Brow Beat

John Green Is a Hero of the Teen Internet. Is He to Blame for the Controversy Around Him?

John Green, author of the YA hits The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, is—for many teen girls—a fantasy wrapped in a poem stuffed into the sleeve of a John Mayer CD.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

John Green, author of the hit young adult novels The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, recently found himself at the center of another swirling Internet controversy. Here’s the Sparknotes summary: A girl posted on Tumblr that Green creeped her out.

i bet john green thinks people don’t like him because he’s a “dork” or a nerd or whatever

when in reality it’s because he’s a creep who panders to teenage girls so that he can amass some weird cult-like following. and it’s always girls who feel misunderstood, you know, and he goes out of his way to make them feel important and desirable. which is fucking? weird?

also he has a social media presence that is equivalent to that dad of a kid in your friend group who always volunteers to “supervise” the pool parties and scoots his lawn chair close to all the girls.

The original user didn’t tag Green, who maintains a lively Tumblr account, but a lot of other users, reblogging or commenting on her post, did. Inevitably, the note wafted onto Green’s radar screen. He parried with his own Tumblr cri de coeur.

“You want me to defend myself against the implication that I sexually abuse children?” he wrote.

Okay. I do not sexually abuse children.

Throwing that kind of accusation around is sick and libelous and most importantly damages the discourse around the actual sexual abuse of children. When you use accusations of pedophilia as a way of insulting people whose work you don’t like, you trivialize abuse.

I’m tired of seeing the language of social justice–important language doing important work–misused as a way to dehumanize others and treat them hatefully.

Green blamed the “complicated dopamine rush that comes with righteous indignation” for fueling endless, meaningless cycles of Web outrage. He took care to ID that urge in himself, nodding as well toward his “various shortcomings.” Then, he announced that he would henceforth do less Tumblr interacting, more Tumblr posting-and-ghosting. “I’m not angry or anything like that,” he explained. “I just need some distance for my well-being.”

Maybe the simplest observation to make here is that an expert writer expertly defused a potential hit to his brand. In his reply, which reads as conversational, clear, and sympathetic, Green says he doesn’t so much mind that someone insulted him—he’s not even mad!—he just dislikes 1) the trivialization of “the actual sexual abuse of children” 2) the misuse of language (be still our bookwormy hearts) and 3) dehumanization and hate. (Well, who doesn’t?) He says that, while there’s an interesting scientific explanation—dopamine!—for all the abuse we throw at each other online, he’s ready for a break; he hopes fans “will continue to be open and collaborative and constructive” while he’s gone. “DFTBA,” Green concludes, signing off with the uplifting acronym—“Don’t forget to be awesome”—that he coined with his vlogging brother, Hank.

I don’t know what a better alternative would look like, but the suavity of this PR seduction makes my skin crawl a little bit. (And I’m a John Green fan! I once wrote 2,500 words in defense of the sentimentality in The Fault in Our Stars.) Elsewhere on social media, literary bright lights rallied around Green. Rainbow Rowell, Patrick Ness, Maureen Johnson, and Maggie Stiefvater blogged or tweeted their support for the author (named one of Forbes’ “highest-paid celebrities” in 2015). Some declared their disgust with his detractor. Only one outlet, the Huffington Post, posited that maybe famous and respected adult writers should stop piling on a young girl for voicing her opinion.

John Green is very likely a lovely, not-creepy guy. And the user “virjn”’s beefs with him seem dumb and unfair: Since when do we fault authors for imagining kids’ worlds so vividly that they make fans out of actual kids? (Tolstoy did a great job with Natasha, and his reputation’s fine.) A lot of people would further dispute the “leering dad” characterization of Green’s social media presence. He’s active, yes, but not inappropriate or over-solicitous. Obviously, virjn doesn’t like Green, and she chose to cast her disdain in sharply insulting terms—by insinuating that he does what he does in bad faith, to flatter his ego.

Yet nowhere in her post does she accuse Green of sexually abusing teenage girls. It feels disingenuous and slimy that Team Green decided to conflate her subjective evaluation that he panders to his target demographic with a charge of pedophilia.

