American Culture

Money Games: The Hunger Games and how young adult fiction rules publishing…

The real “hunger games” are those played by people who already have much (maybe too much) trying to figure out how to get more…

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (image courtesy Goodreads)

Nothing that I can possibly say will make any difference in how the majority of readers feel about Suzanne Collins’ mega-successful novel The Hunger Games. That said, having read this representation of the cynicism that pervades the publishing/film/corporate tie-in mentality of our “arts culture,” as I enter into this discussion, I alert readers that I have, after due consideration, come to two conclusions about The Hunger Games: 1) this book is NOT a critique of our culture in any real sense; 2) this book is aimed at children – and cynically exploits them.

First, perhaps, we should consider the cultural milieu into which The Hunger Games was born. 

The unexpected and overwhelming success of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series about youthful wizards, the Harry Potter books, unleashed a torrent of publishing (and book marketing) aimed at a newly identified demographic: “young adult” (YA) readers. (Perhaps the most telling aspect of Rowling’s story is that the publisher who chose to accept her work for the American market was Scholastic, a children’s publisher of classics such as Weekly Reader.) Rowling’s nearly incomprehensible success (from impoverished single mother to billionaire) spawned various imitations and numerous carefully calculated campaigns – the sort of marketing campaigns that start in rooms full of sales people “ideating” about ways to duplicate the sales figures of Rowling’s books. One thing was obvious to publishing conglomerates’ marketing departments (and if you don’t believe ALL publishing decisions are ultimately marketing decisions these days, you’re utterly deluded): aiming books at “the kid in all of us” (i.e., accepting, publishing, and marketing books that readers – especially female readers from, oh, say, 11 to 37) was the path to $$$$$$$$.

Scholastic was beaten to the punch in 2005; Little Brown, the esteemed publisher of talents like Louisa May Alcott, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace won the rights to Stephanie Meyer’s successor to Harry Potter in the young adult gravy train to riches: Twilight. That series surpassed even Harry Potter’s success by upping the ante – the story of Bella Swan and her vampire lover Edward Cullen (yes, I know, I know, I don’t understand – the tales are deep and meaningful and explore the dangers of teen aged relationships by a sincere practicing Mormon. Horseshit. These are books designed to maximize “girl power” by teaching the fine old art of cock teasing) eclipsed many of Rowling’s sales records.

Watching this phenomenon from the safety of her job at Nickelodeon (where she wrote TV programs based upon Scholastic publications) was Suzanne Collins. Unlike Rowling or Meyer, Collins was already a pro, already had cred as a children’s/young adult writer (albeit for television). Her connection to the publisher involved in the original “young adult” publishing tidal wave of money that was the Harry Potter series put her (happily for her) at Ground Zero to become the next young adult superstar author.

But of course she had to have a story. Here’s the elevator version:

“In a world where children from 12 -18 fight to the death for the amusement of the masses, how can one young woman survive – and decide which boy she likes best?”

The “pitch” meeting would go more like this:

“Okay, we have a post-apocalypse dystopia, you know like in Waterworld or The Postman – But those films were terrible – hang, on, hang on, we’ve got a hot young chick – How young? We need more readers than just child sex offenders – stay with me, we’ve got this hot young chick, she’s like, 16, and she’s got mad survival skills and she’s involved in a game like Survivor – The reality show? I’m liking this better. Keep going – except – except – the players really get eliminated. They get killed – And she has to survive. Like it. But what hooks the little girls? They’re the big readers. Look at Stephanie Meyers’ sales numbers – but our survivor girl is torn between two boys – the one she had to leave back home and the one who came there with her – This I like. I can see other tie-ins. The kids who are brought in for the game, they’re “re-imagined” like on The Swan or American Idol. Except that instead of modeling or singing, they get coached in fighting – yes, yes, now you’re getting it – and there are sponsorships, both from groups of citizens and from corporate entities, and we throw a bone to the Progressives by suggesting that the regime behind this is on the one hand using Murdoch style sleight-of-hand misdirection to keep the masses distracted by spectacles like this survival game. But we also play to the Tea Party types by suggesting that this government is a monolithic entity that uses federal authority to rule over subjugated “provinces” who’ve lost a “civil war” – and the Neo-Confederates froth at the mouth remembering Reconstruction. I love it! – so – can we make a mint or what?

Why yes. Yes they can. They already have. By having children murder children and a girl nearly commit suicide to protect a boy who may or may not be “the one,” The Hunger Games proves that no matter how low you sink, you can drag young adults (and lots and lots of not so young adults) right along with you.

Now I’ve got to go work on a new book. I’m thinking Fine Young Cannibals would make a good title…

58 replies »

  1. Didn’t know anything about it when I brought my son to the first movie. I know teenagers think it’s cool, but it made me extremely uncomfortable to see kids killing kids.

  2. :/ But this isn’t the beginning of YA lit (I left you a comment on Southern Gentleman about this, but I’ll reiterate here for those who may not follow over there.) At the latest, it starts with The Outsiders. Probably it begins earlier though.

    I think it underestimates the books (and adolescents) to suggest that this doesn’t say anything about culture. In fact, the books say a lot about the culture of reality TV, about sexuality (and even sex trafficking), and about social stratification…Among other things. I think it’s fine to say “I don’t like this,” but I don’t think it’s fine to say “this has no value.”

    • Diana, (and Brian)
      I’m familiar with the early titans of YA fiction, those who brought “realism” to the genre such as S.E. Hinton (whom you cite), Paul Zindel, and of course, the empress dowager of the genre, Judy Blume. All solid writers. All exploring in their own ways, important social issues related to adolescence at the time they were doing much of their work.

      That said, while I have no beef with either Rowling or Meyers (well, I have a beef with Meyers, but it’s more about HER ideas and attitudes rather than her cultural manipulations), I DO have a very big beef with the clearly manipulated/planned/orchestrated series that is The Hunger Games. As I tried to show in my critique, it all just smells – to this reader, at least – like an insider working with her publisher’s marketing department to find the “next big thing” in YA fantasy/paranormal/weirdness. And she has succeeded beyond probably even her wildest dreams.

