Monday, May 07, 2012

Reading about the Hunger Games

There's a great article in Salon, The making of a blockbuster (March 2012) by Laura Miller and another in
the NYT, Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers? (June 2010) .  The  Salon article is really interesting because she gives a lot of behind-the-scenes/insider info about publishing houses, and how they begin the marketing process and push books out into the world.  The older NYT article is more of an examination of the popularity of dystopian YA novels in general.  One of her claims is that dystopian fiction is so appealing to teenagers is because high school is a dystopia:
Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! 
Although, I really think Miller's inquiry into why teenagers like the book is extraneous.  Teenagers, if you ask me, are not necessarily critical readers, full of thoughtful introspection (at least I wasn't).  If a book is ostensibly written and marketed for young adult readers, it's not out of the question that young adult readers will enjoy them.    The question is why adults like them so much.  For one thing, some people think it's embarrassing to read a book that's written for teenagers.  *I* don't feel that way, but I do get a fair amount of raised eyebrows for my reading choices.  Personally, I don't give two fucks about what other people think about what I'm reading.  My attitude is, "I'm reading a BOOK - my mind is an explosion of language and thought - what are you doing? Being judgmental?"  But, I do know that a lot of people suffer from the embarrassment of book covers in public spaces.  So, first of all, you have to find a person brave enough to defy public scrutiny, or else a book that is socially acceptable for adults to read (ie Harry Potter was, Twilight really wasn't.)

What I find most appealing about teenage heroines is the escapist idea that they, despite apparently lack of opportunity, strength, means or support, nevertheless upset social or policial hierarchy.  Characters like Katniss or Cassie in the Matched Trilogy or whatshername in Divergent (I assume, the 2nd and 3rd books are forthcoming).  These young characters generally have little to lose, and encountering their parents' inability to change their situation, it's left to them to challenge the norms.  Older readers, like myself, are in reality more like the parents of these characters - they have a lot to lose.  They have children, careers, homes, and partners that would be in jeopardy if they rocked the boat.  Identifying with the teenage characters gives the adult the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to effect massive change without sacrificing any of the relationships or possessions they've gained.  Without judgement, the adult reader of the YA dystopian novel can embrace the actions of the heroine, not only because it's easy to support her, but she would like to image that she would do the same thing.

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