In the swirling vortex of listicle clickbait that is the 2016 Internet, I think lists have gotten a bad rap, like those songs that get overplayed on the radio until everyone hates them. (Does that happen anymore? Do people listen to the radio in the Spotify age?)
I want to reclaim the list to work on a series I’ve been meaning to start since I started this blog: book rankings by category. Because, to be real, it’s easier to rate books in comparison than it is to decide how to value them in a vacuum.
Since he’s such a constant topic in YA and I read/write about that so often, I thought I’d start with John Green. (I made myself read Paper Towns for all of you, even though I was warned I wouldn’t like it. Such is the level of my dedication.)
Before I list, my feelings about John Green’s books in general are relevant. This might come off harsh—I like 60% of his work so far, and I sound harsh when I’m talking about something I 90% like. So I’ll sandwich it with this: even if he’s sometimes writing plots and main characters that don’t appeal to me, he writes with flair and humour, a slick use of cultural context, and real emotion. And I more or less think his best work is his latest, so he may just get better and better.
But let’s get to it: I feel like most of John Green’s work plays with the manic pixie dream girl (in one case, boy) and it does so with varying degrees of success. Looking for Alaska just uses this trope. An Abundance of Katherines tries to make the love interest more real and flag Katherine(s) as the dream girl. Paper Towns tries to deconstruct this trope while using it. Will Grayson, Will Grayson has other characters chip in to Teach the Brooding Young Man to Embrace Life. The Fault in Our Stars flips the gender dynamic and gives the main pair cancer(s).
Perhaps as a result of the reuse of this trope, his protagonists are always learning the same moral: they need to learn to be more empathetic; they need to learn to be more daring; they need to “embrace life.” While it’s true that teens (really all people) can be self-absorbed and set in the safety of routines and fitting in, it’s also true that this isn’t the only possible lesson. This repeated message, transmitted in metaphors of various subtlety, makes his work feel a bit like iterations of the same story. (Also, protagonists always get to kiss the people they realize they have a crush on. That is not real teen life, okay.) The complication in The Fault in Our Stars gives this a bit of a breather (embracing life is significantly different for someone with a terminal prognosis), to its credit.
His work is also littered with middle class white (male and able-bodied, except for Hazel Grace) straight protagonists who are too busy being self-centred and full of ennui to recognize their privileges—especially in comparison to their often-minority best friends, which can feel uncomfortable. (This is occasionally addressed with varying grace.) While it deals with this subject position reasonably well, it can be alienating if you aren’t/weren’t that.
It also contains a lot of pretension via literary/musical references and dialogue that takes a page from the Dawson’s Creek/Kevin Williamson school of teenage writing. (Fun, but unrealistically witty, genre-savvy, and movie-melodramatic.) On one hand, this pretentiousness is honestly part of the charm of John Green’s writing: reading the kids from TV that you wish(ed) you could be, pretending you know everything about culture (and learning something, hopefully). On the other hand, much as DC did (and many teen shows thereafter, I’m sure), it gets so busy selling how intelligent teens are that it forgets they are also just human people. (Which is at once both welcoming and alienating: as a teen, I always wanted to feel like I was way smarter than people gave me credit for, but I also didn’t understand half the references, because adult writers tend to reference things current teens are not interested in.)
However (and before the Nerdfighters murder me), he also does manage to capture something ineffable about being a teenager in each of his books, and something universal about the fragility of new love, the feeling of friendship, and the overwhelming yet also completely predictable possibility of the future. He comes up with some memorably beautiful lines and metaphors. And his references and the contexts he gives them are interesting and relevant to the characters, and I can’t knock a book that might get someone interested in other books or nerdier subjects. I also think he gets more charming (also pretentious, but I’ll land on charming) as he gets more meta, so I enjoyed the book-within-a-book aspects of The Fault in Our Stars and the footnoted structure of An Abundance of Katherines.
But—without further adieu—a ranking, since I’ve already gotten out of hand.
Books by John Green, Ranked
#1. The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
This is his first and only book with a female narrator/protagonist and, honestly, with a fully realized female character who is subject more than object, agent more than idea. And Hazel Grace is pretty likable beyond her tragic circumstances. There’s a manic pixie dream boy instead, and although he does come off as pretentious and too-perfect, he also gets called out on it, has flaws, and has reasons to act the way he does. The book-within-a-book meta prevents a lot of the metaphors of the book from being spoken by the characters outright, so although the book is melodramatic by nature of its star-crossed romance, it doesn’t feel utterly heavy-handed.