      I do not think, however, that dropping references that suggest hipness to “real world” stuff like reality competitions is the same as critiquing those competitions. She appropriates the behavior/meme of reality competition but I see only one spot where the critique becomes a real possibility: when Katniss and Peeta have those poison berries in their mouths. But they spit them out when the game runners tell them both will survive. We both know what the real critique of the games would be, disturbing as that might be for readers. Then Katniss spends the rest of the damned book worrying that she’;s pissed off the powers that be who will give her the nice house, etc., for being a Hunger Games winner.

      If that’s not a message to knuckle under to the state, I don;t know what is.

      BTW, Brian, read the elevator pitch above. Sums up the entire book. And explains why it got green-lit, promoted to hell and gone, and made wildly successful. It’s a put up job.

      I don;t think either the Harry Potter or Twilight books are put up jobs, though the latter I find execrable in some ways. But the Hunger Games books are put up jobs – and I’m calling bs. Pure and simple.

      • Fair enough. I list that information because you situate, in this essay, the beginning of the movement with Harry Potter, and that’s just not at all accurate.

        That you don’t recognize the critique, and the way that it moves into the other books in the series, does not mean that it isn’t there. I disagree that the only way to critique reality TV in that scenario would’ve been for Katniss and Peeta to eat those berries. In fact, I think it’s a bigger critique that the state knew so well what would happen if there were no victor and pulled the two out before they could ruin the show. This draws immediate attention to the scripted-ness of the entire games and allows for rumination on what happens when hope and the symbols of hope are either erased or raised to further heights. It also sets up the escalating situations in the other two novels.

        I can find no evidence that the scenario you suggest in the publishing room actually happened. Publishing is a difficult world for women, both in children’s literature (which is often looked down upon because it is for children) and in other genres. To blindly assert this situation and to suggest that Collins’s work is piggy-backing on the success of others with no evidence is entirely too simplistic. (Especially considering that there are real critiques-like the books’ similarities to Battle Royale-to be made.)

  3. I keep thinking that your critique above is almost entirely about the world of YA fiction, but there’s almost nothing to support your contention that a) “this book is NOT a critique of our culture in any real sense,” and b) that Suzanne Collins created it exclusively to make money.

    Note I’m not saying you’re wrong, and I do think that you’re probably quite right about YA fiction in general. It just feels to me that your post is short by about half, specifically the half that ties your issues with YA fiction firmly to the Hunger Games books.

    That said, as much as I enjoyed The Games and Catching Fire (I haven’t read Mockingjay yet), I’m of the opinion that neither is exactly high literature. They’re both entertaining, IMO, and they both have some interesting themes, but “On The Beach” they ain’t. The main characters are generally pretty boring, IMO, and I find the secondary characters to be far more compelling. For example, I find President Snow to be the most compelling character in the books, precisely because he understands just how fragile his nation really is. And as awful as children killing children is, it’s not like it doesn’t happen in real life – gang violence and child soldiers, for example. Just because it’s appalling from an adult perspective doesn’t mean that kids can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t get something out of the stories. As Neil Gaiman has said (paraphrased) – the things that scare adults are not the same things that scare kids, and I’d hazard a guess that the same basic sentiment applies to what kids think is appalling vs. what adults think is appalling.

    The Hunger Games novels are the kind of thing that I’d let my children read (at an appropriate age), but with the understanding that they’d be expected to sit down with me or my wife afterward to discuss what they took away from the book(s).

  4. Brian
    “And as awful as children killing children is, it’s not like it doesn’t happen in real life – gang violence and child soldiers, for example. Just because it’s appalling from an adult perspective doesn’t mean that kids can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t get something out of the stories.”
    I understand the ‘arguments’ on both sides but this sentence bothered me. What if kids get the ‘message’ that the gang/child soldiers mentality is okay….I haven’t read the book, or any YA fiction, in years so I can’t speak to the authors cited or their intentions/abilities/literary significance. It truly creeps me out to know that there is someone out there that actually thinks writing about kids killing each other is valid ‘entertainment’.
    “The Hunger Games novels are the kind of thing that I’d let my children read (at an appropriate age), but with the understanding that they’d be expected to sit down with me or my wife afterward to discuss what they took away from the book(s).”
    I’d dare say there are not many parents like you who would take the time to do that with their children

    • I don’t have a problem with writing books about, theoretically, children killing children. Or adults killing children. Or whatever. Not in principle. The issue is whether such books are making a valid artistic and social point of some sort. Are they legit critiques or are they simply gratuitous entertainments.

      If the former, they’re art. We’re good. If the latter, they’re our version of the Colosseum.

    • If kids read the Hunger Games and “get the ‘message’ that the gang/child soldiers mentality is ok” then they’re neither reading critically nor understanding what they are reading. You’re not giving children enough credit, and your suggestion suffers a severe handicap in that you haven’t read the books and thus cannot speak to how their message might be received.

      • I agree, Diana – I found the moralizing in Hunger Games to be rather heavy-handed. I have a really hard time imagining how anyone with an average IQ in the target demographic would come away from Hunger Games thinking that violence against their peers was OK. However, I don’t claim to be an expert on kids or to have a ton of experience with the target demographic (my kids are too young for Hunger Games at this point).

    • Lea – Literature and movies are filled with examples of violence by or against children. Ender from “Ender’s Game” kills two other kids, both more-or-less accidentally. “Evita’s” entire premise would be statutory rape according to modern sensibilities (and might have been then too). “Interview with the Vampire” has a century-old “little girl” as a main character. “The Dairy of Anne Frank.” “The Graveyard Book.” “Poltergeist.” “Peter Pan.” “Heathers.” “Lord of the Flies.” Heck, how often does God or his chosen people slaughter untold children in the Old Testament? True, it’s not usually as extreme as in “The Hunger Games,” but it’s hardly uncommon.

      You’re probably right that most parents don’t have the time or interest to sit down with them to talk about a book or movie that they might find disturbing for reasons they don’t understand. It’s something that my parents did with me from time to time, and I’ve done it with my kids a couple of times so far.

      • Brian, I know that violence has been selling for a long time…and I am quite familiar with the old, and for that matter, new testament’s violence.
        You should be proud of the approach you take with your children in such situations.

