Q:Hi John. Could you respond to the frequent criticism of your work that you tend to write the same scenarios and characters over and over again? Obviously there are some differences in themes and characterizations, but your books feel more repetitive than those by other authors. I am a teen who has enjoyed some of your work, but I do feel a bit trivialized that you continue to paint teen life with such a narrow set of characters. Maybe TFIOS will be different?
Sure! And thanks for the honest question!
The Fault in Our Stars is very different (it’s narrated by a girl; she is not in high school; her concerns are somewhat different from the concerns of my previous protagonists; etc.) but I’m sure people will say that it has some similarities to my other books. Like, for instance, I enjoy writing about smart people.
I intended Paper Towns to be a pretty obvious and aggressive response to Looking for Alaska, specifically to what I felt were the insufficiencies of Alaska in terms of the way the male characters in the novel imagined women (and, more generally, the way everyone in the book, and most YA books at the time, imagined Romantic Others). A lot of people read this as a rewriting or a revision or a revisiting or whatever of Looking for Alaska, which is totally fine (books belong to their readers), but to me it is the complete OPPOSITE of LfA (one is about the legitimacy of Great Lost Love, and one is about the absolute ridiculousness and illegitimacy of Great Lost Love), or at least that’s what I intended. So, like, I wanted those books to be superficially similar so they would stand in stark contrast thematically, but I was definitely super-conscious of those plot and character similarities, and I wanted readers who’d read both books to be able to see the progression of my thoughts on the topic.
Katherines seems to me wholly different from my other books except in some uninteresting superficial ways (like, it also contains a road trip, and it also contains a romance and nerds, but those are boring and trivial similarities and I can’t very well apologize for writing about road trips when road trips are the essential American Thing To Do, and like the #1 symbol for both America*’s size and our beautiful/awful gluttonous disregard for sensibility and sustainability). But basically, Katherines is a comic novel about mathematics, which is not very similar to my other books.
TFiOS is less like anything that came before it, I guess, but if you’re asking if I’ve stopped writing about smart people: No, I haven’t. I like smart people. I am interested in their lives. (I also like smart people who do not find irony a convincing way to hide from intellectual engagement, which is the A#1 reason I like writing about teenagers.)
(Let me note, btw, that there are many, many criticisms of my books that I think are completely accurate—like, believe me when I say I am hyper-focused on the many weaknesses and insufficiencies of my novels and that I run up against the limits of my meager talents on a daily basis and that I do not labor under the delusion that I am an exceptionally good writer. I just don’t think the all-your-books-are-the-same thing is particularly convincing, at least not if one reads the books closely.)
All that said, it is true that my books tend to be focused on Middle Class White Suburban Heterosexuals and the Not Middle Class White Suburban Heterosexual Able-Bodied kids (Hassan, Tiny Cooper, Radar, Takumi, the Colonel, etc.) tend to be supporting characters in a very Traditional World War II Movie kind of way, and I think this is a totally legitimate criticism of my books. (It’s much less true of TFiOS, but still.)
It is also true that I write small-scale stories: i.e., events do not tend to take place over hundreds of years, and the cast of characters stays relatively small. Also, most of my characters are funny, but again, this is because I dislike unfunny people and don’t want to write about them.
But here’s the thing: I am not the only writer. There are many, many writers creating a huge variety of stories—tens of thousands of novels will come out in 2012, for example—and it’s not really my responsibility to tell every possible story. I can only tell the truest versions of the stories I know, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
* Another symbol of America’s size and beautiful/awful gluttony is the fact that we use the word America as if it belonged solely to us, when in fact most Americans do not live in the United States.
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