At BookCon this past weekend, some 2,000 fans showed up to scream for author John Green. Even more enthusiasts showed up to scream even louder at the New York premiere of The Fault in Our Stars, where the sidewalk around the Ziegfeld Theater was clogged with fans desperate to see, talk, and touch the mild-mannered Green. Star Shailene Woodley got her share of screams, too, but the volume and intensity reached a fever pitch when John and his brother Hank walked down a line of fans wearing cerulean-colored shirts emblazoned with Fault’s catch phrase — “Okay?” “Okay.” — this world’s equivalent of Ghost’s “Ditto.” Why would the brothers Green be the main attraction at a movie premiere? What, you might ask, is going on here? And what’s with all the weird hand gestures these folks are making?
Green is no ordinary YA book author, for starters. His popularity in both book sales and on the internet surpasses any of his peers, to the point where publishing observers (and some detractors) have called his impact and influence the “John Green Effect.” (He has written several other novels, including 2005’s Looking for Alaska and 2008’s Paper Towns.) His internet footprint is huge — some 2 million followers on Twitter, another 2 million on his and his brother’s YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, and nearly another 2 million for his online Crash Course tutorial series (again, with his brother). No wonder this man was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of the year. Among his famous fans are President Barack Obama, actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and Olympic gymnast Jennifer Pinches — all of whom have publicly repeated Green’s motto, “Don’t forget to be awesome” (or “D.F.T.B.A.”), or given the not-so-secret wrists-crossed Nerdfighter salute, or imitated the author’s pose in a photograph. This fan bond echoes the “live long and prosper” from Star Trek and the “W” finger-splay of wizard rock. After all, Hank is a wizard rocker, and as John told Vulture, “I did once, at a Harry Potter conference, dress up as Dumbledore.”
That might be the best metaphor for understanding the love the fan community has for Green — he is their Dumbledore, and they are his Dumbledore’s Army. If he has a bigger following than an entire army of YA female authors, it’s because he does a lot more than just write books. He creates a mission, a cause, something both his young and adult readers can get behind — to “fight world suck.” Being a Nerdfighter doesn’t really mean you’re fighting nerds — it means you are a nerd, and proud of it. John Green’s books are only a small part of fans’ interests, since Green expounds and rants on every aspect of life in his videos, from health care and world politics to silly things like pizza and his poofy hair. (Okay, sometimes pizza is a metaphor, just like Gus’s cigarette.) Of course, these are things he doesn’t get to talk about when fans are screaming.
“There’s no question that the bright line between artists and their art has been muddied a lot by mass media, especially by social media,” he told Vulture. “The pleasure of writing and reading is very different from the pleasure of attending [conventions], right? The pleasure of writing and reading for me is that long, deep engagement with a story and characters and a set of ideas. That to me is where the most meaningful conversations happen.”
And his relationship with fans is a conversation. As much as Green talks (and at a rapid pace, at least in his videos — on the phone, he is calmer), he also listens. His deep engagement with one fan, Esther — whom he not-so-coincidentally met at a Harry Potter fan conference — led to his writing The Fault in Our Stars in the first place. Esther’s voice became the voice of the book’s cancer-ridden protagonist, Hazel, even though Hazel’s story is not Esther’s. His connection to kids who have cancer continues today, as he talks via phone and Skype with a few of them every month. (Some of these kids request the conversation through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.) Like Hazel, who yearns to know what happens to the characters at the end of her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, some of these kids want to know what happens to Hazel and her family at the end of Fault.
“I’ve had that question from a number of people who are seriously ill,” Green told Vulture. “I hope that I have very little in common with [fictional author] Peter Van Houten, but one thing we do share is that we agree it’s not a question an author can answer. Books belong to the readers, and I don’t want to take away the power and pleasure of reading by trying to impose on matters outside the text. But when I have that conversation with people who are seriously ill, the conversation usually centers on why that’s an important question, why we want to feel that the people in these stories are going to be okay — because we want to know that we’re going to be okay.”
“He doesn’t just listen to young adults,” Shailene Woodley wrote in Time. “He treats every human he meets as their own planet, rather than simply one of his moons.” His fans gravitate toward Green for acknowledging their own gravity. He’s able to be both the analytical adult who can examine and explain the world in easy terms, while also understanding that nothing is ever easy. “That’s why I’d happily let my daughter wait for hours in a basement of the Javits Center to hear him speak,” one mom wrote in Salon. And that’s the Green guarantee — kid-tested, mother-approved.