      • Lots of interesting examples, Brian, but I’m not sure we’re apples to apples on most. The assertion Jim is making – and while the discussion has gone down different roads, his central point about the cynical media machine behind this whole enterprise is still pretty much in force – is that HG isn’t at all a work of the sort that most of our culture’s “child killer” texts have been. “Anne Frank” is a true story, right? “Flies” is an acclaimed work of undisputed literary merit written by a legit novelist. The OT was the recorded version of thousands of years worth of an ancient nomadic culture’s collected mythology.

        HG was written by a seasoned content producer working not independently, not to feed her children, not to submit for a National Book Award or whatever other standard we might imagine. It was written, goes the assertion, to make as much money as possible.

        I don’t mind the idea of making money. I’d love to do that myself someday. But setting out to produce a work of art and setting out to produce a work of commerce are different things. I have produced art. My work has seen me using my skills to commercial ends, so trust me when I say there’s a massive difference. In the end, the commerce may turn out to be a pretty important statement on the culture and the art may turn out to suck, so we have to attend the actual texts.

        All I’m saying is, let’s not conflate the two, especially on a thread that is actually quite explicitly ABOUT this point.

  5. Diana. I admitted that I can’t speak to the authors or YA literature as a whole. I was just responding to a comment by Brian that bothered me and made me wonder if children would get that message from the content. By the way, you may be right since I have no children (not by choice but by the loss of 3 early in pregnancy) I might not be giving children ‘enough credit’. However, seeing as I have in many venues (corporate/educational/family), the lack of analytical capability in many younger adults I am not so sure that is true.

    • My central question about the line of thought is still this: You call Golding a “legit novelist.” We’ve been talking about writers as “inside” or “outside” of the machine. But once a writer develops a relationship with a publisher–especially a large one–they’re in the machine. What makes Collins work any less legitimate? Does her position in a company that adapts Scholastic books, somehow affect her work being legitimate? I don’t think that’s been proven in any real way.

      • Diana: There are two answers here. The first one involves us questioning her or finding some reliable sources that shed light on the process. The second, more broadly, is one you’re sidestepping. To wit, Critical Theory. The Frankfurt School engaged this dynamic in some depth, and I couldn’t adequately restate Horkheimer and Adorno if I tried. But the institutional critique that Jim offers here is one that is well grounded in a rich intellectual tradition.

        You seem uncomfortable with the idea that economic and institutional factors might influence cultural production. You seem uneasy with my assertions about the difference between art and product (granted, my argument is superficial at this point, but that’s mostly because nobody wants to hear the long answer there – you have two ears and I assure you I can bore them both off of you).

        As for the “relationship with the publisher” concept, the answer is, of course, that it varies. Some relationships result in the author being able to get his/her vision before the public. Other relationships are of the pimp/prostitute variety. You don’t know until you do your homework, but it’s probably safe to say that an independent author – one who lives and works beyond the walls and who meets with the representatives of the empire to discuss and transact business – is likely less co-opted than one who lives and works inside the walls. This isn’t a definitive conclusion, but if it doesn’t shape how you construct your question guide then you’re not being intellectually diligent.

        • What I’m uneasy with is the idea that the mere relationship between Collins and Scholastic somehow makes the work less valid. A judgement about someone’s ability to create art based on his/her profession does not seem sound. We’d have to throw many writers and other creators under the bus to make that idea stick.

        • To wit: I am uncomfortable with the idea that a product cannot be artistic and that art cannot be a product. I think that’s entirely too simplistic.

        • To wit: I am uncomfortable with the idea that a product cannot be artistic and that art cannot be a product. I think that’s entirely too simplistic.

          This was answered, and directly, earlier. No one is saying this. On the contrary, I said the precise opposite.

          What I’m uneasy with is the idea that the mere relationship between Collins and Scholastic somehow makes the work less valid. A judgement about someone’s ability to create art based on his/her profession does not seem sound. We’d have to throw many writers and other creators under the bus to make that idea stick.

          No one has posited that Collins is irreparably tainted by the existence of a relationship. This is a significant mischaracterization of Jim’s position and mine.

          To review, then.

          1) It isn’t that there’s “a relationship.” It’s that Collins is a PART OF the machine. That the relationship is a difference, I suppose, of type.

          2) It isn’t that this automatically dismisses the work. If you recall, Jim – in both the post and the comment thread – has specifically taken to task the writing (as writing, in and of itself, and in what he sees as a manipulative character consistent with cynical media commercial goals).

          3) No judgment has been made, by Jim or me or anyone else, about Collins’s ability to create art. The argument is that in this case the end result (which, it is allowed, may have been perverted by her employers/publishers) was manipulative and much more toward the product end of the spectrum than the art end. She’s obviously someone with writing talent, and for all we know may be capable of Pulitzer or even Nobel quality art.

        • This does not mischaracterize Jim’s statement. My two comments were in reply to your “you seem uncomfortable with…” statements. I’m not uncomfortable noting that being in the publishing industry an affect whether you can get published or even what you publish. Any writer who doesn’t agree that his or her writing for a publication is affected by that is either a)lying or b)intellectually dishonest with themselves.

          That was not a direct reply to anything else on this thread. Nowhere did I say that this was the whole aim of the piece. But it is part of the claim of this piece that Collins’s relationships influenced not just the writing but the creation itself. That made up pitch is a big detractor on this piece for me.

  6. Diana,

    You have a much higher estimation of the critical faculties of adolescent readers than I. I’ve been a teacher for 40 years, a professor for 30, and I can say both anecdotally and by citing research that critical thinking/analysis skills have declined severely over that time period. So there’s data which belies your claim of reading sophistication for adolescent readers. Just sayin’…. There’s where my concerns over the sort of cold-bloodedness of the approach to the writing of this book comes from. Hope that makes sense. And Collins was so much an insider that the “women trying to publish” argument carries little weight with a litfic author like me who’s fought the “midlist curse” and published via indie litfic publishers my entire career. The scenario depicted is imagined, of course – but it reflects much of the thinking in “big time” publishing. And Collins’ insider status, as I noted, made her privy to the mindset of marketing depts. And led her to the choices she made – cold-blooded, self-serving choices.

