four-and-twenty mockingjays

why I’m not playing hunger gameshttp://thehogshead.org/mockingjay-in-two-days-5272/

[Note: The blogalectic is on holiday while Jenna’s on holiday, so you get this instead.]

The world’s gone mad for Mockingjay, the final installment of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. From the people who brought you Harry Potter (no, really—New York: Scholastic, 2010) comes yet another wildly popular bestseller, leaving pundits happily hazarding bets that dystopic dictators are the new tormented vampires—everybody wants to date one!

OK, so I made that last part up.

The seriousness that surrounds the reception of Collins’s books, however, and the devotion of her fans parallels the wild enthusiasm of Team Rowling and Team Meyer. That’s so well known it’s almost glib. It seems natural that, as someone who follows fascinating questions of market trend and literary inheritance, I’d want to read what critics are praising as gripping, spiritual, and emotionally wrenching tales.

What’s that? You read my subtitle? Aw, shucks—you didn’t hafta do that—I wouldn’t wish that on—while you’re at it, will you proofread this draft of an introduction for me?

(Don’t worry—I read introductions too…)

OK, skip the surprise. I’m not reading Mockingjay, unlike most of the rest of the reading public. I didn’t read Catching Fire (2009) or The Hunger Games (2008) either. Not, mind you, because of any carefully crafted reason. I honestly didn’t hear about them until the the buzz around Mockingjay finally echoed through my ivory walls.

In case, like me, you’ve been living with your head under a rock and haven’t heard of The Hunger Games trilogy, and began your interaction with this post by looking up Mockingjay in your Peterson Guide, let me give some *entirely unauthorized*explanation. The trilogy tells the story of Katniss, a teenaged girl living in an evil empire, controlled from The Capitol. This particular evil empire controls its subjects through voyeurism in the form of televised gladiatorial games—the Hunger Games—with children as the ‘gladiators.’ Twenty-four contestants, the winner is the one left alive.

Of course, there wouldn’t be a bestseller if Katniss wasn’t chosen to fight in the Title Games. There wouldn’t be a bestselling sequel if Katniss died in the first book. If you’re going to have a trilogy about an Evil Empire, you need a rebellion in book three. And hey, this is YA, Katniss is a teenaged girl, so what’s odds but there’s a cute boy in it somewhere? None of this, in my *entirely unauthorized* view, counts as a spoiler.

I’m not attempting to review Mockingjay, or any of the trilogy. There’s something unethical about reviewing books you haven’t read. If you want thorough-going review, I urge you to consult with The Hogwarts Professor, or to read Jenna St. Hilaire’s painfully honest review at The Hog’s Head. Professor Granger’s thoughts are—as ever—fascinating for those not squeamish of spoilers, and Jenna’s sensitive, thoughtful reading nearly made me decide to read the trilogy.

But the operative word in that sentence is ‘nearly.’ What follows is an attempt to explain why.

The reviewers, good and bad, are unanimous that the books are violent. True to form of what Brave Sir Robin was not in the least bit scared to do, the characters get killed in nasty ways. And get made into what’s reported as a horrifyingly terrifying sort of zombie—Mutts.

As a writer and teller of tales, I have an imagination like a steel trap. I remember images—I continue and exaggerate them. They seethe and expand and settle. I’m not claiming Great Mind points for this—this is just how my imagination works. I also have an uncultivated tendency toward lucid dreaming.

For three days after I saw Sixth Sense, I jumped every time I turned around, even if nothing was there. Especially if nothing was there.

Reading detailed scenes of children killing other children in nasty ways doesn’t sound helpful.

But, I argue with myself, it’s not just mindless violence—like the sex in Too Late the Phalarope isn’t just gratuitous, maybe. Jenna has skillfully pointed out how the violence is soulful—even allegorical—the story works on deeper levels, challenging your spiritual conceptions and subverting your ideologies.