For context on this whole weird wreck, think of Tumblr as a marsh lit by the eerie flare-ups of fan and antifan obsession. Think of John Green as the methane generated by organic decomposition. He’s inspired pages devoted to his quotes, libraries of GIFs, reams of fan art, and a game, the “is that john green” game, because random Tumblr users so often find themselves unwittingly bantering with him after they mention him online. Lines from John Green books, most of which concern alienated, supersmart teenagers on the hunt for Meaning, get blogged and tagged and meme’d and tattooed on body parts and photographed and uploaded and reblogged. (The best example of this is perhaps the inescapable “If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane,” from Green’s 2005 novel Looking for Alaska. A different soulful quote—“I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met”—was so widely attributed to Green that he himself sold posters of it in his online store, before realizing that its true creator was a 13-year-old girl from Wisconsin. “I suppose instead of blindly assuming I’d written something the Internet said I wrote, I should’ve done some research,” the author confessed, charmingly, on YouTube.)

He’s a bit of a teenage girl whisperer. Sweetly earnest, intellectual, and generous, he’s a fantasy wrapped in a poem stuffed into the sleeve of a John Mayer CD. In her wonderful profile of Green, Margaret Talbot gleaned that he signed the entire first printing—150,000 copies—of The Fault in Our Stars, “which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.” And he’s mastered the tone of smart whimsy I, at least, found irresistible when I was 12. He named his Tumblr “Fishing Boat Proceeds” in wry homage to an IRS form that struck him as strangely plangent. In his Tumblr’s FAQ section, he playfully refers readers to the joke site “Let Me Google That For You.”

But the JG backlash is thriving. For every legend of a fan’s parent rescuing her worn copy of TFIOS moments before a tornado, Tumblr spits out a rant about Green’s reliance on manic pixie dream girls to beguile and instruct his male characters, or a list of “problematic shit” he’s done (e.g. “Defended Laci Green despite countless racist, transphobic, fat-shaming comments”), or a YouTube video delving into why TFIOS is formulaic and tacky. There are John Green hate blogs and ironic counter-movements—after the brothers Green started an online bloc of “nerdfighters” to “increase awesome and decrease suck” in the world, a “nerdfighters fighters” community formed to make fun of them. Whether or not Green “panders” to teenagers, there’s no question that he writes for a demographic with a unique capacity for ardent opinions.

Enter virjn, who, in demonstrating the fickleness of Internet celebrity, shived Green where it hurt. She called him a phony in an environment where that’s a fair point: Everyone on Tumblr is selling and buffing and shining and shaping their image. Virjn is also right that, whatever his intentions, Green could not craft a persona more precision-tuned for online adoration than the one he has. Channeling the same queasiness that suffuses our understanding of Upworthy, or body-positive soap commercials, or anti-corporate blockbuster movies about Legos—she cried creepy.

So we … what? Aligned her with dehumanization, hate, the misuse of language, and “the actual sexual abuse of children.” Green’s swift and hyperbolic response to virjn—now reblogged or liked more than 57,000 times—feels doubly unfair, in that it told her she was wrong while revealing that she was at least partly right. It used rhetorical dazzle and intuition—the very things that made virjn suspicious—to disarm and shame her. And Green’s influential supporters made it worse.

If I were to further analyze my own feelings of ickiness, I’d observe that the objects of teen girl hysteria are often sexualized. I’m rattled, maybe unfairly, to see so much devotion funneled toward an older author who, though never in danger of presenting himself as a romantic hero, knows exactly how to write one. Green needn’t apologize for his creative skills, of course. But for someone who wants to encourage strong young women, he sure has them eating out of his hand.

On the other hand, the Web gives readers a form of power over him, too. In her defense of Green, bestselling YA author Maggie Stiefvater pointed out that virjn’s post wasn’t just festering in some cesspool somewhere, but delivered to its target’s doorstep. “He was tagged in it,” she wrote. “It was placed in his feed for his perusal.” If retaliating against a hater soliloquying on some lonely Internet perch is one thing, perhaps an intimate attack on your turf demands a different response. But what’s the best way to understand how kids use Tumblr now? Is it a network of communications sent back and forth, like email, or more like a diary other people happen to have access to? Maybe Green’s reply to this whole hot mess is reasonable, but I can’t help feeling that he forgot to be awesome.