    She was not an impoverished single mom like Rowling or a secretary with a wild idea like Meyer – she was an industry insider. That says much to anyone who knows how the industry works.

    Sam’s comment about the gratuitous v. the artistic applies here, I think. And as for battle royale comparisons, well, we can go to Ralph Ellison and see how powerful a social critique battle royale depiction is when done right. But The Hunger Games doesn’t really present itself as battle royale: it presents itself as SURVIVOR. That difference is significant. The psychology of SURVIVOR is far away from the psychology of battle royale – I’m sure you’d agree. And that young readers might misconstrue is also a very real possibility – as I think you’d admit.

    The writer could have thought about these issues – we both have. But reading the book I did not feel that she considered these profoundly important elements as she constructed what she felt would be a winner in a hot category of YA literature. If this were a book aimed at adults, I wouldn’t be nearly as exercised – adults can read whatever they like, uplifting, tawdry, bland, exciting.

    But this book is marketed as YA – for young readers who have not reached an age of consent (and, one hopes, critical understanding) that one presupposes for adult readers. And there is where I think the issue lies. Collins’ messages are not critical enough of the system she depicts, it seems to me, for many of her readers. This has the feel of being written for the YA reading crowd who are (primarily) women 18-44 – not kids 12-18 like those depicted in the Games.

    Both the Harry Potter and TWILIGHT book series are about phenomena in publishing. This series is, I suspect and argue here, about the self-conscious planning of a blockbuster – and by a publisher who has the trust of children and parents. Maybe the intent is critique – but the messages are muddled at best – at least in this book. And that is not a good thing for young readers – ever.

    • And now, a reflection on how Sam goes about considering these kinds of issues.

      This thread has me flashing back to debates I had in my doc program. Like many such programs, mine was heavily informed by a variety of neo-Marxian analyses, especially as filtered through the English Cultural Studies tradition. The upshot is that I found myself in any number of discussions where a given text, material cultural site or practice, whatever, began and ended with the phrase “means of production.” I was encouraged at every turn to understand art and media as a product of the economic base. Economic determinism, with teeth.

      Now, I resisted the hell out of this approach. I didn’t deny the importance of the economic, obviously, but I always felt like there was too much insistence on the economic base and not nearly enough respect being paid to cultural (social, religious, ideological, etc.) factors. Further, since by this time I had done an MA in English with a creative writing emphasis and written two books of poetry, I had a profound understanding of what I guess we’ll call the “creative impulse.” Silly me, I believed in “the individual,” and when we finally rolled around to Structuralism and all that it spawned I went from critical to, well, what’s the term when you’re both intellectually critical and emotionally taking it personally? 🙂

      Ahh. Good times.

      Anyhow, my Leftist colleagues never fully won me over, although several years of engagement with a corpus of thought will leave its mark. So discussions like this always leave me ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m keenly aware of the power of the late Capitalist media machine – integrated vertically, horizontally, upside down and inside out through all 11 known dimensions, cynical to its DNA, and concerned with nothing save the shareholder interest. There is no art, only product. There is no artist, only a content producer.

      On the other, I know the workings of my own mind. Sort of. I’ve written short fiction, four books of poetry, and have now embarked upon a new career as a photographer. We can argue that my subjectivity is an illusion, that I’m determined and not determining, and perhaps that’s so, but prove it, I say. I cannot help reserving a privilege for that aforementioned artistic impulse.

      This has obvious implications for my relationship to every strand of criticism since … I don’t know, since Arnold and Eliot strode the Earth? Sontag has this wonderful term – “pre-theoretical,” if I recall correctly. In a nutshell, de Saussure was the moment when Everything Changed, right? And now we have English programs where criticism isn’t about literature, it’s about other criticism. The British term for this, I believe, is “wanking.”

      Anyway, what I’m winding up to is my approach toward the likes of Collins. Jim’s analysis is right in line with the economic determinism model – she isn’t just determined by the machine, she is OF the machine. But does that mean she is incapable of producing legit art from that position? Maybe she was always a real artist and used the machine to survive and get herself to the point where she could finally use it to promote an authentically artistic master stroke. Sort of a modern version of Marian Zimmer Bradley, who went from cranking out potboilers to keep the family alive to writing one of the most remarkable genre novels I’ve ever encountered in Mists of Avalon.

      Maybe? I consider my own career path and can imagine doing something like that out of necessity. It calls to mind my analysis of U2’s much maligned Zoo TV tour, where Bono was alleged to have gone round the bend, buying his own hype to the nth degree.

      Horseshit, I argued. They were using their unique perspective from inside the machine to critique the machine, and doing a brilliant job of it (a project they continued with the Pop CD, which was at once brilliant media critique and damned unsatisfying listening material.

      In other words, I don’t dismiss the possibility that Collins set out to do something serious and worthy just because she was of the Borg. But we have to begin by acknowledging that she’s Borg and understanding what that means – how does it determine and influence?

      You can’t know everything simply from the text. You can’t know everything simply from the Marxian analysis of the means of production. You have to take it ALL into account and see what your reading then tells you. This discussion seems to be giving us two or three people coming at it from different perspectives. Jim, despite knowing all that I do about being a creative and then some, is coming at it from what is essentially an economic angle, and that’s important. Diana’s tack is more based in a text-centric approach.

      And here I am thinking both/and, not either/or. I’d love to drag Collins in here and make her answer some questions, preferably in a dark room with a 100 watt bulb in her face and JD Salinger cast in the role of Bad Cop. In the absence of that, the collective back and forth is pretty interesting, though.

      Am I making sense?

      • Yes, you’re making sense. I just think that when we talk about how to determine the worth of a text, we have to remember that 1) the word “worth” is subjective, and 2) you cannot critique the artistic value of a text from a merely economical standpoint–I’d fail a college essay that decided to do so. There’s no close reading here, and that’s a problem.

