If you’re a person on the internet, you’ve heard of John Green. But if you don’t or are playing it cool, Green is a hugely successful writer and YouTuber. His best-selling books include Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and The Fault In Our Stars. Those latter two novels have been turned into movies, and Paper Towns recently celebrated a premiere event in Columbus, Ohio.
I know what you’re thinking. A movie promotion in Columbus, Ohio is as ironic as a rich man mugging a poor man. But it’s an example of how much people adore Green’s work and the power that his fans (called “Nerdfighters”) have online. Through Tumblr, fans voted for Green and the cast to come to their state. Ohio got the most votes (along with Indiana and Texas). And I was there.
I am in my twenties, and I have read one book by Green (The Fault in Our Stars). Like many who read it, I thought it was fabulous, but I missed the Nerdfighter boat. I took my sister, just months shy of her Sweet Sixteen, and one of her friends to the event. We are from Detroit, Michigan and drove four hours just for a chance to meet Green and the stars. As I played “the mom” that day, I began to realize something that never occurred to me.
There were some 2,000 fans in attendance, lined up all morning and the early afternoon. As I looked at them, I saw they wore shirts with Green’s face and the word PIZZA printed on them. One man had on a shirt that read, “Don’t Forget to be Awesome,” one of Green’s famous catchphrases. No one had on a shirt with a Nat Wolff (Quentin Jacobsen) quote on it or Cara Delevigne’s (Margo Roth Spiegelman) face on the chest. People weren’t there for the actors. They were there for the book – for Green.
Almost everyone had a hard copy of Paper Towns or another one of Green’s books. Some of them even had special edition hardcovers. Only one girl had a magazine with Delevigne on it, and even she had her copy of Paper Towns. Overwhelmingly, the turn out was in support of the man who created the mystery of Margo Roth Spiegelman. Another crop of fans had a sign pleading Green to wave at them. None of the signs asked the stars to notice them. Of course the fans were excited that the stars would be there. But they were excited for their characters – characters that Green developed.
I soon found myself before the red carpet. There, I encountered two, excited young ladies – one loud and the other demure. The young lady next to me was fifteen, a sophomore in high school, and had been a fan of Green’s since “sixth or seventh grade.” She called Green her inspiration and she told me that when she saw him, she would cry. The quieter girl asked her how long she had been a Nerdfighter, and they discussed “tiny chickens.” They also talked with my sister and her friend about how amazing Green’s writing is and that his part in Let It Snow (co-authored with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle) was the best. Nobody talked about how excited they were to see Delevigne in Suicide Squad. It’s not to say they weren’t thinking it because who isn’t excited about Suicide Squad? The actors just weren’t at the forefront.
People screamed for the actors, especially Wolff. But no one was more excited than when Green came out of his car. We’re talking ear-shattering, it’s-1964-and-The-Beatles-Are-in-New-York-City sounds. Green isn’t an actor or musician. He’s a guy who writes books. He’s ordinary, but readers treat him like he’s from Mount Olympus. And it’s awesome.
We’re afraid books are going away. And, in some part, they are. Kindles and your iPad provide you with literary goodness without the hassle of driving. I get it. Driving is hard, and at my local Barnes and Noble, there’s a cashier who would remind you of Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. But over 2,000 fans were at a movie promotion for a book signing. Nobody asked Green to sign a Kindle. This was all about paper. It came down to a book and a Sharpie.
That’s not to say the Internet isn’t instrumental for Green’s success. Aside from his YouTube channel with his brother, Hank, Green is accessible on Twitter and Tumblr. He communicates with his fans through social media. Modern technology is there, but it leads young fans to paper and ink. It’s what makes Green such an unusual author.
I’ve seen books made into movies countless times. I lived (and happily screamed) through this with the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter exploded before social media and ended just as it took hold. We couldn’t access J.K. Rowling unless we were lucky. Green is happy to favorite you when he has a chance, which fans love. They love being treated like you would treat your friends. Social media gives Green the chance to do that. But that’s not the only thing that makes Green’s success unique. Unlike Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games, Green didn’t write a series. He writes one story with no sequels. And it isn’t about witches, vampires, or dystopian societies. He writes about people doing people things. He writes about living and dying, kissing and crying. He tells human stories, and people love him and his characters. He is one of the only realistic fiction writers with a fandom.
Green’s popularity continues to mix the new and the old. I heard of Green because my mother, a Gen Xer afraid of the Internet, handed me a book. Later, I would hear a friend talking about Green’s YouTube channel. His work appeals to you no matter your station in life and no matter your stance on social media. This means Green’s work will probably prove timeless.
Paper Towns is likely going to be a box office smash because of a word it knows well – paper. Margo Roth Spiegelman might think that being like paper is a sin. But maybe paper is exactly what we need.