Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the very last blog post about the Hunger Games on the Internet! After over 100,000,000 reviews and blog posts since its publication in 2008, The Hunger Games has finally reached the most distant corner of the earth (where I am) and cyberspace (um... where I am). Message to Suzanne Collins: This is the end of the line, sister! It's all downhill from here. Once I've got my grubby hands on something you can be damned sure that you have reached saturation point.

I feel sort of funny about this blog post given that I am not going to cover any new ground concerning this epic dystopian best-seller and I'm not going to waste time summarizing the plot. If you are reading this I can infer that either A) you have read it and want to read what I have to say or B) have not read it, have no intention of reading it and stumbled upon this blog by some strange configuration of keywords involving zombies. Sorry Mr. B, there will be no zombies in this blog post.

I am also not going to spend a lot of time talking about how Collins has liberally collected her inspiration from other sources: most obviously Stephen King's short story The Running Man, the Greek myth of Theseus and insipid reality television. This is common enough knowledge and hardly ground-breaking territory. And while I'm not going to attempt to compare The Hunger Games to a Greek myth, Suzanne Collins did an admirable job of updating and improving King's premise for a younger audience. Nice work, Ms. Collins!

Long story short: I liked The Hunger Games. I didn't love it, but it was really good (I stayed up really late twice to finish it). I didn't much enjoy the love story. I would have preferred a more ruthless Katniss winning the games on her own but this is YA fiction and there really must be some remnants of humanity. I thought the love story really hampered the book, slowed it down to a crawl in a few places and compromised the ending enough that I'm not at all excited about reading the second book, but I digress. I'm not here to talk about The Hunger Games. We're all sick of that.

So let's stir up a little controversy, shall we?

I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to weigh in about Joel Stein's controversial editorial entitled "Adults Should Read Adult Books," that appeared in the New York Times a few months ago where he railed against adults who read Young Adult (YA) fiction. In his now infamous editorial, Stein writes that "the only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading The Hunger Games.” and goes on to note that he’ll "read The Hunger Games when {he} finishes the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults."

First, I like Joel Stein. I make a point of reading his column in Time. I like his sense of humor and his Jesse Ventura-esque attitude of calling 'em like he sees 'em. It's that attitude that has won him a lot of fans (like myself) and quite a few detractors, most notably after a column about immigration in which he lamented the influx of Indians into his hometown. Certainly Joel Stein is no stranger to controversy, but one has to admire his willingness to say things other might not have the gumption to say. Few writers in this day in age will do that, and that's a shame. A little controversy never hurt anyone.

Second, I must admit that I rarely read Young Adult fiction. I simply don't enjoy it. I remember when I was a young adult (back in the late 80s and early 90s), I made the jump from children's books to adult novels pretty quickly. I found that YA novels (at the time, possibly) were insulting to my intelligence and tended to gloss over issues I was interested in reading such as pain, loss, misery and other jovial subjects that 13 year old boys love to read about. I have always hated the happy ending (my mother calls me morbidly masochistic and I'm inclined to agree with her). It's hard to find a Beverly Cleary book where everyone dies at the end. I don't like YA fiction.

Still, I have read my share of it. I've read all the Harry Potter novels, the first Twilight (though you'd have to administer the Ludovico Technique to get me to read any more of that drivel), a bunch of Louis Sachar and a few others I can't recall at the moment and don't have the energy to go find. I've enjoyed a few of them as well. But they are what they are. Short books intended for a less-mature audience that tend to have formulaic narratives. If I read two or three of these in a row, I'd go bonkers. But I don't like romance novels or Tolkien-style fantasy either, so it's just a personal preference and not a declaration of war. Relax.

All that hat being said, Stein's editorial really enflamed the ire of readers, especially readers of YA fiction and especially the adult readers of YA fiction. There was a tempest in a teacup for a few days concerning Stein's comments and I simply couldn't understand why.

This is how I felt about Stein's editorial: I laughed. I laughed in the same way one laughs when someone says something funny about their nationality ("Canadians are the new Americans") or job ("those who can't do, teach"). I laughed in the same way when my sister calls me a nerd and tells me the only reason I have a blog is because I miss writing book reports in high school. I'm a grown man who likes zombie movies, cheesy 80s metal and stupid computer games, all of which, I must admit, are easy targets. In other words, lighten up people! It's only Joel Stein! The last time I looked, Joel Stein wields no more or less power over the media than anyone else, bloggers included. His opinion matters as much as mine or yours. No need to get the feathers ruffled. He's making fun of you, and you deserve it! Like Trekkies, Comicon attendees, evangelical Christians, and English teachers in Asia everyone is susceptible to a little ribbing. It's healthy. Because if we can't make fun of ourselves, what else is there?

For the record, I disagree with Stein on his point. I remember when I worked in publishing a few years back, the statistic that got bandied about was that 30% of the population (in Canada) buy 95% of all books. I'm bastardizing that statistic something fierce, but the point remains: Not enough people read. With television, Internet, video games and any number of other distractions competing for our leisure attention, books, which are a longer and more intellectually demanding form of recreation, are a huge investment over the instantaneous gratification that comes from other forms of entertainment. Books are a hard sell.

So I'm of the opinion that anything, ANYTHING that gets people to pick up a book and read is an improvement over no book at all. If that means the 43-year old father of three has his nose in Twilight on the subway rides to and from the office (while moving his mouth while he reads), so be it. He's reading! That's great! If a 60-year old librarian from Poughkeepie, New York is neck deep in the Percy Jackson series, am I going to laugh at her? No. I'm not like that. Is it OK for Joel Stein to laugh at her? Sure. Why not? I mean the man wrote for Martha Stewart for Pete's sake! There's no living that down.