    • As PhD candidate in children’s and young adult literature, a student of this stuff and researcher in it, I can also make claims that belie your assumptions. First of all, adolescence is a fairly new historical concept, as is the education of the entire population. When we’re comparing adolescent readers of now to adolescent readers historically without controlling for those factors, research is skewed and is essentially worthless. Furthermore, what we were discussing is what can be found by examining the book–a book written by an adult, not a child, and not someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Yes, she’s market-savvy. To be an author these days (especially a female, and sorry, but I don’t buy the idea that just because she’s already a published author that things are easier for her) is to need to be smart about writing and marketing–but that doesn’t make a work worthless. I’m not sure at all why it matters that she’s not a “penniless mother” when it comes to analyzing the content of the books, and again, there is zero evidence that any of your claims about the writing and publication are factually correct–unless you have some that you’ve been holding out on, this is mere conjecture.

      I think you misunderstood my point about Battle Royale, which is a 1999 Japenese book about teens who are sent to an island to kill one another. That point was that if we want to critique The Hunger Games on an originality level, there are already good, standing critiques that hold far more weight than basically saying “I don’t like this. It holds no merit.” That’s what this argument amounts to–at least as far as the evidence presented, you don’t like it, so it’s not good or noteworthy.

      Finally, it is patently untrue that books like The Hunger Games are somehow worse or more steeped in problems than other children’s and YA literature. Lord of the Flies and the murder of Piggy; sex jokes abound in Peter and Wendy (the title chapter of which is “Peter Breaks Through”); death jokes are scattered throughout texts like Alice in Wonderland; and Struwwlepeter (1845) makes fun of an entire genre devoted to the horrible deaths of children in old didactic texts that were meant to teach children’s lessons. To suggest that this book is somehow “worse” than what comes before it is to ignore the narrative of children’s literature as well as the very real contradiction that it is a genre written by adults ostensibly for children but that also must appeal to parents, who buy and read most of these books.

  7. I honestly think that the larger point is being missed here in regards to The Hunger Games. Is it contrived? Certainly, all stories are to a degree. Did Suzanne Collins use her experience as a TV writer, as well as her personal connections to leverage an incredibly lucrative deal for herself? Of course she did. Writers these days are expected to be their own publicists, tour managers, and marketers, and unless you are at least a little adept at some of those things, it is very hard to get noticed by the industry. So Suzanne Collins is maximizing a trend and upping her chances of success as an author by using her platform, connections, and the skills she has available to her. You don’t have to like the book, or the YA publishing industry’s tactics, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is how things are done now. The publishing industry has been in dire straits for a long time and YA is one of the only markets that continues to see some prosperity. So yes, publishers are taking that and running like hell with it. And like any aspect of publishing – children’s, mystery, romance, even cookbooks – they will continue to publish according to the trends, which means that a lot of the same sorts of material will likely be produced alongside some truly original art.

    But what really matters about what the stories represent isn’t the state of the publishing industry, or even the quality of the work itself. In fact, the most important thing about The Hunger Games isn’t even mentioned in this post. The fact is that there are thousands of kids who “don’t read” or “hate books” who enthusiastically tear through this entire series and then go right back to read them again. And that is the point. More people are reading because of these books and countless others like them. (Yes, even Twilight.) Whether they are reading classic literature, comic books, or formulaic YA fiction, the heart of the matter here is that they are READING. What you read doesn’t have to be edifying to be satisfying, and as long as it wakes up your mind and makes you imagine a bigger/better/different world than the one you inhabit, then a book has done its job. These books and others like them are pulling people out of the digital world and into their imaginations, and at the end of the day I can find no fault with that.

  8. I don’t think, Diana, that we’re so terribly far apart as you’d claim. However, as Sam notes, my essay on this book owes much more to a “means of production” (social/critical school) approach than maybe you are comfortable with. And your insistence on a close reading approach suggests a devotion to what used to be called “New Critical theory” (with which I am most familiar having attended a school where Alan Tate, Randall Jarrell and Cleanth Brooks all taught at one time or another – trust me, I got drilled in close reading). Your attack on my critique focuses on my lack of textual basis – I get that. My “critique” argues that “the text” is larger than the text (of the actual book) – an accepted critical approach. I’m sure you get that. THE HUNGER GAMES has a certain power – I would freely admit that about the text. But close reading of the text is not the only valid way critiquing such a work can be done.

    Sam blathered on quite a while about critical theory, so background is there for those who’ll be interested in wading through this discussion.

    This is really just a book review/personal essay/agent provocateur missive – not an academic paper. I suspect there’s more than enough academic energy being spent on Collins’ work these days. I have no inclination to add to that.

    My complaint ( and that’s what this “review/critique/blather” is, really) about this book is about its production. The other authors you mention – Lewis Carroll, Sir James Barrie – are inarguable examples of a “children’s story” being about/for more than children. Maybe Collins meant that for THE HUNGER GAMES. If so, I think she missed. Kat’s reflections on Peeta and Gale were often awkward and contrived sounding, I found, as if inserted into the book in rewrite. The scene in the cave (when Kat is caring for Peeta after she’s dug him out of the mud) has all the compelling feeling of a scene from one of those teen dramas on the CW. These are authorial problems I can speak to with some authority since my specialization is writing and the teaching of writing.

    I also get a sense that there’s some feminist criticism behind some of your observations. Your defense of Suzanne Collins as a “woman author” suggests that. I have no issue with gender here. I do, in fact, find it merely coincidental that these three hugely successful YA authors (Collins, Meyer, Rowling) are all female. In fact, I suspect that Collins, who, despite your claims, is an industry insider who’d already worked for Scholastic, the publisher, on other projects, may have written a better book – that the “boys in marketing” made worse by meddling – their only interest being to amp up elements that THEY thought would sell better. My argument would be that these indignities that might have been done to her text would have been done to a male author’s text, too. The problem for me is that in these situations (potential blockbusters who could flop and cost lots of people their jobs) interference with the author is a real, depressing problem. Gender is a non-issue.

    Finally, I grant you your turf graciously and heartily. You are the expert in YA lit here. But I do have my own PhD and am an expert in writing. So my critiques sometimes come from sussing out “writer issues,” I guess we could call them that point at – for me, anyway – larger social/cultural issues.

    Hope this makes sense.

