Let’s talk about John Green and the NYT bestseller list, shall we?
I have no statistics, but based on time in bookstores, my own bookshelves, and the cohort of debut 2015 YA authors, I’d say that the majority of people writing YA are women. Unsurprisingly, it’s therefore often portrayed as a shallow, pointless genre, perpetuated by the “damned mob of scribbling women” that has been reviled by “serious” authors and readers since the 1800s at least.
But when it comes to bestseller status and critical acclaim, those women are all but invisible. Last week’s NYT bestseller list featured eight titles by men and two titles by women. This week’s only has one title by a woman, and that one in tenth place. And these two bold women on the bestseller list? Both of them have been seriously promoted by John Green, the male YA author who holds four out of ten places on the list right now. Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor & Park was held the 10th spot last week, received a serious sales boost after John Green reviewed the book in the New York Times. Although the success was well deserved, it didn’t occur because of the book alone. And the other book by a female author, This Star Won’t Go Out, is a memoir that is so closely connected to John Green that I’m surprised the publishers didn’t write “The real story of the Fault in Our Stars” on the cover.
Of course, John Green’s domination of the list right now doesn’t end with his own books and those female authors he supports. Two spots on both lists are filled by Ransom Riggs, another author who has been heavily supported by John Green. The other books on the list are fairly old titles (at least in the world of YA), also written by male authors: The Book Thief, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Thirteen Reasons Why. I’m assuming The Book Thief has had a spike of popularity because of the movie. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Thirteen Reasons Why are in the John Green school of YA (or John Green is in the Perks of Being a Wallflower school of YA) — dark and angsty contemporary YA novels about death, depression and other such things, usually with a male protagonist and written by a man.
How can this be the case in a genre that’s supposedly “dominated” by women? How can the bestsellers of a genre that is mostly read by female readers, written by female writers, and about female characters by 90% written by male authors, with 7/9 of the novels starring a male protagonist?
The obvious and easy answer, of course, is The Fault in Our Stars. Combine John Green’s internet presence (nearly 2 million Youtube subscribers) with the fact that The Fault in Our Stars mixes romance, angst and cancer to create the perfect emotional smash hit, and it’s understandable that the book went nuclear in popularity, that people then bought John Green’s backlist of books, and that they pick up books with his endorsement on the cover. But The Fault in Our Stars simply isn’t that good. Not that it isn’t good, of course. But it isn’t head and shoulders above other YA novels, even those within the same subcategory. There are many novels by female authors that fit a similar bill and are just as emotional and accomplished, if not more so. Books by Gayle Forman. Courtney Summers. Sara Zarr.
Other women have held prominent places in the bestseller list — Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth, to name two. But I don’t ever recall seeing this sort of domination. Or consider Cassandra Clare, whose initial success could be attributed to her fame in the old world of Harry Potter fandom. She’s had NYT bestselling titles, certainly. But sticking a recommendation from her on the front of a book isn’t going to catapult it to success.
Another easy answer is that successful female authors write series, while men are more likely to write standalone books. All of those bestselling female authors I just named are genre series writers. And if you look at the NYT bestselling children’s series list this week, 6 out of 10 authors are women. But there are a couple of very uncomfortable implications here. The NYT added a children’s bestseller list in 2000 because Harry Potter had dominated the list for a couple of years and seemed to be getting a greater hold with each new release. I also have the sense that the series list is an even more recent invention of the NYT (although my google search hasn’t brought up any dates), shifting books that would otherwise hold places on the main list (currently including Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, The Hunger Games series and The Mortal Instrument series, which has more than three books — the criteria for a “series” — but is incomplete) onto a secondary list, and gathering several successful books by female authors into one single item. John Green writes standalones, so he can hold four places on the list. These successful female authors do not, so they can only hold one.
So firstly, genre novels are more likely to be series, and more likely to be moved off the main list. But the greater problem is the idea that female authors only write genre. That the women are writing dystopia or vampires, and the men are writing the serious literary stuff about cancer and war and death. But this is also patently untrue. For every John Green book, there are many similarly wonderful, literary, contemporary YA novels written by women. I named just a few of the authors who are writing them above. And yet, unless they’re promoted by John Green, they don’t feature. And The Book Thief is fabulous, but where is Code Name Verity or Between Shades of Grey or other similar amazing WWII novels with female authors?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. Perhaps it’s because books by male authors are marketed differently. Perhaps it’s because of crossover appeal to adult readers (after all, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t look like YA). There are a million potential “perhaps,” and I’m not really in a position to pick out a definitive answer. But the questions definitely need to be asked. And, considering John Green’s presence on Tumblr and Youtube, it’s something that I wish he’d weigh in on. Not because it’s his fault, and not because he has the answers, but because his words seem to carry more weight than anybody’s in YA right now. And this is something that needs to be talked about.