Well, true enough. Violence, even harsh violence, can and does serve a place in literature. (I’m much more skeptical about its value in film—you can’t decide what you’re imagining—but that’s another discussion.) But those sorts of encounters, that sort of confrontation with brutal reality—whether in realistic fiction or fantasy—should, I think, be done cautiously and with great deliberation. Jenna St. Hilaire’s made such a decision in reading the Hunger Games Trilogy.

But on the shelf behind me sits Wiesel’s Night trilogy. I keep telling myself to read Gaiman’s American Gods. I’ve never actually finished Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope. I read Camus’s The Stranger, and am taking about a year or two to steel myself for The Plague. There’s much more O’Connor and Dostoyevsky for me to read. And if you insist on children brutalizing children, I’ve yet to read Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Collins, in other words, is doing nothing new. I can and sometimes do decide to face violence and grotesquerie in literature. I am sometimes glad of it. But, bestseller status aside, The Hunger Games is quite simply not at the top of my list. And I suspect after Night, it’ll seem a little tame.

Lastly, I’m honestly not convinced the trilogy is ‘all that’—meaning the latest, greatest, trendsetting, iconoclastic books that will change a generation, a genre, and (most significantly) a market. Call me me a skeptic—you’d be right—but I’ve read enough Zipes to be thoroughly hostile to the marketing behind YA books.

I was just rereading (in one of Zipes’s books) part of Scholastic’s notes to reviewers for one of the Harry Potter books. Even as a fan, I found it nauseating. Sure, smugness and poor information usually go together—but this was extraordinary even for a smug collector! Really, does every single bestselling YA title have to hailed as a collaborative work between Shakespeare, Kant, and Freire?

As parents, we legitimately care about our children, our teens. We want them to be edified and challenged through what they read. So we’re more likely to buy them a book touted as thoughtful, challenging, educational, and literary (and fun to read, too!) than a book touted as the latest genre formula-piece, with some new fiddly-bits added. Even if they’re the same book. Don’t think marketing doesn’t know this.

That doesn’t mean the books are bad. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading. If you’ve read them and enjoyed them, that’s brilliant. The comment box is open—challenge my ideas!

But for now—not hungry. I’ll wait for another migration to spot a Mockingjay.

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17 thoughts on “four-and-twenty mockingjays

  1. My own reasons for avoiding it are simpler, if more snobbish: I instinctively avoid anything that’s wildly popular, especially if a calculated marketing campaign is involved. I give it a while for the hype to die down and then see if it’s still attracting interest or if all its fans have moved on to the New Big Thing. In other words, given that I’ll only experience a finite number of books, movies, and music in my life, I prefer ones that can stand the test of time at least for a few years.

    I estimate I’ve missed out on two or three good books that way, come late to a few others, and avoided a busload of dreck. Harry and friends are doing great; does anybody at all still give a hang about The Da Vinci Code?

    Also, the operative word here is “instinctively.” I made that sound like a conscious philosophical choice when really it’s a more or less involuntary reaction.

    American Gods may be the greatest example of grotesquerie I’ve ever read, and I never thought of it in those terms before.

  2. I won’t try to convince you, but I do think you’re selling the books short in some ways & somehow blaming the books for the distasteful but unfortunately necessary marketing.

    I don’t blame you either. I have no plans to finish reading the Twilight series or to read anything by Philip Pullman. 🙂

  3. When I was at USC I briefly taught Music part-time in South Central L.A. – I’ve seen enough children killing children with my own two eyes to last a lifetime. I am a witness of this kind of brutality. The pain involved for the families and students is unfathomable. To see a child become casual about such violence, accepting it as part of the norm – destoys part of the soul for the child as well as the witness.

    Why on all of God’s good Earth would I ever want to read about that? For fun?

  4. Joivre, do you really think people like Travis, Red Rocker, Jenna, Arabella, John Granger & I, among many others, are reading The Hunger Games trilogy simply because they’re fun or that we get entertainment out of seeing children killed?