    • Jim’s graf on the women in the publishing industry dynamic is interesting. To wit, would Collins have a tougher time securing the integrity of a hypothetical better book against the cynical manipulations of the company than would a male author? My guess is hell yes. I haven’t worked at a big publisher, but I have worked in corporations, and every good idea comes in for a kicking. The chances of any idea getting out unscathed is purely, at times, a function of basic institutional power dynamics. Which means that on average, a woman is going to have a tougher fight than a man, other things being equal.

      We can add this to the list of questions to ask Collins when we get her under the harsh lights for interrogation, I guess.

      • The thing is, though, that without textual evidence (and close reading is not exclusively new criticism, I can assure you–it is a formula for providing evidence for arguments no matter what method you are using), you cannot assert anything about the text itself. You can only study the larger trends. I reject the notion that you can critique Collins’s work without looking at the work itself–or any work, for that matter; it is an unfair and ultimately unproductive exercise, particularly when the assertions are about the value of the text.

        As for the scene with Peeta and Katniss in the cave—it’s *supposed* to feel contrived. That’s the entire point. They’re putting on a relationship front so that they can survive. If that felt contrived, that’s a mark of extremely good writing, not poor writing. It drives home the point that Katniss and Peeta live lives that are entirely scripted by their government, down to their decisions about relationships and living or dying.

        Furthermore, I made no claims that Collins did not have an “in” in the publishing world. In fact, you’ll see that I acknowledged those. I simply said that we cannot use that as a basis for extrapolating how the project was conceived and carried out without further evidence. As for my feminist critique…Yes. As a woman, as a creative woman in a field of creative women who are underrepresented in the publishing industry, I see gender. Did she use her connections? Probably. But the scenario set up in the post is too outlandish and unfounded.

        My bigger problems here are underlying attitudes about YA and children’s literature and the child reader, which is what I was getting at in my last comment. For centuries children’s literature has been gruesome and grotesque and full of unsettling moments. Early 18th and 19th century literature often killed the child who was willfully disobedient in some terrible way; and often the good child died early, before it was spoiled by the world. That began being critiqued by texts like Struwwlepeter and Alice in Wonderland. There is always danger–a hallmark of children’s texts–and a removal of parental control so that the child has agency. There’s underlying current here that children’s literature needs to be simple and easy to navigate: I think that not only makes for a bad book, but it doesn’t fit with children’s literature as a genre.

        As a final note to this novel 😉 – it’s important to note that, were the books you compared adult fiction, they’d all be categorized differently. THG is dystopian sci-fi; Twilight is supernatural romance; and HP is fantasy. We tend to treat all children’s literature under one umbrella, but it’s not always that simple: and maybe it shouldn’t be.

        • I reject the notion that you can critique Collins’s work without looking at the work itself–or any work, for that matter; it is an unfair and ultimately unproductive exercise, particularly when the assertions are about the value of the text.

          If this was for me, I actually say this earlier. You have to look at the text. In addition to the broader context, which includes the economics. I have a long history of agitating for using all the tools you can.

        • Sorry, should’ve been clearer. I was responding to Jim’s most recent comment. While I doubt he meant not to ever look at the text, this piece doesn’t look at the text, and the comment I was responding to suggested that the close reading is merely a new critical exercise.

          And yes–I think the “all the tools you can” method is the best method.

        • Got it. No, the New Critics didn’t invent close reading. They did kind of invent the idea that the text was EVERYTHING, didn’t they? My “pre-theoretical” naivete has me insisting that you consider everything you have at hand – the text, what is known about the author, what is known about the era that produced the work socially, politically, etc., the “means of production, interviews, biographies, whatever.

          In short, I don’t believe in excluding evidence as matter of theoretical bias.

        • Yes. They were the “nothing but the text” folks. The limitations of that are too numerous to count, and ultimately it’s why New Criticism failed.

    • Another question. We’re theorizing about the influence of the machine on Collins’ novels. If someone has a copy lying around, flip to the acknowledgments and see who she thanks and for what. If the props go to her Borg colleagues, that suggests one thing. If she’s thanking a lot of people outside the machine, that might signal quite another.

      This continues to feel like grad school. We have the Frankfurt School represented, and New Criticism, and a hillbilly Structuralism-denialist poet. Fun times. 🙂

  9. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that Collins is being cynical here, as Jim suggests. I haven’t read the books, but my wife has, and she sort of liked the first one, thought the second was ok, and that she lost the plot in the final one. But they were entertainments, which we both enjoy from time to time. So was Harry Potter, which I enjoyed immensely, even the turgid last volume.

    But I’m also thinking that what’s bothering Jim is not the cynicism, but the topic–children killing children. And that’s fine to be upset with that. But then I’m thinking William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Children kill children there, and he won a Nobel prize. And then there’s Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, an even better book. Children don’t kill children there, but they are responsible for, and pretty indifferent to, the deaths of the adults who have cared for them. This makes me feel as uncomfortable as what happens in Collins’s books. But it’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, the idea of children killing children. It’s a horrible, terrible idea. And I thought Collins’s portrayal of a society that tolerates, indeed encourages this, at least in the movie, was horrifying. I don’t know how the President was portrayed in the book, but Donald Sutherland was properly scary as the leader of such a society.

    But it’s a well established theme in sf as well. There are all sorts of dystopian future novels, including lots of YA ones, that posit this exact theme–or worse. There’s nothing in Hunger Games that’s particularly novel, nor any worse than what happens to the children of Game of Thrones. It’s an appalling prospect, but that’s one of the things that fiction presents us with, appalling prospects in the form of societies that have completely lost their bearings. And Diana is right, this is a natural extension of the culture we’ve created, one where we over-sex children by the time they’re ten, where in parts of the country we enthusiastically arm them with semi-automatic weapons, and where we spend billions annually advertising to their whims. So if Collins is cynical, she’s been given plenty of tools to work with, and an audience more than happy to confirm that very cynicism.

    • Wuf: Good points, but I think it comes back to the question I was asking earlier. Is the kids killing kids thing a legit, credible socio-cultural critique or is it gratuitous entertainment? Are we commenting on how our society treats children, or are we enjoying a box of popcorn at the Colosseum?

      I’m the rank outsider in this thread, having neither seen the movie nor read the book, so I’m interrogating, not pronouncing. My approach to such questions, as indicated earlier, begins with that wonderful advice from Deep Throat: follow the money. As I said then, it’s certainly possible to produce real art from inside the capitalist/consumerist machine, but producing critiques of itself isn’t something that said machine does a lot of.

