John Green Plagiarised: Why This Matters

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"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." John Green.

This week, you may have seen an interesting hashtag on Twitter – #JohnGreenQuotes. The meme, often hilarious, involved attributing some of the world’s most famous quotes to King Of YA Green, from Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech to Snoop Dogg lyrics. This hashtag sprung up in response to news that Green had falsely attributed a now famous quote to himself and used it for posters and merchandise on his store.

“I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met” originated from a Tumblr post by a then 12 year old girl, who spent many years trying to correct Green on the matter (and receiving a lot of harassment on the way from Green’s fans, ironically forgetting to be awesome). Green assumed he had written the line since so many had credited him with doing so, and didn’t realise until looking up a copy of his own book Paper Towns (one he pirated, by the way) that the quote was nowhere to be seen. Green has now said he will share royalties from the poster sold to the young fan, Melody Truong, and many now consider the matter closed.

It’s not. Not even close.

First of all, let’s take a moment to look at the way this story has been framed by the media.

“John Green Credits Fan With Quote Attributed To Him.”

“John Green’s wrongly attributed line”.

“John Green Mistakenly Took Credit For a Fan’s Quote. Now He’s Making It Up To Her.”

Very careful word choice there, ones that render Green’s actions as passive. His misdeeds are softened, the gravity of what he, a grown man and millionaire, did in relation to a 12 year old girl’s creative output in the pursuit of profit. (Also, that bottom quote is some needlessly congratulatory nonsense – he’s being hailed as a hero for doing the bare minimum in a way no woman who plagiarised ever would).

Make no bones about it – John Green, whether he intended to or not, stole someone else’s content. He plagiarised. He took credit for that which was not his on the assumption that it must be because the internet says so. At no point in the process of making products with that quote did Green or anyone else stop to check he’d actually written it because the privilege was so blinding.

The young woman who he stole from received a barrage of harassment for daring to try and reclaim credit for what was rightfully hers. In the meantime, Green made money from inspirational posters adorned with Truong’s words. The assumption that Green must have written the line because people said so is indicative of the privilege inherent in our attitudes to art. Men are geniuses; women are talentless. Men share their wisdom; women are told to shut up. Green must have come up with such a quotable and resonant line because how on earth would a pre-teen girl manage that?

The merchandising angle is what really sticks out in this story for me. The blatant cynicism of it all is especially heartbreaking. Green has been open about his support for capitalism on his Tumblr (in a post that’s naïve at best and downright ignorant on political theory at worst, but this is a longer and much more complex discussion than we need right now), and his shrewdness on branding himself and his work is almost admirable on a purely business level. Green and the Nerdfighter base appeals to the most profitable demographic on the planet – teenage girls. It’s why he’s as big a name as he is. The brand works and that poster with that stolen line is part of that brand. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t have put a price on it.

Time and time again, our words, our creativity, the very value of art itself is reduced to money. Right now in the UK, our education secretary dismissed arts and the humanities as viable routes for young people because they don’t command the wage a STEM based education does. Forget the joy of just learning or the passion of beautiful words; that’s not going to send pound signs flashing in your eyes. It’s not enough to write a book (or nick someone else’s words) – they have to be put on t-shirts and badges and posters and sold at a reasonable price.

I don’t doubt that Green and his words (those he actually wrote) resonate with a lot of people. He wouldn’t be as popular as he is without that inherent appeal. However, we keep seeing this strange lack of responsibility from Green when he screws up, as he seems to do with increasing frequency these days. He may apologise but these incidents, be it his patronising of readers with critical opinions of Twilight or condescendingly explaining to fans of the Divergent series how wrong they were to be upset with the final book, feel indicative of a wider problem within Green’s world, publishing and society in general.

Everyone’s happy to take money from young girls and women, and even their words, but they seldom seem to listen to them when it really matters. Our worth is distilled to our ability to make profits for others (usually men) and to be branded to, to be sold pretty things. Yes, this is a business and we live in a capitalist society where we must participate or be left bereft on the streets, but ultimately we need to stop and think about what this actually means. We need to think about what it means when cishet white men in positions of extreme influence have more power over a young woman’s words than she herself does, and we need to think about the pathetically low bar we set for real change when the bare minimum is painted as heroic.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I’m one of those who initially was sucked into the whole John Green phenomena, but it seems the more exposure he gains, the bigger the pretentious prick becomes. He clearly knew this young lady was not only seeking acknowledgement for HER work, but it was his own supporters that threw the barrage of abuse at this poor poppet. Considering his market is females, he’s really biting the hand that feeds him and I refuse to feed this asshole any longer.

    Thanks for the brilliant article and bringing this to light.

