It’s All About Context

Shakespeare wrote that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And maybe that’s true. But will the song “Pay Phone” still hold resonance in a few years, when many teenagers already aren’t really sure what a pay phone even is? And will a book narrated by a teenage girl with a terminal illness still be as touching in a decade, when many readers of young adult fiction are no longer aware of the close relationship between the author and the young fan & friend who inspired the relationship?

This is a pay phone.

This is a pay phone.

Like many avid readers, I am a fan of John Green. When I read Looking for Alaska, I remember being relieved that YA still contained good writing, and not just good ideas, poorly executed (I was in a bit of a reading slump, reading the wrong things for me). So when I first heard about The Fault in Our Stars, which deals with death and living, and knew that the author had been inspired to write it by his close friendship with the recently deceased Esther Earl, I allowed myself to become very, very excited.


Unfortunately, this resulted in my being very, very disappointed.


The Fault in Our Stars is not a bad book. It’s decently written, it exhibits intelligence, and humor. But some of it felt as though it was done by rote – standard Green wit and intelligence, twist at the end that I saw coming in the first third of the book, showy role-model-esque shit that made me roll my eyes a little bit.

Seriously? Smoke it or STFU.

Seriously? Smoke it or STFU.

I’m not sorry that I read The Fault in Our Stars, and as far as blockbuster bestselling books go, I’ve certainly read much worse. At the same time, I’ve also read much better. By the same author. And I didn’t cry; I don’t think I even felt tempted.


So I kept hearing about readers who cried through the entire book, teenagers and adults, alike, and at first, felt a bit like sour grapes. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I feel sad at this book? I couldn’t have been the only one who could see that Hazel was not the only main character terminally ill. The Anne Frank museum felt a bit overdone. Why was everyone else who read this book crying so much? Was I the only one who was like: “Meh. It’s okay, but Looking for Alaska was better?”

sour grapes

Of course, I’m not, but a lot of people were a lot more touched by this novel than I. And I think a large part of the reason is the story that inspired the novel.

I don’t really know a lot about Esther Earl, but I do know that she touched a lot of lives. And while she and her acquaintance knew that she was slated to leave this earth earlier than many other people, it was still sad when she passed away. Ms. Earl seems like she was an amazing person, and I think there must be a lot of pressure to do justice to such an amazing person in literary form. Perhaps that’s why some of the novel felt a little forced, to me.

And my very different reaction from the majority of readers to this novel resulted in my thinking about context.

A rose by any other name...

A rose by any other name…

Many readers were nerdfighters, a part of the tight-knit community that revolves around the Green brothers, and of which Esther Earl was a large part. And knowing that she was the inspiration, knowing that she is dead, added another dimension to the novel that I didn’t experience. Because I was not a nerdfighter. While I am sad that Esther Earl died so young, and know that she touched a lot of people, I never interacted with her, and so I don’t have the personal connection to the novel The Fault in Our Stars that many other people did.

That’s okay. A novel that helps a lot of people work through difficult emotions and concepts is a great thing. What I question is the novel’s sustainability. In ten years, will people still be as touched by this novel? Will people still be reading this novel?

Will the people so touched by this novel today still be touched by it in a decade?