Mixed emotions over popular book

Published 9:18 am Sunday, August 3, 2014

Last week I finished “The Fault in Our Stars,” the latest craze in teenage-centered literature.

After spending the past several years reading books by the likes of Charles Dickens, Williams Faulkner, Plato and such, I took a reading hiatus after graduation, but after two months without reading anything longer than a page or two, I was itching.

I figured I’d start back slow with something light. Now, I will read anything. Blame it on a compulsion to reach completion that rivals Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, or simply the ability to find at least one redeemable quality in everything. Well, almost anything. I have yet to find one positive aspect of “Twilight.”

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Anyway, I saw the previews for the film adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars.” It reminded me of a handful of books I had read in high school and junior high. I knew the main character had cancer, which my refined literary taste as an English major knew was an emotional cheap shot, but I figured it would have a good enough storyline. I mean, star-crossed lovers just trying to figure out how to bridge a seemingly impenetrable barrier seems like the general plotline to a lot of decent books I had read.

At first, I was highly disappointed. I allowed for the fact that the last thing I had read “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis, and there was little chance John Green would be able to compete with him on an intellectual level.

While at Mississippi State, I took a number of creative writing classes as well as a class on theory of fiction. Needless to say, I could tell you six ways from Sunday why I didn’t like “The Fault in Our Stars.”

For starters, the scenes ran too long. The point relevant to the plot would have been made, but it kept going. The difference in a story and real life is that you get to skip the boring, mundane parts, but Green apparently wasn’t a big fan of that. The other thing was that it had all the awkwardness and dramatic story telling of a teenage girl.

And that’s when I stopped myself. Green was not a teenager girl, nor had he ever been one, but the narrator was. Hazel Lancaster was at her core a 16-year-old girl dealing with a future that in all likelihood would come to an end. She was dealing with her first love. Maybe, just maybe, he as a writer had gotten into the psyche of a very damaged girl.

That’s when I started noticing these lines, these burst of wisdom. Kind of an homage of sorts to Oscar Wilde’s epigrams, such as “Cancer kids are essentially side effects of the relentless mutation that made the diversity of life on earth possible.”

Hazel sees herself, a cancer kid, as the person dealing with the consequence of the same mechanism that brings also brings about good. Intelligence stems from a genetic mutation, which is why people like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking can be created from two less intelligent people.

But it was the juxtaposition of the deep story and shallow writing that made me dislike it at first. I still maintain that it would be 100 times better if only he had had an editor willing to cut out some parts that where just a touch too slice of life.

But maybe that’s the reason it has seen such popularity, why books like this permeate the scene so fully. The reader is able to choose whether to read shallowly or deeply. You can speed-read through and get the emotional highs and lows, or you can stop and think about the bigger implications, such as the effect of terminal cancer on the psyche of a 16-year-old. You can get out of it what you put into it.

But books like the “The Fault in Our Stars” will never make your English professor proud because it does not FORCE you to evaluate your world. It creates a world that avoids critiques and does not produce an evaluation of some aspect of society. It produces tears, but not thoughts; emotions, but not consideration.

But at the end of the day, reading rates have skyrocketed across the nation over the past 10 years, and that is music to any English major’s ears. Particularly one wanting to one day have her own book published.

Julia V. Pendley is the lifestyles editor of The Daily Leader. You may email her at julia.pendley@dailyleader.com or mail a letter to her at Julia V. Pendley, Lifestyles Editor, P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602-0551.