    I’m sure some people could & will read The Hunger Games books on a merely surface level, never reflecting about what’s happening, never seeing the not so subtle critique of our society, but only thinking it’s fun. Or only focusing on the romance like these series of books are some post-apocalyptic schmaltz & as shallow as a certain popular series of sparkly vampire novels.

    I know you’ve read the Harry Potter series. I assume you found it to be a good read, maybe even fun or entertaining. But look at all the terrible things that happen in the books. Children are targeted for murder all the time. The main character almost dies in every book & in the last is finally sent out as a sacrificial pig with no sure hope of living. He’s abused by his closest relatives & continually humiliated by one of his teachers. The innocent are often falsely imprisoned or exiled (Sirius) while the guilty walk free & have influence in society (Lucius). There’s racism, species-ism, prejudice, slavery, among other things. There’s that scene in DH where we hear Hermione being brutally tortured. All sorts of nasty, dark things going on in Harry Potter. How can one possibly enjoy it?

  5. Great thoughts, everyone.

    Revgeorge, welcome. You’re right–I’m blatantly not giving the books a fair chance. C. S. Lewis pointed out that we can’t determine whether a book is worth submitting to until we’ve submitted to it. Only by reading a book can we tell whether a book is worth reading (aside from some notable exceptions–obscenity, say). I certainly do not want to–will not even attempt to–pass judgment on the literary merits of the Hunger Games Trilogy until I’ve read/heard at least part of them.

    To explain my explanation–yeah, the marketing has nothing to do with the value of the book, really. But my reasons aren’t merely ‘literary’, in that sense. Other factors will go into why I choose not to read a book, including–a freely admit my triviality–typeface and cover art, sometimes.

    And, yes, Pullman and Meyer are on my ‘Not Really Inclined to Read At All’ list!

    Joivre, most of my point exactly. I’m deeply skeptical about the fantastic nature of the books. Child-on-child violence is not just fiction. Heck, I lived in Chicago for five years. There’s just too many places where Hunger Games are a sort of reality. Only it’s not televised, the people aren’t beautified, the Capitol isn’t ‘respectable.’

    There’s something very suburban–bourgeois, perhaps a better word–in thinking, ‘Hey, let’s have kids fighting kids–that would be terrifying and extreme and show how evil this society is!’ Well, yeah, but… (Admittedly, kids in the suburbs are much more likely to read The Hunger Games than kid in the fight zones.)

    But I do think Revgeorge is right in saying that these books aren’t meant to be read ‘for fun’, whatever Scholastic and the General Reading Public should think. We approach art (as you certainly don’t need me to tell you!) for many other reasons than ‘fun.’ But it does cost us. And, like you, the cost of approaching The Hunger Games turns me away.

    And since I have a near-Ruskin despair in regards the Reading Public en masse, I have a horrible suspicion that nine out of ten copies of Mockingjay are being read ‘for fun.’ And writing that sentence made me sick (for lots of reasons).

    Eric–yeah, that’s probably the elephant in my argument! I avoid fads, too. (As if you didn’t know…)

  6. Mr. Pond, I don’t necessarily disagree with your points but I also don’t necessarily agree with them either. How’s that for a firm statement of conviction! 🙂 And also as loathe as I am to disagree with Lewis, I think he’s too narrow in his definition that we can only determine whether or not a book is worth reading is by reading it. It’s true but doesn’t make allowances for the fact that we can also determine a book is worth reading by trusting the judgement of friends or people whom we respect who have recommended the book. I must admit I probably wouldn’t have read The Hunger Games series as quickly as I did unless Arabella Figg had recommended it to me.

    Mr. Pond wrote: ” There’s just too many places where Hunger Games are a sort of reality. Only it’s not televised, the people aren’t beautified, the Capitol isn’t ‘respectable.’
    There’s something very suburban–bourgeois, perhaps a better word–in thinking, ‘Hey, let’s have kids fighting kids–that would be terrifying and extreme and show how evil this society is!’”