      • Sam: Why can’t it both be entertaining and a socio-cultural critique? Why does entertaining become a pejorative when we’re talking about literature?

        • Wait wait – that’s not what I was saying. Serious critique and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. That’s the kind of silliness that the navel-gazing litfic elite would have us believe, but anyone who has read Twain and Shakespeare, to name a couple, know better.

          What I’m saying is that there’s serious commentary – which may or may not be entertaining, although it would be nice if it were – and there is entertainment product. Entertainment with no social content, etc.

          To abstract, a thing may be art. It may be entertaining. And it may be both. The armored cars full of cash backing up to the studio suggest that Hunger Games is entertaining. I cannot say if it is art without seeing it. Jim’s argument is that it isn’t.

          Is that clearer?

        • Yes. I was just confused since you asked that question twice in a very similar either/or wording. To me, the wording suggested exclusivism, but i wanted to be sure.

          I think, again, that we have to remember a few things about art and value. What is art and what is valued are subjective. They differ from person to person, culture to culture, and shift over time. Conversations like this always call to mind those never-fully-answered questions: What is art? Who gets to decide that? Does all art have value?

          In general, I find trying to categorize something as “art” or “not art” difficult for those very reasons. I have no qualms about making a statement of taste, but I strive to represent it as such rather than as a judgement about the value of the thing–especially if I’m not in the intended audience of the thing in question.

        • Yes. I was just confused since you asked that question twice in a very similar either/or wording. To me, the wording suggested exclusivism, but i wanted to be sure.

          Gods no. I’ve been ranting about that since the late ’80s. Being trapped in a CW program with a bunch of self-absorbed litfic weenies scarred me for life.

          I think, again, that we have to remember a few things about art and value. What is art and what is valued are subjective. They differ from person to person, culture to culture, and shift over time. Conversations like this always call to mind those never-fully-answered questions: What is art? Who gets to decide that? Does all art have value?

          I’m also unusual in my stance re: absolutism and relativism (or, seen through another lens, Modernism vs PostModernism). Yes, art is subjective. yes, it is essential that we privilege perspectives without regard for their traditional, canonical status (ie, women and blacks are smart, too – genius isn’t exclusively the domain of elite white men).

          That said, PoMo and its hyperrelativist strain have exerted a hellish leveling effect on art and culture. I’ve been to lots of poetry open mics, and while I’m glad everyone loves poetry and I hope they keep expressing themselves, let’s be clear – all voices are NOT equal. Some folks just suck. Many times this is the result of the laziness that emerges from the PoMo aesthetic – who are you to tell me that all your years of attention to craft are better than this thing I threw up on my napkin this morning, you elitist wank?

          “Subjective” is a word that has been badly maligned in the last several decades. Our culture’s obsession with scientism has always privileged the quant and measurable over the softness of the subjective, and therefore it is deemed to be a lesser path to insight. This happens because we have allowed the subjective process to become divorced from intellectual and aesthetic rigor.

          Yeah, art is subjective. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t evaluate it and hold it to the highest standards of analysis and reason possible. Just because a thing isn’t measurable doesn’t mean that we can’t assess its merit, its excellence.

          Anyone who wants to argue this point with me, step up to the plate. I always enjoy making people say that Justin Bieber is as great as The Beatles in front of an audience…. 🙂

        • I think we can assess merit, but we have to be open to how that shifts depending on context and culture–and more importantly, very open about criteria for assessing it.

        • That might depend on the standards and how far you’re willing to flex them for different types of art. 😉

  10. Re: Sam’s line, “Entertainment with no social content, etc.”

    Isn’t the lack of social content in itself social content? If there were a body of lit several decades ago that only cynically pandered to a particular market with gratuitous servings of red meat for that market, would there not now be scholars looking at that very body of lit uncovering all manner of social content in it?

    I can’t comment on the book/movie or their relative value or worth as I’ve not partaken yet, but at least I know what I’ll be watching tonight.

    • Frank: Actually, it is entirely possible to study a content-free text or genre. That’s where I shift from art critic mode to culturalist mode, because I love studying cultural practice that may be utterly meaningless using the same criteria I would employ in analyzing a work of art. I mean, I can talk all day about pro wrestling as an important cultural genre that we can learn from, but that doesn’t mean I think the booking of Monday night’s tag team championship match deserves a Nobel. 🙂

      • I’ve been head-scratching and brow-furrowing over this because I don’t have the academic background to address the matter from that perspective, but I think I see what you mean. Maybe. Over chitchat, I tried grappling with it in the context of a critic 40-50 years out who, for some inscrutable reason, decides to analyze the early 21st Century works of Justin Bieber. Biebs might not be intentionally stating something by way of social commentary in his words, accompanied by that “music,” while engaged in his antics on and off stage, but I think he affirms a set of cultural norms. He doesn’t say, “this what I think the public needs to see,” but “this is what I think the public wants to see.”

        Of course, if he ever wins a Nobel for that I’m just going to weep for humankind.

        • Frank: Think of it like this. On the one hand you have the artist, who can tell you something about an issue directly. On the other, you have someone who can’t intentionally tell you anything, but you can learn a lot by watching. One speaks about the culture, the other is spoken by the culture. On is subject and the other is object. One is artist, the other is text.

          You could learn a lot about modern celebrity culture, for instance, by trailing Biebs around. You might learn more by interviewing him. But at no point is he enlightening you via artistic insight – the insight is a result of YOUR efforts, not his.

  11. Every time my brain starts to get it, my gut gets in the way. The only way that works for me is to deprive Biebs of all agency. I can’t give him credit for the songwriting because for all I know everything is written by committee. I can’t give him credit for musicianship, unless microphones and autotune are instruments 😉 But there’s the showmanship (ugh) and, worse, what he chooses to sing/say/do. I think he and his artistic ilk are offering commentary of a sort, but rather than holding any old mirror up to the audience, it’s a funhouse mirror that only shows what the audience wants to see. In his case, he chose that sound, that look, and that mirror. He’d probably be equally awful if he were the conduit for corporate jingo-country, shock rock, or anything else. It would just annoy and please different folks.

