So I finally did it. I read The Fault in Our Stars, easily once of the most beloved novels by one of the most beloved novelists.
I didn’t read it earlier because I feared that my own cancer story would make me biased. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to give it a fair shake, wouldn’t be able to see whatever one else saw. And what did everyone else see? Something like this from the New York Times Book Review:
“The Fault in Our Stars” is all the more heart-rending for its bluntness about the medical realities of cancer. There are harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type. It is a narrative without rainbows or flamingoes; there are no magical summer snowstorms. Instead, Hazel has to lug a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, and Gus has a prosthetic leg. Their friend Isaac is missing an eye and later goes blind. These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving. He shows us true love — two teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating physical and emotional ordeals — and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.
“Unpleasant details….make it more moving” Yeah. Cancer is pretty unpleasant. No doubt. Too bad the unpleasantness tips from honesty to…I don’t know…some sort of cancer porn that you find so moving but we’ll get to that later.
The reason that I chose to read this book now is because I’m writing my own cancer book. It’s different than Fault for many reasons, the biggest of which is that I actually had cancer. I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t have cancer can’t write about someone who does have cancer but like with any chronic illness or disability, or race, or gender, the view from the inside is a little, well, different.
I tried really hard not to hate this book. But I suppose we all have our internal biases and quiet frankly I was already tired of seeing sick kids die so that other people can learn to appreciate life. While everyone thinks it’s romantic (and I know you all do because we’ve been weaned on suicidal Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet for all of eternity) I find it sort of, well, tiresome.
I’m not saying dying is easy. It’s not. But there are other things that can be even harder. I’ll get to that later.
The reason why I didn’t think I would like it is cause from the onset Hazel Lannister (Stage IV thyroid cancer metastasized to her lungs) makes it very clear that this is NOT a cancer book. Except it might be the MOST cancer book to ever cancer book.
Hazel meets Augustus Waters in support group who is smart and gorgeous and had osteosarcoma which means he wears a prosthetic leg. After their first meeting, they decide to go hang out together and Augustus is going to drive. Which is does HORRIBLY, nearly killing them. He also struggles with getting out of the car and general movements and all I could think reading this was John Green didn’t take the time to talk to a single amputee because if he did he would know they could drive. They can run. They can do all the things that he can do. Why would someone who doesn’t know what the experience of having this specific disability choose to write it to do so with such a lazy disregard?
I don’t know. All I can do is look to my friend, Kati Gardner, (who wrote a fabulous book about her cancer story called Brave Enough which has a sequel coming out. If you want good cancer rep read this instead) who was talking to me about this and answered my question quite clearly.
She said, “Because he didn’t care.”
These kinds of details, knowing how a disease works, these are things that kids with cancer will pick up on. Hazel doesn’t know what drugs she’s on or what the side effects are. That might be one of the most untrue things in the entire book. There is no way a teenager with cancer doesn’t know what is happening. Neither does her father, just her brave long suffering mother.
But what Hazel does do is talk about cancer. Constantly. She and Augustus and Issac, who goes blind from his treatment, spend a LOT of time talking about cancer even though they claim to not be one of those “sick kids.” Eventually it starts to feel like there is nothing to these characters but their cancer. And this is where John Green starts to spill into Sickness Porn. There is an obsession with harm. Issac going blind, Gus stopping treatment so he can take his girlfriend to Amsterdam to fulfill her Wish (which is his Wish but whatever). It feels like a fetish, like he can’t wait to kill one of them off. In what universe would parents or doctors agree to this? Then when discussing his dead ex girlfriend Augustus calls her tumor (brain cancer) the Asshole Tumor but then amends this to say that maybe it wasn’t the tumor and maybe she was just a bitch. (I cringed thinking about all the kids with brain tumors who had this book shoved in their hands). When cancer is all that your character is then you don’t have a character. You have a disease that talks. And even if, like Hazel, she can recite poetry from memory. Also John Green picks and chooses which parts of cancer to talk about. There is one scene, when Augustus needs an ambulance that felt, authentic but that was it. Everything else was romanticized. Horribly disturbingly romanticized. It’s like I almost like dying young is the most beautiful romantic thing that can happen. (Looking at you Shakespeare)
Cancer treatment is a huge part of our lives but….we still have lives. And I think that might be the part that John Green missed the most. To him, we don’t have lives. We just have dramatic deaths, we just waste away so that other people can appreciate what they have. Augustus (SPOILER! for the last person on earth who hasn’t read this book) doesn’t even get a death that feels like it was his. He’s too busy making sure he leaves behind little clues so that once he’s gone, Hazel will know it’s okay and that she was loved.
I want more generosity in death then that. Generosity from the LIVING. Yes the living experience the death of their loved ones but the dying are doing it too. This is happening TO THEM.
I have seen so many bad representations of this – most recently being John Wick. John Wick’s dying wife has time to find and arrange the delivery of a puppy so that he’ll have something to love. This is so ridiculous. Have you never seen someone die? It really takes up all their time what with it being the end of their life and all.
All I’m saying is if you’re going to insist about writing about dying children, then the least you can do is have some respect for them.
And while you’re at it, try and acknowledge that cancer doesn’t make you profound. It doesn’t make you wise or pretentious. Tumors don’t offer advice. Cancer did two things to me. It made me scared and it made me angry. I wasn’t a warrior. I did with the doctors told me to do and I hoped for the best because more than anything surviving cancer is a CRAP SHOOT. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. That’s it. There’s no magical thinking, no wistful poetry recitation. There is just treatment and then hoping for the best.
And what is the best? Living, right?
Except living after thinking you were going to die is hard. Living after you’ve stared into the void, after you’ve been told that this might not work out the way you hoped, after carrying that darkness around in you – a darkness that sometimes shifts into such blinding anger that you could tear the stars from the skies – learning how to live around that, how to breathe, how to stop being afraid, THAT is hard.
Living is hard.
But living, especially in childhood cancers, more often than not is the outcome. Survival rates for childhood and adolescent cancers are 80%-90%.
See that’s the thing, John. Lots of sick kids live. They deserve to see that in the books they read. But I’m starting to realize, John you didn’t write the Fault in Our Stars for sick kids. You wrote it for the healthies so they can romanticize death and illness without ever having to really get too close and stare it in the face. They can play sick without being sick.
My friend, Kati, whose book I mentioned before (Brave Enough) had a note at the end of her book that really drove the point home. She said:
“When I was a teenager and reading every book I could get my hands on, I was desperate for a girl that looked like me. For a girl who had cancer and lived. And it was really hard to come by. So, I wrote one.”
Sick kids deserve to see themselves. Representation matters.
So with this book that I’m writing, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write the kid that went through it, that stared into the void, that has to learn how to live again. That has to learn how to carry the anger and the fear of remission. That has to learn how to be a kid again.
It’s what sick kids deserve.