The Internet Said The Perks of Being a Wallflower is Overrated - It’s Not.

Dear Friend, 

In the modern day, it seems that, in general, the internet rules the consensus regarding the legacy of a person, event, or piece of media, and that consensus can often take a very negative turn. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a 1999 novel by Stephen Chbosky that gained wider acclaim following its 2012 film adaptation. It’s a coming of age story: a tale as old as time with so many different iterations, most failing at actually contributing anything new to the conversation -  Chbosky did not fail this task. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I was in seventh grade - younger than the novel’s high-school-age protagonists, but old enough to understand some of the struggles they were facing. The book reached me at exactly the right age, and the age of its target audience: adolescence, an inherently difficult time when kids are young, confused, and tend to believe that no one else could ever possibly understand them. 

That’s where the story’s narrator comes in. Charlie Kelmeckis is a shy, anxious fifteen year old who is struggling to find a place among his peers. The entire novel is composed of a series of letters written to an unnamed “you”: someone Charlie is confiding in and seeking comfort and advice from (perhaps a hypothetical recipient of his deepest thoughts and feelings manifested in the reader). As a result, the first person narration is incredibly honest and deeply personal. At the end of the day, Charlie is just a kid; he manages not to fall into the commonly used “wise beyond their years” trope in which characters act and speak as a much older age than they really are. Charlie is young, and he is often confused and lost as to what’s going on around him. His letters create the illusion of listening to a friend talk - maybe that’s why the book appealed to me so much in my childhood. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower tackles a vast number of issues and themes around adolescence and young adulthood. From serious subjects such as depression, homophobia, sexual assault, and loneliness to comparative trivialities such as dating, popularity, SAT scores, and high school dances, Chbosky hits all  the classic pillars of teenage angst. Above all else, though, Perks is a story about love and friendship, its two most famous quotes serving as wonderful representations of these concepts with implications stretching far beyond the 213 pages of the novel. In the face of toxic relationships and unrequited love, the book tells us, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Later, in an instance of pure, unadulterated joy and friendship as Charlie and his friends drive through a tunnel at night, Heroes by David Bowie blasting through the stereo as they take turns standing in the truck bed and reaching into the air, we are given the beautifully poetic line, “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” 

Looking back on this work begs the question: why was it coined as overrated? This can be a difficult trend to pinpoint - why does anything become overrated? Perhaps it speaks to the relatability of the story; an experience that applies to some but not others may result in a widespread discourse. Perhaps the dreaded tag, “overrated”, is a dangerous pitfall that any piece of media can face after reaching a certain level of popularity, the constant drive for counterculture favoring the unknown over the prominent no matter what. Or perhaps it’s because of the societal tendency to devalue things enjoyed by young, predominantly female audiences. When asked about the fact that his main fanbase has always been teenage girls and the stigma surrounding his music both in One Direction and as a solo artist, Harry Styles is quoted as saying, “Who's to say that young girls who like pop music -- short for popular, right? -- have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy. That's not up to you to say… How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.” Indeed, the demographic of the book’s fanbase may have played a role in it being seen as “fake deep,” but one can’t help but see those criticisms playing directly into the point Chbosky was trying to make. 

What exactly is a wallflower, then? I think that one of the characters, Patrick, describes it best, “He's a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” A wallflower is someone outside the norm; they aren’t in the middle of the dance floor because they’re too busy standing at the sidelines and observing. They’re different, and they’re happy with that. Therefore, maybe it’s fitting that this book has fallen into some years of harsher criticism, because at the end of the day, it’s a story about being who you truly are even if that doesn’t fit into the mold of who others think you should be. So embrace the quirks and differences that make you unique; decide to accept the love you actually deserve, not just what you think you do; drive through a tunnel with your friends while listening to Bowie, or find a tunnel song of your own; be a wallflower. And as Charlie himself signs off every one of his letters...

Love Always, Kelsi