Just recently, there’s been a huge dust-up over someone saying some things about John Green, and him responding to those things in perhaps not the best manner. I’m not going to take sides in this, or give my personal feelings on the opinions of John Green expressed in the tumblr post or thread. Instead, as a book reviewer who reviews YA literature writing on a blog that reviews YA literature between half and two-thirds of the time, and finally, as a person who is no longer a Young Adult, I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about how our society views adults who interact commonly with children and Young Adults, especially men, but also women. And then I’m going to give my take on the most positive ways for adults involved in the literature community to interact with their young adult co-fans.
Young Adult literature is an odd duck. It’s written mostly by people who are no longer young adults, though they may know many due to being parents or their day job. It’s read by both actual young adults and also adults, who for various reasons enjoy it as much or more than a lot of adult literature. There are many reasons why an adult might get involved in Young Adult literature as an author, fan, or occupationally connected person. The two mot obvious categories are librarians–especially school librarians–and authors. There are many writers who would be classified as young adults, but very few of them get published while they are that age. The vast majority of YA writers are adults, either in their early 20s and 30s or much older. The possible writing-related reasons for this aren’t relevant to this post. This is the reality we are dealing with.
Now, adults who interact with kids are often in a delicate position in our society. Biologically, adults are more mature thank kids in terms of thought processes and socialization. (Actual behavior is another story!) This, as well as other aspects of our society, give them a form of power over children and young adults, and in many cases, a lot of power. That power can be and all too often has been abused. That abuse can be sexual, but it can also involve many other things. Stoking egos, getting monetary favors, or convincing kids to do something that benefits the adult and not the child, etc. We’ve become so much more aware of those power dynamics in the last few decades. This is a good thing. It means people can no longer get away with exploitative and abusive behavior the way they could only 20 or 30 years ago. But there are also false positives. Or smaller issues getting magnified. There are various statistics on how common these false positives are versus false negatives, and I won’t debate the ethics issues involved here. These false positives happen, and they can really suck for the person they happen to. Especially in this Internet Age where the tiniest rumour can be magnified into a dog-pile or a witch-hunt. it’s hard to tell when such a thing will happen.
All this leads up to my first point: even mature, well-socialized adults can make mistakes. Especially when they are dealing with the transient rules and murky social systems of young adults, who are transitioning between child and adult socialization.
As a creator with a huge fanbase, John Green has more power than many adults, and also more ardent defenders. For these reasons, it’s on Green to be the more responsible party in interactions with both his fandom and his haters.
This article from The Mary Sue gives a good example: http://www.themarysue.com/john-green-female-ya-readers/
This could have been a chance for John Green to take a moment to discuss why while he’s attempting to do something positive for teens, it’s still important for teens to keep an eye out for possible red flags. As a public figure who has courted (in a neutral way, this is not an implication of creepiness) his target audience who happens to be mostly teenage girls, it’s his responsibility to make sure that the relationship between himself and his fans remains appropriate. And I think he’s done a good job of that overall, and I have not a single suspicion there’s some ulterior motive behind his behavior or his writing.
John Green may have privilege, but he is still merely human, and he responded as a large majority of people might have responded to such comments. But, there are other ways he could have responded to create something positive out of this:
- He could have chosen not to respond. That’s hard when you’ve been tagged into the mess, but he could have chosen that path. In which case this would have been just another tempest in a tumblr.
- He could have posted on his blog without linking to the specific tumblr post and talked about how he may not have misused his platform to groom and/or assault teenagers, but that it does happen and gone on to describe the issue of power differentials between adults and teens, creators and fans/consumers, men and women.
- He could have talked about how creators have to deal with negative publicity in various forms, and how to keep a thick skin and deal with those issues. I’m sure that would have been an interesting topic for many of his fans and for his friends, writers and otherwise.
- He could have used it as an opportunity to talk about the differences between the cafeteria table and the Internet, and how a social media network like tumblr is not really private, even if you have strong privacy settings.
- He could have talked about the dangers of snowballing on the internet, and how one voice alone may not be that big of a deal, but how the nature of the internet encourages people to pile on, to engage in social signalling and how in-group/out-group posturing plays out online. In this case, Greenies and non-Greenies. He could still talk about that, except in this case he started the snowball rolling and his fans and friends piled more snow on it until it may have crushed the original commenter. A fate that person probably did not deserve, despite the contentious issues involved here.
- He could even have talked about how he chooses to engage his fanbase and why, and the pros and cons of this approach, both for him and for others considering making themselves into such a brand.
The fact that he did not do this doesn’t make him an evil monster. But his response was a bit like like destroying a damn above a little ant-hill because one ant bit him thinking he might be attacking the nest. He must know by now that no matter what he says, his fans and friends will leap to his defense, even if it’s unnecessary and possibly excessive. That’s something I hope he’ll be thinking about when situations like this arise in the future.