Why I Despise The Fault in Our Stars and Other Books Like It

I have to admit something: I really despise The Fault in Our Stars.  I hate the fact that at my work some wide-eyed teenage girl asks for it at least once a day and I have to go retrieve it and put it in her hands and send her on her way.  I asked my teenage sister-in-law, who admitted her deep love for it, why she loved it so.  Her response was, “because it’s the first love story I’ve really liked.”  I reeled from that statement.

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I wonder what it is about love + cancer that forms such a potent draw for teenagers.  It happened in the early 2000s (remember all those cancer movies — Walk to Remember, Here on Earth, etc), and it seems to have caught fire again. Cancer becomes the symbol for love conquering all, and oh oh how I hate it.

To give you context, I have had several people in life succumb to cancer, but for this article, I’m just going to discuss my father.  When I was in college, my father was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of liver cancer, and three years later he died of it.  Oh, how he fought, longer than any doctor predicted, and oh how we grieved when he lost. But those sentences don’t convey the agony of doctor’s visits, and the actual horror of watching someone you love — someone quick to laugh and rather rotund who loves donuts and Dr. Pepper, someone with a brilliance that’s hard to find — disappear bit by bit.

The January before he died, three years ago, for his birthday he couldn’t eat anything, and I remember being shocked that my father — this man who snuck sweets into the house at every opportunity — was not able to eat the chocolate mousse my grandmother had prepared for him.

The last month was a slow and steady decline into nothing.  It was a process of watching someone slowly be confined to a bed, and become more gaunt and yellow, and then be unable to move or speak as we all watched.  It was quietly sitting by a bed, and holding his hand so carefully, because you could feel the bones and you didn’t want to hurt him, and watching him try to mouth words to you under a pain-and-morphine induced haze.  It was something that still gives me nightmares.  He confessed to my mother about a month before he died, that he didn’t want to go. He had so much more to do, but instead of a sudden cure or sudden clarity, he slowly vanished.

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Maybe with this context you’ll understand why I hate books like The Fault in Our Stars or “feel good” cancer books.  Cancer doesn’t feel good, and finding love doesn’t cure it.  Carpe diem is a nice sentiment, but for those who suffer and those who watch, it feels rather empty.  At the end, there is not a lot of ability to do anything.  The end is full of tubes and weakness and stillness, and the image that these books convey is a rose-colored one.

Even though the book seems to loudly proclaim that is different — that it is about that harshness and the fight and those long slow nights — it’s nothing more than the view of someone who visits every now and then, thinks, “how brave they are in the face of this” and then uses it as inspiration porn to spur others to movement.

The reality is hard and murky and painful, and it is so much more than all of that.  It’s so much more than “one sick love story”; it’s so much more than cancer as a metaphor for the brevity of life, and it’s so much more than death and anger.   I’m tired of the “how beautiful” sentiment — the beauty of two doomed teenagers reaching against the abyss to find love and be okay.  Oh how tragic! I’m tired of all of it. It is not okay, and it will never be okay.

The reality is the struggle, and perhaps, yes, there is some love and some grace and some ability to grasp what life has to offer, but oh how tired am I of having to read about cancer from this simplistic point and view it as a metaphor when my life was steeped in it for so long.  It feels awkwardly voyeuristic, exhausting, frustrating, mostly inaccurate, painful, and cliché at best. So no thank you, I will search elsewhere for my teen fiction, and I will stay the fuck away from that mess.

Sonja found true nerd love with Lord of The Rings, and has never really looked back to the muggle world. She can found devouring sci-fi/fantasy books, comics, and fantasy RPG video games (especially ones by Bioware). Come on Dragon Age 3!

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  • Gwena

    This article was honestly a bit of a god-sent to me. I had never ever heard of Fault in Our Stars until the trailer appeared on my facebook Newsfeed one day with a statement from an overly-excited fangirl. Ever since, I can’t seem to get away from it. Everywhere I go there’s people talking about it and how touching it is and what a great read it is. My friends are even passing it around sharing it with each other. I, on the other hand, refuse to read it, and may not even see the movie until years after it’s released (that’s what I did with My Sister’s Keeper). My reasoning for this is that I had cancer myself when I was a little kid. I completely agree with your point of turning this horrible disease into some sick romance novel. I don’t even like romance novels! And I HATE when people that have no idea what they’re talking about say “it handled the subject really well.” From every cancer-based movie I’ve seen the only one I liked how it dealt with cancer was 50/50, and even that had its moments. So thank you for explaining this seemingly simple idea to those who for some reason just don’t seem to get it.

  • Ardo the O-some

    I’m not a fan of the “sick lit” genre because I’m a bit of a hyperchondriac. That said, I wasn’t overly in awe of this book as others have been. While reading, I was actively aware that I am not in a position to judge how well it does in representing those who deal with this every day or have just dealt with it at some point. I can say it was an ok book and your insight is important to me because it offers a perspective I lack and something that Green doesn’t really offer imo.

  • Flatadverb

    Thank you! I haven’t been able to articulate why this book bothered me so much. It’s just… I’ve lost more than one beloved person to the interminable hell that is cancer, and I have to say, there are no life-affirming best-of-a-bad-situation skips through the roses. I’m all for a love story and I’m all for having your characters face realistic adversity, but this book just reads like voyeurism and some weird off-shoot of schadenfreude (inspiration porn, I guess?), while masquerading as some kind of existentialist “innocent” romance and frankly it makes me want to barf up my Hot Pocket. The turkey/bacon kind. And I love that kind.

    • Reader123

      I totoly agree. This book is just like every other stupid romance novel that has been published.

  • S. Palmer

    I have actually read the book, which is why the whole subject matter makes me so irate. This is the perspective of someone who read the book and absolutely despised it.

  • I totally get your perspective on this; I read, a while ago, a post on inspiration porn and how able-bodied people use people with disabilities as “inspiration” to sort of empower themselves rather than looking at the disabled persons like actual persons. That being said, I’m not sure Green completely takes the context of cancer out of his book (since I haven’t lived through any experiences with cancer). I’m assuming you’ve read the book, so I’ll trust in your perspective of it.

  • arielletje

    This is so interesting for me to read, as I’ve never actually had a close encounter with cancer, so your perspective is really new to me.

    I can definitely see your point; on the other hand, I am still very fond of adorable heartbreaking romance – and such a sucker for well-written YA, and TFiOS is both of those imo.