    For one, I don’t think you’re being fair to Ms. Collins to reduce her intent with these books down to some simplistic statement of “Oh, let’s have kids fight kids; it’ll be great social commentary.”

    I’d also ask, would you apply the same criticism to Harriet Beecher Stowe? “Hey, let’s show a brutal slave plantation & what goes on there–that would be terrifying & extreme & show how evil this society is!” War is a reality in many parts of the world. Should we then criticize writers like Remarque and other anti-war writers for showing the brutality of war?

    I think you’re also making mistaken statements about the books too. The people in the stories are not beautified. The Capitol is never presented as respectable. The Games are televised & heavily edited in the same way our reality TV shows are presented, albeit the violence is presented as real rather than simply made up or heavily scripted. The people in the Capitol watch it as entertainment & the people in the Districts are forced to watch it as punishment. None of this is really ever presented as a good thing.

    Sure, there’s probably some people who shouldn’t read The Hunger Games just like there’s many war vets who don’t watch war movies. But for people who’ve spent their lives living in an almost simulated world of unreality, wherein games like Grand Theft Auto are played incessantly, wherein we spend hours watching simulated violence on TV & in movies, where so many things are photo shopped or CGI’d or heavily edited that we have no idea whether they’re true or not, the message of The Hunger Games, the stark reality of it all, might get them to start thinking about the dissolute & decadent nature of our culture.

    But hey, I said I wasn’t going to try & convince you. 🙂 Anyway, nobody has to read anything they don’t want to. I just object to what I perceive as the mis-characterization of the books & of the intent of those who read them.

    One final thing, if some people do read these stories as just entertainment, I would say that says more about the way they’ve been taught to read rather than about the books themselves.

  7. Thanks, revgeorge. I stand corrected. I’d say I misread, but that would be really misleading as I’ve not read at all, so I guess I mis-assumed. From conversations at Hogwarts Professor, I thought the contestants in the Hunger Games were given some sort of makeover–‘beautification’–to make them nicer to look at on the telly. Thanks for pointing out my mis-statment! (Knew there was something missing! :D)

    I grossly oversimplified Lewis, to be honest. That’s the essential kernel of his argument in An Experiment in Criticism, but very much in the rough. The argument as a whole is typically complex. And naturally we can judge books by the judgments of others–I’d have completely ignored The Hunger Game phenomenon if it hadn’t been for Jenna’s review. That’s how I got as close as I actually came–to the point where I had to consciously decide whether to read them or not.

    The kid-on-kid violence, however–I’m still deeply skeptical. And I really can’t move beyond where I am without actually reading the triology, I think. It just strikes me as flawed reasoning somewhere–and this is very ephemeral still, which is why it’s not in the main body of the post, it’s not fully articulated yet–to think that a potentially voyeuristic image will repel voyeurism. That the Grand Theft Auto junkies would really be shocked and astonished by a gritty ‘what it’s really like’ graphic novel about grand theft auto.

    I can’t fully argue this out yet, so I’ll just say–it strikes me that it’s different to confront theoretical supporters (or half-hearted opponents) of slavery with a depiction of actual life as a slave (Douglass did it before Stowe, and better if less widely read) and to use one form of fictionalized violence to demonstrate why the other is wrong. This is honestly less a response to the books themselves than a sensation created by much of the criticism surrounding the books, so please forgive me if my comments have no relation to your actual experience of reading them! 🙂

    And to be honest, revgeorge–you almost convinced me. You really did.

  8. Well, as more clarification, The Hunger Games aren’t as graphic as they’ve perhaps been portrayed. The descriptions of violence are straightforward. They’re being used in a voyeuristic way by the citizen of the Capitol but it’s not as if they’re being drawn out in the book or graphically detailed for the voyeuristic pleasure of the readers. But really the violence is on par, in many ways, with what one finds in Harry Potter or Twilight or other Young Adult books. People’s faces are not being rubbed in the goriness of the violence as if this was a slasher movie or something like that. (Which is why I fear these books being made into movies because I think they’re going to lose any punch they had & simply become another washed out, over CGI’d summer blockbuster.)

