The 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…

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About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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9 Responses to The Money Games: The Hunger Games and how young adult fiction rules publishing…

  1. Diana says:

    With the cultural development of adolescence comes literature for the adolescent. We’re seeing the rise of the concept of adolescence and the literature marketed to them. Now I’m not one to say that just because something is popular it’s good, but Collin’s work is more complex than just teenagers killing one another, and it fits into a narrative body of work that begins well before Rowling penned Harry Potter.S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is widely hailed as the beginning of the modern YA novel, though traces of the YA novel can be found at least as early as Little Women in American literature.

  2. Jim Booth says:

    Diana,

    Your points about the history of YA literature are spot on. In fact, I’ve written about some its earliest practitioners here: https://newsoutherngentleman.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/teaching-the-value-of-education/ and here: https://newsoutherngentleman.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/how-to-be-good/

    As I noted over at S&R in my response, I’m also aware of the rise of “realistic” depictions of adolescence such as those in the work of Hinton, Zindel and Blume. That’s all well and good and I think we’re in agreement that what Hinton, et. al., achieved was good for the literature of adolescence.

    Rowling, as I noted in this piece, was the game changer (sure, there was spooky stuff like the Stine Goosebumps series, but there the focus seemed to be on “thrills and chills” more than on character, and culture). Her depiction of Harry and company made them resonate with young readers in ways that articulated children and adolescent fears about growing up.

    What came in the wake of that (the use of Rowling’s meme of the supernatural as a metaphor for adolescence) gets a weird twist in Meyers’ TWILIGHT books: I’d probably, as most critics have done, argue that the books reflect her Mormon value system – and not always in a way that serves the best interests of female readers. (I was pretty blunt in my criticism, but, hey, it’s what she messages.)

    Again, here’s part what I said over at S&R in my response explaining why I find The Hunger Games more objectionable than either Harry Potter or the TWILIGHT books: “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.”

    One can, I suppose, defend her by claiming that one has to get the entire story arc of the series to see the larger critique. But my personal response to that was that I read the first Harry Potter book and it stood up as a testament to the power of accepting one’s “differentness” all by itself – no further HP books needed, though they further explore the themes from the first book thoroughly and thoughtfully, to be sure. Maybe that’s a failing of Collins’ writing (she writes very solidly, though – as well as Rowling much of the time, better than Meyer all the time), but I doubt it. The Hunger Games plays games – with its readers. And given the age and maturity/intellectual sophistication of many of those readers, I find that troubling, especially since the heroine again and again countenances the evil she sees and understands (given her youth). And sends a message to young readers that “playing the game,” no matter how horrible it is, is what one must do. It’s an evil message – and given the power and popularity of this book, a culturally damaging one.

  3. Diana says:

    Given the end of your response and its conjecture on the message of the books, yes it is very important to have read all of these to make a critique about the over-arching story. Unlike Harry Potter, the books aren’t meant to stand alone. They are meant to be read as a trilogy.

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