    As it is, he knows what girls like. I think it has something to do with a lolly? *ducks*

    I use him as sort of a worst case example of what I think the convo about Collins is about, at least in part. I think Jim is spot on when he states that THG is cynically and exploitatively aimed at children. I just can’t see it as devoid of message (sight unseen, so to speak).

    Maybe it’s because I’m perplexed, but I wonder how much of the issue is the quality of the expression within a form, how much of the issue is the form, and how much of the issue is the construction of the form. Take a sonnet. I have no idea (shame on me) who invented the form, but I doubt it was a cynical construct in itself. There’s nothing inherently bad in the form’s invention. For some reason some people preferred the form, others not so much, others disliked it, but it’s a matter of taste at that level. Shakespeare comes along and writes a scad of beautiful sonnets (if that’s your thing). I disgrace his memory and write two that make the intelligent reader weep for English. My expression within the form sucks.

    So, there’s Collins. We seem to have a clear problem with the nature of her form’s invention…a bunch of sleazy, exploitative types wondering how they can get their readers and viewers to wet themselves while forking over gobs of cash. There seems to be a problem with the form itself…a story calibrated to market data. What I’m not sure about is the degree there’s an issue with her expression within the form that she appears to have had a hand in crafting.

    A good part of me wants to instinctively dislike the movie before I even see it (before I even entertain the notion of reading the book), but that’s because I’m already against the form’s invention. Then I ask myself, “self, why this bias against cynically created story? Don’t we cuss a blue streak when other businesses only give us what they want and not what we demand? Should mass market publishing be held to a different standard?”

    I’ll have to save any other musings until I’ve at least seen the darned thing.

    • Well, yeah. I mean, this is a conversation about a text that naturally evolved into a conversation about the larger issues that the text is perceived to represent. I wish I was familiar with the book and movie firsthand so I could have more of an idea about the degree to which the text, as manifesting authorial intent, exhibits artistic and social merit. I’m a sucker for dystopian genre fiction (and I love Survivor), so odds are my tolerance levels are a bit higher than Jim’s. I’m a pop culturalist from hell sometimes.

      As for Bieber’s agency, we have to accord him some subjectivity (unless we’re righteous adherents of Structuralism and the things that have followed it), although I’m not really sure that he has ever written a song. If not, he’s a singer, a front job, and there’s certainly a long line of prefabricated teen idols that we can slot him in right behind.

      But what has he said? What has he purported to tell us about the human condition?

      It’s also true that the two things I’m talking about here – the artist/speaker and the subject/spoken – can be the same entity in different analysis. We might examine what the poetry of Yeats tells us about the world. We might then step outside that context and consider what the life and work of the Modern poets, a group that includes Yeats, revealed about the role of, say, literature in shaping and informing national identity in the early 20th century.

      So no, not necessarily and either/or, although these kinds of discussions I think lure us into drawing hard dichotomies.

  12. “So, there’s Collins. We seem to have a clear problem with the nature of her form’s invention…a bunch of sleazy, exploitative types wondering how they can get their readers and viewers to wet themselves while forking over gobs of cash. There seems to be a problem with the form itself…a story calibrated to market data. What I’m not sure about is the degree there’s an issue with her expression within the form that she appears to have had a hand in crafting.”

    This is not the nature of the form or its genesis, though, and seeing it as such as a problem. The genre of YA literature started almost accidentally when Hinton wrote The Outsiders–at least as far as classifying something as YA–though there are precursors to it. This is because adolescence itself is a modern concept. And dystopian literature, though a more modern invention, is based on the “no place” premise of utopia–in which you can always find a dystopia if you look hard enough.

    Collins did not have a hand in inventing the genre. Those generic distinctions were there well before the publication of Harry Potter and Twilight. Technically speaking, the first few books of the Harry Potter series (only picked up by Scholastic after they’d landed with British publish Bloomsbury–the trans-Atlantic element affects publication and distribution) aren’t YA literature. They’re chlidren’s literature. For me, as for many others, the turning point of the series to YA is the death of Cedric Diggory; some insist that it’s not until books 6 and 7 thatthe series really becomes YA.

    • The hazard of my glibness…I am understood quickly but my meaning is missed. By form I did not mean YA. I meant something more along the lines of “lit-product as a function of marketing metrics.” I believe this accords with Jim’s vision of the pitch meeting. THG might well be an element of two separate sets simultaneously, YA and what we might think of as metrics-driven fiction-by-numbers. I’m only addressing the latter. Insofar as we can speculate that the pitch meeting went somewhat as imagined, Collins would certainly have had a hand in the “metrics-driven” form…as I meant it.

      As far as the content of the story itself, I won’t judge the book(s) I’ve not read by the movie I watched last night, but that the movie enjoyed any success speaks even more poorly to the tastes of the audience than it does to the cynical nature of its inception. I assume I’d have to read the entirety of the work to fill in all the apparent gaps in the film, but the underlying premise leaves me cold. We’ve seen similar in The Running Man and Death Race 2000 (or more recently, The Purge), where a dystopian society devolves into this kind of “Deadliest Game” scenario, but those didn’t leave me flat quite the same way. It’s the introduction of the kid-on-kid violence that is distinctive here. While I might make some kind of morally ambiguous allowances for the kinds of society portrayed in Running Man or Death Race 2000, the allowances required for THG to work challenges my ability to suspend disbelief. Were there a culture that required *this* in order to keep the peace, I’d just as soon see that culture gassed and put out of its misery.

      • Ah, I see.

        But this isn’t new to The Hunger Games–the kid on kid violence. It’s been a part of the genre as long as it has been in existence. Glibness is also a mark of a dystopian novel. To me, some of what’s happening in this conversation is a critique of the dystopian novel for simply being what it is generically, and that seems unfair. To say that a dystopian novel leaves one feeling unsettled and upset and see that in a negative light is to critique the genre by its very definition. THG is not supposed to leave anyone feeling good. To that end, I’m still wondering how much of these negative reactions are about the genre itself.

  13. The one thing I learned in my half-of-an-MFA: When you ask people who want to write but can’t what they want to write, the answer is always YA.