    No doubt, though, that the books are bleak & heart wrenching, but hey, it’s post-apocalyptic fiction. It isn’t supposed to be pleasant or necessarily easy to read. But there are moments of beauty & hope, & I think those transcend much of the bleakness of the rest.

    And no, I also don’t think purveyors of Grand Theft Auto would be much impacted by a gritty novel about Grand Theft Auto per se. That is, if only the violence & brutality is ramped up. But if they were confronted with characters who came alive & felt real to them, they might begin to understand the effects of the violence & criminality these characters face instead of it simply being something dismissed because in the video game they know it’s not real.

    Oh, and you are right in the sense that when the tributes are taken to the Capitol, they are prettified for the cameras. But it really comes off that they are actually being dehumanized by this. Their true humanity is being submerged, & they are, in the hopes of trying to survive, being forced to “play the game.” And the desire to somehow make a statement, show that even though the Capitol seems to be controlling all the strings, that they (the tributes) somehow aren’t just mindless pawns but have an ability to maintain their humanity, is an important point that keeps coming up in the books.

    Anyway, I won’t think less of you if you don’t read the books. I’m pleased I almost convinced you; I’m usually not that persuasive. 🙂

  9. ‘I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

    After that I liked jazz music.

    Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. ‘

    –Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

    That’s how you almost convinced me.

    It’s encouraging to hear that the violence isn’t as gory as is popular in violent films about people that kill each other in nasty ways. I didn’t really consider the Harry Potter books to be particularly violent–violent in a suspenseful way, yes, but not in an awful, gut-wrenching, oh-my-g-d-look-away sort of way. It would be different if it were really happening, of course, much different–so it’s a much easier read for me than many books on WWII.

    My overriding hindrances would resolve to time and priority. I just ain’t gonna have time to read the darn triology before next year, I don’t think. And if I did decide I had time to grapple with a serious, post-apocalyptic dystopia novel–well, The Plague, The Road and American Gods are all clucking impatiently in the wings.

    But as the discussions gone so far, I think I should modify my subtitle: ‘Why I in All Probability Won’t Have Time to Play Hunger Games for a Few Years (and besides, the concept seems Disgusting, which is Why I’ve Never Read Golding).’

    Not as succinct, but perhaps more accurate.

  10. I perfectly understand. Like I said, I’m not going to be angry if you don’t read The Hunger Games or even think less of you. I’ve got so many things to read as well. And there are some things I know I should read but I’m just not interested in them. And there’s some things I’ve read that I know were good for me to read but that I’m not planning on reading again anytime soon. Lord of the Flies is one of them; don’t think I’ve read it since college English Lit which is pushing 25 years ago now.

    I would definitely say if you had an option, that you should read The Plague by Camus first. And not just first, but now! Go get it & start reading! I really need to reread it too. 🙂

    As for Gaiman, from the books I’ve read of his so far, he hasn’t really grabbed me.

  11. I read for two reasons – both reasons don’t have to be present at the same time – but it helps. Fun and curiosity. Fun can be scary and violent. Fun can be horror. Fun can be a murder mystery. Fun can be Harry Potter at it’s most violent. (It is part of the story and story is fun). Curiosity is the desire to contain information. Information that can be about the Holocaust. Or the American Revolution. Or Small Pox. Ideally I like both fun and information.

    When a story is about children killing children and written for children. That is not fun. Even if it is in a story that is very fun. And I am not curious. So – End of story.

    I am definitely not going to get into it with you, Revgeorge, since I am definitely outnumbered as evidence of all your friends in your post to me. So I’ll simply walk away.

  12. Joivre, I would hope you would consider the people I reference to be somewhat friends as well, as much as it’s possible to be friendly in cyberspace. And I only referenced them to try & show that if The Hunger Games was simply about children killing children & written for children, that they would not be taking these books seriously.