But that's not the point. The point is, we all need to lighten up. Unless you are involved in The Hunger Games in which case, keep your head on and for the love of God, don't light a fire!


bookspersonally said...

Terrific post! I have to check out the Stein piece, he can be so funny. I am exactly with you on the YA reading/enjoyment - I don't, often. But recently read the first two in the Hunger Games series (pretty good!)... and Sachar's Holes (book and movie both) loved by the whole family... thinking perhaps the very best reason for adults to read YA is to bond with their kids over good stories.

Harvee Lau said...

I enjoyed the Hunger Games movie, but won't read the book, not really being a fan of dystopia or most sci fi. I do read YA books since I found a few that I liked - Meg Cabot's two vampire books, for instance.And I also read some chick lit, though I am long past the chick stage. You are right, whatever works for readers, counts.

Jenny said...

Ha ha! Love it!

neal said...

I also staid up late finishing The Hunger Games. But since I do that surfing lame lolcat photos on the internet, I don't think it qualifies the novel as being anything great. It's a page-turner, but it's not very well-written, very thoughtful, or very innovative. I reviewed it and rated it roughly where you did, I think.

As for YA literature, I like a lot of it. And by a lot, I mean a very small percentage of what others love, but that percentage still accounts for quite a few titles. I wonder how you feel about The Giver, for instance. It's not quite The Road, but I think the two could still stand to be used in the same conversation.

And about Joel Stein, I pretty much agree with your thoughts. Except that I DO hope that those who read just for easy YA fun can sometimes stretch themselves a little, and not plateau. I've got no problem with ebbs and flows. Like I love DOOM-style video games as much as the next dude, but I'd also advocate expanding one's horizons a little and seeing how something like the Mass Effect or Fallout franchises open up new ways of thinking about the medium.

Ryan said...

@bookspersonally: Holes is one of my favorite novels of all time!

@Harvee Lau: I'm on the fence about seeing the Hunger Games movie. Like the book, I know nothing about it and I'm thinking it would be nice to keep it that way.

@Jenny: Thanks.

@neal: I'll keep my eyes open for The Giver and agree with you about stretching oneself. That's sort of what reading (and culture) is all about.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

I'm reader type C. I never have any intention of reading The Hunger Games, but I appreciate your opinion on books and want to know what you thought--mostly because you and I basically like all the same thing.

As to your opinion on Joel Stein and reading in general, I can't agree more. Too few people read at all these days, so why hate? In my opinion, reading one of the few recreational activities that (perhaps figuratively) grows brain cells. We need more of that.

And really? Everyone needs to take themselves less seriously. It takes way too much energy to care that much.

Man of la Book said...

I liked The Hunger Games ( but read it mainly because my wife read it and I didn't.
Shame on me, I know.

To your point though, while I don't read many YA books, the ones I read I did enjoy and agree with you that as long as you get people reading, we achieved "something".

I think that many people get their hate for literature in high-school. Forcing us to read endlessly boring (for high-schoolers), convoluted and frankly meaningless (for the audience) books does not get the job done. You cannot hammer love of reading into anyone.

Buried In Print said...

You're right: Beverly Cleary hasn't written "that book" yet, but I was shocked when the family cat died, and it was more than 20 years before I read another of hers. Heh. (Deliberately avoiding the title of the series, because what a spoiler that would be!)

I would have preferred the novel without the love story too (though I am a sucker for a good love story); one of the reasons that I love Hiromi Goto's YA novel Half World is that she eschews that formulaic element.

But I still quite enjoyed it, went on to read the second, and I still plan to read the third. As you say, there's something to be said for pulling new readers into addictive storytelling, regardless of the details.

Ryan said...

HA! I've never heard of someone going into a 20 year state of shock over a Beverly Cleary novel! As for Goto, I'm intrigued...

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Hmm. I could have sworn I left a comment on this a couple days ago. Damn captchas... anyway, I'll try to replicate my thoughts here.

I agree with you--anything that gets people reading is fine by me. We have too few book readers as it is, and reading (to me, anyway) is one of the few leisure avtivities that grows braincells. That said, I dislike the YA genre for two main reasons. 1) a lot of stuff called YA isn't YA. Mostly they're called YA because they have a teenage protagonist, but just because the protagonist in The Da Vinci Code is in his 40s doesn't mean the book is only for 40 year olds. Plus, some of the language and themes in YA ared decidedly un-YA. And 2), I honestly feel that some YA authors (not all or even most, but some) write in the genre because that way they can write at a lower level and get away with it.

Some of my ooinions about YA are probably a bit inflamatory, but that's OK. I'm in good company.

Ryan said...

@Jonathan: Your reasons for disliking YA are two reasons I'd never even thought of, but now I will. I don't hate YA really. I hate formulaic books. It just so happens that YA novels tend to follow certain formulas more than others. Also they are an easy target.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I differentiate between children's fiction and YA fiction. Children's fiction has happy endings, but YA fiction is full of angst and torment and disappointment and agony. I don't read a lot of YA because of all that angst and torment and disappointment and agony...aren't there any joyful teens out there?

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Stein as well. Adults should read whatever it is that they want to read. I have not read Twilight, nor do I plan to. The groupies did me in and I think that I have heard enough, although others may feel differently.
I have found some quality YA, most recently Starters. I have seen some high quality YA blogs, but I do think that YA gets a bad reputation from the few adults who dumb themselves down in order to interact more on their YA blog, which is totally unnecessary and feeds into the stigma that YA has no quality.
Anyway, thank you for the thought provoking post.

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