[(essay date 2015) In the following essay, Wilkinson uses Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopia to draw connections between Green’s Paper Towns and his Web site Nerdfighters, an online forum where the author and his brother discuss philosophical and scientific concepts with adolescents. Like Green’s supportive online community, Wilkinson observes, his novel Paper Towns “invites its readers to see each other differently and to acknowledge that we can never truly understand one another.”]
What belongs to me becomes more interesting, and more awesome, once it also belongs to you.John Green, “Interview with John Green”
Young adult (YA) literature explores fictional spaces that allow the teenage characters (and by extension teenage readers) to see the world (and each other) differently. Readers who vicariously experience the literary heterotopia’s process of transformation and transcendence are compelled to spend more time in the fictional world, to push the characters into new situations. This is the genesis of fan fiction: it is a heterotopic space that is “in relation [to the diegetic text], but in such a way as to suspect, neutralise, or invert the set of relations that [it] happen[s] to designate, mirror or reflect” (Foucault 1986, 25). The fans’ desire is to not only extend the diegetic heterotopia, but also to invite others to experience it with them—and it is from this point that online networks of fans are born. Online communities take this extension of the fictional text one step further—laying the diegetic heterotopia over the real world, and creating a new heterotopia in the space between, where teenage fans can experience the kind of empowerment, agency, and transformation they have vicariously participated in, within the novels they love.
I will perform a close reading of John Green’s YA novel Paper Towns using Foucault’s six principles of heterotopia, and examine the connections between the novel and the Nerdfighters (http://nerdfighters.ning.com), a primarily adolescent online community created by Green and his brother, dedicated to philosophical thought, play, and activism.
Paper Towns is the story of Q, a graduating high school senior who suffers from an unrequited love for his enigmatic next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman. After Margo enlists Q as an accomplice on a dead-of-night revenge escapade that ends up with them breaking into SeaWorld, she disappears. Q is convinced that Margo has left him a trail of clues to find her and embarks on an adrenaline-fuelled road trip with three friends that ends with them finding Margo living in an abandoned barn in upstate New York. Margo is surprised to see them—she hadn’t left clues at all, and Q realizes that the real-life Margo cannot be contained by his fantasies of her, and that it is “treacherous to see a person as more than a person” (Green 2008, 326).
The Nerdfighters community began in 2007, when author John Green and his brother Hank, concerned that their relationship had devolved to purely text-based communication, started the Brotherhood 2.0 project, where they each posted a YouTube video on alternate days, every day for a...