    But that being said, I am not saying anybody has to read these books. I’m just saying I think they’ve been mis-characterized to an extent in somewhat the same way Harry Potter was mis-characterized as being about witchcraft. But I’ll walk away too. It’s not something that needs to be fought about.

  13. Joivre and revgeorge–well spoken, both of you. I admit to being completely delighted at how you’ve managed to present your differing views on these books, disagree, and still keep the tone of the thread cordial and thoughtful. I hardly need to tell you what a rarity that is on the interweb! (One of the reasons I love frequenting The Hog’s Head, by the way.) So, thank you. 😀

    My own view is somewhat puzzling–even to me–in that I have to say I agree with both of you. Joivre eloquently stated my ‘ephemeral’ sense of ‘flawed reasoning somewhere’ that I was struggling to articulate earlier. And revgeorge put into words nicely much of my own feelings about literature and its uses. So again, thank you.

    Now I’m starting to wonder how I can manage to agree with a disagreement…what was it Camus said? The test of a first-rate intelligence is whether one can hold two contradictory beliefs at the same without one’s head blasting into smithereens with a horrible pop. Or words to that effect.

    Well, here goes. (I suggest covering your ears…)

  14. “Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!”

    Wow, after all these well-worded and soundly-reasoned comments, I look like an even bigger snob than I am! At least this is not as bad as my Harry-Hater phase, through which I learned my lesson the hard way about pre-judging books (even popular ones) I hadn’t read yet.

    I’ll still give it a few months to see if the Thoughtful Ones keep thinking about it, and then plan my reading accordingly–meanwhile, I’ve got a lot of Pratchett to catch up on.

  15. Another caveat, I certainly wouldn’t unqualifiedly hand these books to anyone under the age of 15. A parent who would know best what their child can handle should be in charge of that decision.

  16. I note that no one has said PRUBON yet!

    So: PRUBON!

    But since there is some reason to presume worth based on your comments at HH, I will be fool-hardy enough to enter into discussion with you:

    Lev Grossman wrote about the paradoxical use of violence to preach against violence in his review of Hunger Games in Time:

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1919156-1,00.html

    These are the words I already quoted back at the HH in a conversation with Arabella Figg:

    Likewise, Collins brings a cold, furious clarity to her accounts of physical violence. You might not think it would be possible, or desirable, for a young-adult writer to describe, slowly and in full focus, a teenage girl getting stung to death by a swarm of mutant hornets. It wasn’t, until Collins did it. But rather than being repellent, the violence is strangely hypnotic. It’s fairy-tale violence, Brothers Grimm violence–not a cheap thrill but a symbol of something deeper. (One of the paradoxes of the book is that it condemns the action in the arena while also inviting us to enjoy it, sting by sting. Despite ourselves, we do.)

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1919156-2,00.html#ixzz0xx6QCAEN

    That should surely appeal to you, seeing as how paradox features so prominently in your understanding of reality. No?

  17. Yeah, I respect this. I came very very close to making the same decision, and a large part of me really doesn’t want to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay even though I’ve already bought them.

    “But as the discussion’s gone so far, I think I should modify my subtitle: ‘Why I in All Probability Won’t Have Time to Play Hunger Games for a Few Years (and besides, the concept seems Disgusting, which is Why I’ve Never Read Golding).’ “

    The parenthetical statement just kills me. Well said.

    Revgeorge, I’ll take some courage from your statement that the moments of hope transcend the bleakness. That’s the only thing keeping me going.

    Red Rocker, with all due respect to Mr. Grossman, I’m not sure what he means when he says that despite ourselves, we enjoy the violence. I hated it. Well. I’ll admit to taking pleasure in watching Katniss shoot the apple out of the pig’s mouth at the Gamemakers’ table. But I have never been so angry or upset at the end of a book as I was at the end of THG, and while there were things about the tale that I appreciated, there was very little that I enjoyed.

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