Friday 20 July 2018

The writer lauded as the voice of generation

A looke at Young Adult author John Green

Anointed: John Green was one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people.
Anointed: John Green was one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people.

Tanya Sweeney

Not for nothing can John Green - in an age when author's salaries are rarely much to write home about - command a yearly paycheck of $9m. If you haven't heard of Green yet, you're about to. The young adult author was anointed as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People In The World last year, has enjoyed Google Hangouts with Barack Obama, and to date commands 4.25 million followers on Twitter.

And no wonder. He is a singular voice credited almost single-handedly of shifting teenage fiction away from the dystopian and the paranormal towards, well, real life. Superlatives like "voice of a generation", "literary rock star" and "this era's John Hughes" are tossed about with abandon - seemingly much to the chagrin of the unassuming author.

Green's chosen settings are not fantastical other worlds; rather, they're the high school cafeteria, the imperial bedroom of the loner, the litter-strewn first car. But there's nothing banal in his writing as he oscillates between friendship, loss, growing up and bigger questions about how to live honourably, truly and without getting beaten up by someone bigger.

Last week saw the hotly anticipated Irish release of the film adaptation of his 2008 book, Paper Towns. His 2012 novel The Fault In Our Stars was afforded the big-screen treatment last year and was a box-office triumph, grossing more than $300m worldwide in its first week of release. Paper Towns has the makings of a smash hit, too: to date, it has grossed $31.1m in US box-office receipts alone, plus $310,000 in Ireland and $3.3m in the UK from its opening week.

In it, readers finds themselves on careworn, though no less compelling, ground: the exquisite pain of the unrequited crush. At a recent screening of Paper Towns, the cinema's young audience was bordering on jittery in their seats, chuckling at various Greenisms and inside jokes. Still, the line between the young adult market and the mainstream fiction one has all but eroded.

But why exactly does 38-year-old Green's work resonate so immediately and thoroughly to audiences? His writing rarely speaks down to teenagers; instead, it speaks directly to them, underestimating neither their intelligence nor their capacity for emotional complexity. He pulls few punches: in both The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns, the books' endings are uncompromising and with little consolation; much like reality. The voices of his protagonists are clever without being cocky, and intimate without any trace of drab confessionalism. It's a staggeringly masterful high-wire feat, all told.

"I love the intensity teenagers bring not just to first love, but also to the first time you're grappling with grief," Green told the New Yorker last year. "The first time you're taking on why people suffer and whether there's meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived. Teenagers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter. And they're dead right. It matters for adults, too, but we've almost taken too much power away from ourselves."

Where Green has blazed a trail, others have followed, and the YA market is replete with authors writing about the minutiae, and the hugeness, of everyday teenage life. Much like Green has done, uncomfortable issues are presented: eating disorders (Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls), suicide (Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why), domestic violence (Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park), and gender transitioning (Lisa Williamson's The Art Of Being Normal). There is nothing pampered or solipsistic about these narratives: rather, the YA genre addresses a universal concern: not just how to get on in the world, but how to get along with the world. For these reasons alone, the "voice of a generation" tag fits Green like a glove.

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