A month or two ago I read Tim Federle’s gay YA dramedy/coming-of-age/grief novel The Great American Whatever. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, having been disillusioned by many queer YA novels as of late. It didn’t start out positively though. I screencapped a line from one of the first few pages and posted it on Twitter because, well, the line sounded really dumb. The novel begins with the protagonist, Quinn, sweating in his hot bedroom, lost in a bout of self-loathing while wondering when and how he should get a new air conditioner. He wonders about the possibility of an “air conditioner fairy”, but “Alas, no fairy. Other than, you know, me.”
This line originally made me roll my eyes as far back as I possibly could. I hated that it seemed to be molding Quinn into the “sassy white gay boy” archetype. But the more I read, the more complex Quinn as a POV character became. I started to appreciate him, if not exactly find him appealing as a person.
The thing here is, Quinn is a sixteen-year-old gay kid. Teenagers, if you’re writing them properly, are likely going to be at least a little bit annoying to the adult reader. As the novel progressed, I got to know the character of Quinn better and realize that this guy is impressionable and self-conscious as hell. He’s extremely into movies, so he drops pretentious movie references without knowing that a lot of these movies aren’t as niche and underground as he seems to think they are. He believes in gender equality but hasn’t really done the legwork for it yet, so he’ll face or use gendered insults and justify it with a parenthesized “Oh but don’t worry, I’m a feminist.” A lesser writer might have incorporated these touches and still expected you to find the character “cool”. Federle, kind of brilliantly, was able to write the character as both aggravating and sympathetic. He’s able to write as Quinn without it feeling like we’re supposed to be on board with absolutely everything the character does and says. We don’t need to find him charming or even likable—by the end, whether or not we enjoy him as a character we still get where he’s coming from, and I and likely other readers are reminded of what we were like at that age. Believability rather than likability seems to be the goal. The occasional foray into less-than-realistic narrative turns aside, the character himself is always convincing.
Compare this to, say, the protagonists of John Green. I’m tentative about making declarative statements about Green’s fiction because to be honest I’ve only read Looking for Alaska and half of The Fault in Our Stars. But I can say that, subjectively speaking, I can’t stand his work. In large part I find that this is because he expects us as readers to find his protagonists “cool” and identify with them wholeheartedly. Sure they have flaws, as John Green is obsessed with the idea of “broken people” after all, but my impression while reading him is that we’re supposed to find their awkward turns of phrase, pretentious literary references and bouts of existential melodrama endearing and relatable. But it’s never come across that way to me, and I didn’t feel like these characters were really genuine. For this reason I’m not convinced that Green can objectively capture all the good and the bad of a young adult protagonist. We’re supposed to find their literary references intelligent and their weird dialogue quirky, their flaws just regular human traits and immediately sympathizable. I just don’t buy it.
In the admittedly small sampling I’ve read, his protagonists’ main pull seem to be their perceived likability. Federle’s Quinn doesn’t need to be likable in order to still have a really fun and affecting story to tell. Quinn is smart, sure, but this isn’t proven through his literary references and prose style. We see it through what he tells us about himself, in how driven he is as an aspiring filmmaker and how he’s interesting in picking films apart through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Quinn is neurotic and self-obsessed and Federle doesn’t force the reader to like or dislike him for these facts—they’re just there. Federle stays strictly within Quinn’s voice, which I think allows our opinions on the character and his story to come off more organically. Whenever there’s a “life lesson” moment, it isn’t necessarily meant to be taken to heart. Green—again, in my limited experience—seems to want to speak to something grand and mystical and universal and profound and other synonymous adjectives by the peak of each novel’s story arc. Federle is telling one story about one kid who has some conflicts. Surely some of it has some resonance for others, but you can take or leave what you will. Like or dislike as you please. No matter the case, I still buy Quinn as a person.