Bradley Copper | 6 February 2017
John Green isn’t the first Young Adult writer you’d associate with the labyrinthine depths of American postmodern fiction, let alone with the onerous figure of David Foster Wallace. The combination of Green’s happy-go-lucky YouTube persona and the explosive popularity of his cancer novel-turned-teen romance The Fault in Our Stars (2012) has made Green the figurehead of a supposedly adolescent romantic fandom. To anybody who digs a little deeper, the above characterisation of Green’s online community is condescending at best—it is also untrue (‘Nerdfighter Census’). Popular though The Fault in Our Stars and its 2014 film adaption were with certain younger demographics, the content of Green’s work in his fiction and on the internet shows a different side of him. Green and his brother Hank imagine their ‘Nerdfighteria’ community as an online haven of empathy and intellectualism (or the titular nerdiness), with a drive toward imagining complexity in the world (‘vlogbrothers’).
With this characterisation in mind, the seemingly paradoxical link between Green and Wallace already seems more likely, given that Wallace stresses these values in his own work. And Green is helpfully open about the influence of Wallace on his fiction. An Imperial Affliction—the fictitious novel Hazel Grace Lancaster obsesses over in The Fault in Our Stars—is based on Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest. Green has made clear that he “wanted readers of [Infinite Jest] to be able to make those comparisons” between Hazel’s thoughts on An Imperial Affliction and Wallace’s magnum opus (‘FAQ’). Hazel’s obsession comes partly from the novel’s ending mid-sentence, which is itself a tactic straight from Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (1987). Green’s much-neglected second novel, An Abundance of Katherines (2006), also includes scores of footnotes—a hallmark of Wallace if ever there was one.
Green’s essay for Infinite Summer, an online project aimed at rereading Infinite Jest in the aftermath of Wallace’s death, is similarly telling. Green mentions that after a few beers he locates the very invention of contemporary Young Adult fiction in the Enfield Tennis Academy scenes of Infinite Jest (‘Why I’m Behind’). As is so often the case, then, intertextuality spirals into a wider thematic response. The criticism regularly thrown at Green for his fiction’s unrealistically super-intelligent teenagers, alongside the novels’ overwrought intellectualism—such as Paper Towns’ (2008) fascination with the poetry of Walt Whitman—reflects the values of Infinite Jest and its child prodigy Hal Incandenza. The drive of Green’s work, both online and in fiction, are two sides of the same coin; and it appears to owe much to Wallace.
The specifics of this relationship are epitomised in a talk Green gave at Kenyon College in 2014. Titled ‘Thoughts on How to Make Things and Why’, Green speaks of the high/low culture debate. He first clarifies that he does not agree with the defence of genre fiction given by many writers of it: that low culture deserves exclusive academic study. Green instead suggests that reading novels like Song of Solomon (1977) and Moby-Dick (1851) are better intellectual pursuits that reading his own. But he also stresses a middle ground in which genre fiction is nevertheless a productive way of confronting the same ‘big questions’ literary novels do—albeit in a way that is more direct and feels more candid to teenagers asking these questions.
In the middle of his explanation, Green quotes a passage from Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King (2011), in which the latter suggests that information culture is the free market’s response to a universal desire for distraction. Green rightly points out the mass availability of distraction means genre novels “must do something more than merely divert attention” to compete. This “something more”, says Green, is that “stories” give us a push toward a generous imagining of other people in which our assumptions are compassionate and considerate. Anybody familiar with Wallace will recognise this as the ethical underpinning of his 2005 commencement address This is Water, suitably given at Kenyon College too, and itself a translation of some of Infinite Jest’s ethical anecdotes.
Green’s motivation to use genre fiction thus mirrors what Wallace strikingly calls the “stay[ing] conscious and alive in the adult world” (‘This is Water’). And the aforementioned connections between Green’s fiction and online work suggest Wallace also lies behind Green’s internet-based projects. Admittedly, Green’s values are hardly exceptional in the arenas of either Young Adult fiction or YouTube; nevertheless, the terms by which Green conceptualises the value of his writing—and this seems to him an important day-to-day existential question—owe much to, and are inspired by, Wallace and his work.
‘2016 Nerdfighter Census Analysis.’ hankschannel, 11 Oct. 2016. YouTube.
Green, John. An Abundance of Katherines. Dutton, 2006.
———. The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton, 2012.
———. Paper Towns. Dutton, 2008.
———. ‘Why I’m Behind.’ infinitesummer.org.
‘This Is Water—Full version-David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech.’ Jamie Sullivan, 19 May 2013. YouTube.
‘Kenyon College: John Green – Thoughts on How To Make Things and Why.’ KenyonCollegeVideo, 13 Feb 2014. YouTube.
Wallace, David Foster. The Broom of the System. Abacus, 1997.
———. Infinite Jest: A Novel. Abacus, 1997.
———. The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel. Penguin, 2012.