Hazel Grace is still self-centred and oblivious, there’s a weird misappropriation of Anne Frank, and this certainly wasn’t perfect, but it’s definitely the best. I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once stuck with me, among others, and I cried like a baby, of course.
#2. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010; with David Levithan)
This book has an unfair advantage and he’s called David Levithan. Green’s Grayson learns he needs to be more empathetic and daring, although not just through his love interest, and he communicates it partially through action, which beats a speech or an essay (see below). However, the first Grayson’s BFF, Tiny, while being a great character who pops off the page (Green has a tendency to write vivid best friends who I like better than the narrator), also feels uncomfortably like a character who exists mostly to prop up Will #1 and “fix” and/or give meaning to his life, too. (The book acknowledges this in the narrative without really mitigating it.) Double-down uncomfortable bonus: he’s loudly gay.
Enter Levithan’s Grayson, who is a troubled, depressed gay teen who accidentally meets Tiny and learns to be less alone. He turns this book around for me. It’s possible that I’m biased in terms of my appreciation of Levithan’s Grayson because he breaks up the repetition of the themes Green reuses and he’s a more relatable character to me because he’s closer to my experience—but I think by any stretch of the imagination, he improves this book and redeems it from somewhere further down the list.
#3. An Abundance of Katherines (2006)
This is the only place my ranking deviates from a backwards-chronological ordering of Green’s books.
Here are the merits that make that possible: I like the footnote structure in this book; it’s a pleasant deviation and it works for the text, given the protagonist’s obsession with (semi-)basic math and organization. The protagonist isn’t suffering so much from a general sense of ennui as he is from a break-up or, perhaps, a series of break-ups, which make his situation (and motivations throughout the book) more universal. (The idea of mathematically quantifying past relationships and wanting to be able to predict heartbreak is easy for me to relate to, and it’s probably not just me.) And the manic pixie dream girl in question seems to be the last Katherine, who broke up with the protagonist perhaps because he saw her as more of an idea than a person, and who sets him on the path to understand that issue.
The love interest in this book doesn’t feel fully realized, but to some extent she has her own desires and grows a little, so it’s something. Of course, everyone learns to be more empathetic and daring. But there’s a fun aspect of fluff to this one, and generally I enjoyed it.
And this, to be clear, is the line between John Green books I like and John Green books I dislike. Right here.
#4. Paper Towns (2008)
This book is essentially about a manic pixie dream girl who the protagonist chases after, learning to be more daring and empathetic in the process. He realizes along the way that he doesn’t really know who this girl is, and communicates a metaphor of trying-to-know-but-not-being-able-to-truly-know someone in a movie speech near the end. (The speech feels pedantic and out of character. The metaphor, of course, is lovely.)
There are some nice friendship moments in this book; the mystery of the enigma-girl is interesting until it’s not, much as the book itself foreshadows (the planning is always better than getting there); there are some True Things about teenage life at the end of high school that are thrown into focus. Mostly, though, a pretty generic boy learns from a much more interesting girl who we don’t (and can’t) really get to know that he can be more empathetic and daring. This story can’t be rescued by its writing.
#5. Looking for Alaska (2005)
Spoiler alert for this one. Are you getting that? Spoiler alert. (I wouldn’t normally do this, but this book hurt me.)
This book is about a manic pixie dream girl who dies. Through her, the protagonist realizes that his best way to figure out the meaning of his life is to live, probably. He writes this in a damn essay that covers things he’s learned from her death.
I don’t even know what else to say about this book. NOPE FOREVER. I mean, up until the death, I was intrigued by Alaska. It has some quintessential teen moments. (It also has a weird bit where the protagonist semi-acknowledges his financial privilege in an uncomfortable way.) But you know, the strongest non-male presence in the book just dies and she’s a lesson for the male main character. NOPE.
This has been my longest post yet, so if you made it here, I salute you. I will (probably) have less feelings about other book rankings. (I can’t promise anything.) And if you are making agreeable noises, please keep a space in your heart for me if a massive fanbase comes to destroy me.
See you next week!