The CSI of literature
Charlie Ducey | Tuesday, February 25, 2014
“The Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” anything written by James Patterson — these are the kind of sensational page-turners, complete with love triangles and predictable plots, that I wouldn’t want to be caught reading even in an airport bookstore devoid of any other print media. Really, I’d sooner read a dictionary.
In my mind, page-turners are to books as crime scene procedurals are to TV shows. They’re formulaic, flashy and unfairly successful. They do a disservice to quality literature, but people want to read them.
As it turns out, there’s an Indiana author and YouTuber John Green who has written a number of novels like this — all large print with short chapters and plenty of teenage romance. “The Fault in Our Stars,” Green’s most recent book, features the same generic love story found in his other books, but this time around the teenagers have cancer. Despite my aversion to books like this, I ended up reading it the whole way through. I can’t say that I totally regret doing so.
The thing about Green is he knows his way around literature. He’s well-read. He quotes Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare (the title, “The Fault in Our Stars,” is taken right out of a monologue in “Julius Caesar”). He alludes to Greek mythology and abstract French painters. Green even goes out of his way to research cancer treatment for the premise of the novel. But unlike the great literature it quotes, “The Fault in Our Stars” doesn’t sustain any kind of profound existential engagement, despite its grave subject matter. Again, these teenagers have cancer.
Now, I wouldn’t be criticizing the book for this shortcoming except it actually does try to be profound. The phrase “existentially fraught” is used more than once. The problem is as soon as Green has his characters make mention of oblivion or true love, they stop midway through the idea, offering only a glimpse where great authors flesh out the whole expansive view.
The real fault of “The Fault in Our Stars” may be its inability to probe its existentially-ripe content to any great depth, but this very fault gives rise to its greatest strength: It’s eminently readable. The book is not weighed down by inscrutable metaphors or drawn out cogitations. Its sentences are terse and often pedestrian in construction, its language colloquial and humorous. In many ways, it’s a lean book, thin like the emaciated cancer patients it describes. Sometimes, this figurative thinness is good. Not “perfect in every way” (as per an excerpt from the Sacramento Bee on the book’s back cover), but good.
Maybe page-turners aren’t to be so easily dismissed. Maybe they serve their role in the literary world as a light side dish beside the dense richness of the main course of literary greats. I don’t expect to be picking up any side dishes any time soon, but if I have to, I think I’ll prefer the Green variety.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.