setting up fake emails or anonymous social media accounts from ages 13-recently) and Augustus Waters (wallpaper material for dayyyys), falling in love while (and maybe even due to) having cancer. They have a meet-cute, hang out, exchange favourite books, fall in love, travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favourite author… and then face the side effects of dying (or living if you really want to have that argument), together.
From this point onwards, there will be spoilers dropped, some scathing responses to the scathing reviews and a fair amount of self-indulgent monologuing about the ethics of criticising art.
Responses to criticism
1. This book romanticises cancer.
I have ONE excerpt to invalidate this point.
[“I don’t want your pity” I said.
“Like all sick children,” he answered dispassionately, “you say you don’t want pity, but your very existence depends upon it.”
“Sick children inevitably become arrested: You are fated to live out your days as the child you were when diagnosed, the child who believes there is life after a novel ends. And we, as adults, we pity this, so we pay for your treatments, for your oxygen machines. We give you food and water though you are unlikely to live long enough -”]
“- to ever be useful” is implied. I don’t know about you, but nothing in this passage screams to me “CANCER IS A BEAUTIFUL BATTLE”. One more:
[It was Lida the Strong. Lida in remission. Blond, healthy, stout Lida, who swam on her high school swim team. Lida, missing only her appendix, saying my name, saying, “Hazel is such an inspiration to me; she really is. She just keeps fighting the battle, waking up every morning and going to war without complaint. She’s so strong. She’s so much stronger than I am. I just wish I had her strength.”
“Hazel?” Patrick asked. “How does that make you feel?”
I shrugged and looked over at Lida. “I’ll give you my strength if I can have your remission.”]
Does that sound like someone who thinks having cancer is, in any form, fun?
2. Hazel and Gus are practically indistinguishable from each other, they have the exact same voice.
I beg to differ. Hazel and Gus are extremely different characters, with different fundamental ideologies and approaches to their problems.
Hazel has had a long time to accept that she will die, younger than what her demographic would call for, and that the rest of her life will be spent suffering through some degree of pain and limitation. She is content to enjoy her days as they come and observe the world in return for the life she is grateful to be living. Augustus, in contrast, is filled with a need to prove himself worthy of remembrance to the world despite being in the throes of a terminal illness. That one simple difference alone makes their tones feel so different.
I would say, it is not a shortcoming of John Green as an author that would make a reader feel like two characters are too similar, rather, a shortcoming of the reader for only focusing on the superficial (having similar patterns of speech or enjoying the use of metaphors).
3. The romance happens too fast
Hah! Have you ever been in a relationship as a teen? That stuff always happens fast! Especially if one party is particularly attractive (and Gus is, as Hazel labours to remind us every few pages). Add in the fact that both parties are hyper-aware of their mortality, isolated in their bubble of struggling through cancer, and that they seamlessly connect with each other on an intellectual level. Love was bound to happen over a few conversations!
Come on, there is a mutual attraction first. Then they actually exchange favourite books which is the quickest way to any nerd’s heart. And then they manage to have a really enjoyable conversation about said books? Who would not fall a little in love after going through all of that?
4. They don’t speak like real teenagers/ They’re too pretentious/ The cigarette metaphor is a dangerous precedent
Ok, this one is a biggie, but I have to say, that one lady on Goodreads who took the metaphor as far as to hypothetically “allow kids to play with guns as long as they don’t pull the trigger” needs to take a chill pill. That is a strawman argument if I ever saw one. Yes, Augustus is a bit dumb and a bit self aggrandizing, and guess what, we’ve all been there. Hell, I went around with my house key on a chain around my neck as a metaphor for carrying your home within you. Millions of people get permanent tattoos or make grand sweeping gestures all to commemorate a metaphor. Augustus is not alone in taking a metaphor to weird places.
He gives money to the cigarette corporations. Oh no. That’s so awful. It’s not like each and every one of us is feeding into monster corporations who are actively destroying our planet. Stop using Amazon, or cheap tech…. or anything at all really and then we can talk about how terrible it is Augustus Waters gets his kicks by providing a tiny speck of revenue to a cigarette company.
As for the not speaking like real teenagers part. Again, you cannot fault John Green if the teenagers in your life are not, in fact, able to spout monologues or effectively communicate how in love they are. Their speeches are a pleasure to read, full of quotable gems that give the entire book so much character. Instead of critiquing the book for not being realistic, why can’t you commend the book for providing an example of the joy of eloquence?
The over exaggeration of how good this book is.
Ahhh, here it comes. If you love this book, and so far have been nodding along to everything I said, victoriously crowing every time I deal the enemy another blow, here is where you may want to sign off because the sword is now about to be turned on you.
TFIOS is not a unique book. It is not unique in premise – because teens dying of cancer is an entire genre in of itself. It is not unique in tone, because John Green uses a similar tone in all of his books. It is not even unique in characterisation because the archetype of both Hazel and Augustus can be found in numerous YA novels. That being said, everything is executed so, so well, so why does it matter if it’s unique or not?
My biggest criticism of the book would be that it is almost too perfect to be true. As the book repeatedly points out, the world is not a wish granting factory, so why is there just so much wish fulfillment? Gus shows up out of nowhere, handsome, athletic, intelligent, funny and charismatic. He is the perfect specimen of a boyfriend. I mean, just READ this.
[“Hi,” I said.
“Hazel Grace,” he said.
“Hi,” I said again.
“Are you crying, Hazel Grace?”
“Why?” he asked.
“’Cause I’m just—I want to go to Amsterdam, and I want him to tell me what happens after the book is over, and I just don’t want my particular life, and also the sky is depressing me, and there is this old swing set out here that my dad made for me when I was a kid.”
“I must see this old swing set of tears immediately,” he said. “I’ll be over in twenty minutes.”]
Such. A. Charming. And. Caring. Response. And we’re supposed to believe this stuff just randomly happens with this kind of timing? Amazing.
One last common thing said of this book – “everyone should read it.”
No, only people who understand that this book was written for teens and young adults – not fully grown adults who’ve read their way through an abundance of similar books – should have a go at TFIOS. “Some infinities are bigger than others” doesn’t hold the same resonance for a 19-year-old me that it did for a 13-year-old me. Many people will surpass that age or state of mind where they can truly appreciate every drop of wisdom and potency overflowing from the pages. And that’s okay… okay?
The Fault In Our Stars IS overrated – if by overrated you mean it’s not a book sent from heaven that every human must read and enjoy. It is highly stylised, and by that virtue alone, is bound to turn a percentage of the population off because writing style is a very personal taste.
However, it is NOT overrated in the sense that everyone who loved this book, who called it amazing, who cried and raved over the feelings it invoked within them, is completely justified in that love. Because it DOES inspire those feelings from plenty of people. Because it DOES flesh out Hazel and Gus to a satisfactory degree. It DOES bring up ideas and concepts that young adult readers (you know, the actual target audience) will enjoy discovering and be mind-blown by.
In short, go into this book willing to love it for what it is, and you’ll have a blast for sure.