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”.
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.