    • The more I hear of his arrogance and plain out douchi-ness, the more I’m happy that I only ever read The Fault in Our Stars. I won’t buy into someone who blatantly says that people shouldn’t have opinions of the books they read. That if you don’t like it you’re ‘reading it wrong’.

  2. Loving this post so much that I’m commenting via my phone.

    I’m not obsessed with John Green, and I do think he is kind of overrated, but I think I have more of a hate-love relationship with him. (I don’t keep track of what he does though) But from what you said, I have to agree that he needs to be careful with his influence. It really sucks that teenage girls are looked down upon and only used for a marketing strategy. I hate how so many people harassed that poor girl who wanted to be credited, and John Green is just too naive to make everything right. It’s also the media’s fault too. Why blame a popular white guy? He didn’t do anything wrong. Nope.

    Come on now 🙁

  3. Thank you for writing such an eloquent response to all this. I was never really a fan to begin with. When I read TFIOS, I didn’t think it was brilliant writing. So to hear more things that just pulls at my moral strings, I can’t say I’m surprised he profited from this. And to someone who is in his target audience. Nonetheless I really dislike the fact that he’s made to be a hero, when in reality? He’s not.

    One of my best friends has met him in person, and let’s just say he’s not the “hero” that everyone believes he is to be. It’s really disheartening that people believe in him. Thanks for bringing this to light, Ceilidh.

  4. Very well argued. Not being a reader or writer of YA and being, ahem, mature, I hadn’t really thought about the vulnerabilities of this particular segment of readers. And writers who are condescending toward their readers just irritate the heck out of me – the nerve of telling people they should like a book!

  5. The man who openly disdained the MPDG trope (even though he wrote it all the time) turned around and nicked a line from a fan? Why doesn’t he just say “She was my muse” and be done with this whole farce? Or his career, better still?

  6. Since when is this a question of feminism and inequality? I think this could have happened even if the original author of the quote was a boy, to be honest. I don’t know whether he did it intentionally or not, and obviously it’s ridiculous that nobody thought to check whether the quote was in his book or not before selling posters with it on. But I just don’t understand how that has anything to do with the fact that the person who did write it was a girl, that, to me, is speculative and sensationalist.
    That said, I agree that plagiarism is a very serious matter, and so is the harrassment that this girl received online just for demanding credit for what was hers to begin with. And I’m also not saying that by claiming he didn’t know and giving her credit he’s solving the problem, because I don’t think so. It just annoys me when everything becomes a matter of feminism and how this wouldn’t have happened if the original author was a boy. If anything, this wouldn’t have come to this extent if the original author was a grown-up, whether it was a man or woman, because they could have taken legal action against him and it would have been proved that this quote was not in the book.

    • I second this. Although I’m pretty much a die-hard feminist, I fail to see how this issue is at all related to gender or the fact that Green is a male and Truong is a female. What’s certainly more prevalent is that Truong is a teenager and, therefore, the rightful claim to her work was blatantly disregarded (and even challenged) – that is something we need to talk about, but I don’t believe feminism comes into play here.

      • I have to agree with these commenters. I think you’re completely right that the way the press is handling John Green’s plagiarism is terrible. He shouldn’t be applauded for finally doing the right thing. Instead, we should be asking what took him so long. However, even though I’m a feminist and I hate when people deny the existence of gender inequality, I think the relevant inequality here is between John Green’s power in the court of public opinion and the lack of power of the relatively unknown teenager he stole from. Making everything a feminist issue can make us seem like the girl who cried wolf and cause people to disregard feminism when it matters.

  7. I have no idea who John Green is. It must be a UK thing. I’m the US. But that doesn’t matter in this case. Plagarism is wrong. His excuse that he thought he wrote it because everyone was telling him so was a blatant attempt to take the blame away from himself. In his mind, this was an “accident”. Courts in the US have said that’s not enough. The Chiffons had a song called “He’s So Fine.” published in the 1963. In 1971, George Harrison came out with “My Sweet Lord,” which sounds very similar to “He’s So Fine.” Ronnie Mack, composer of “He’s So Fine,” sued George Harrison for plagiarism. The court found for Ronnie Mack, saying in effect that lack of intent didn’t excuse plagiarism. Judge Richard Owen said in his ruling, “Did Harrison deliberately use the music of He’s So Fine? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that My Sweet Lord is the very same song as He’s So Fine with different words, and Harrison had access to He’s So Fine. This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.” John Green’s agreement to pay royalties is simply an effort to avoid a lawsuit he would likely lose. (By the way, the information on the lawsuit over My Sweet Lord comes from Wikipedia.)

  8. I initially loved TFiOS, but over time, seeing him doing things like this, I don’t want to even support him anymore. Honestly, it’s too much already, and I wish more people would notice that he’s an arrogant prick and stop suffering with this attitude of his.

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