le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

breaking newsflash that will shock you shockingly

The New York Times has this incredible newsflash: many adults are buying The Hunger Games books - for themselves to read!!!!!!!

I know. Give yourself a moment. Maybe a sip of brandy, or cold water to revive your shocked senses. It IS kind of hard to believe, isn't it, that adults might buy books for young adults or children, for their own reading pleasure? Who would think that adults - and we all know how sophisticated American adults are, with their fondness for football and FoxNews and "Real Housewives" programs - would lower themselves to voluntarily read a trilogy of very smart, well-written books about politics and war and morality?
Actually, maybe it IS surprising that adults are reading these books, since most of America seems unable to confront these issues in real life.
But a good book is a good book is a good book, and after all, we routinely make young adults read "grown-up" books (please see any high school reading list) - why not flip it around? I do wish that media would stop behaving as if it's noteworthy that adults are reading books for younger readers, or at least stop presenting this as if it's something shocking! and surprising! and wow!  Because it's not. It really, really isn't. And - since the article invokes them, I might as well do it too - I think Harry Potter and those heinous Twilight "books" have proven, in eleven different books, eleven different releases, that adults read YA books.

Have you recovered yet?

The article accompanying this bombshell brings us tired tropes and the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons (the inevitability of these comparisons is really getting me down; I loved the HP books, but I am feeling sick to the teeth with them). Intrepid and evidently ill-read NYTimes writer Susan Dominus refers to Katniss as having angst like an S.E. Hinton character, which is a travesty in itself; Katniss's "angst" revolves primarily around providing food and money for her mother and younger sister; then, later, about keeping herself and/or Peeta alive. Worry about the availability of the necessities of life does not qualify, in my book, as angst. Further, Hinton's characters are all - well - dreamy caricatures, the kind of sensitive yet tough, emotional yet rough boys who populate hetero girls' daydreams and don't exist in too very many other places in reality.

We also get a description of Collins (her fine features and long, flowing hair), along with this chestnut: "Her life story may be less dramatic than the rags-to-riches tales of Rowling and Meyer — neither had published anything before their best-selling successes..."

Sigh. Neither Rowling nor Meyer (as in Stephenie, as in perpetrator of Twilight) were at anything like "rags" before their riches came along. Meyer seems to have grown up fairly middle-class; she attended Brigham Young University, got her BA, and married her husband. She was a full-time mom when she wrote Twilight. Rowling, of course, worked at a variety of jobs, including teaching in Portugal, before returning to Edinburgh to write her first manuscript and work towards a teaching certificate. The "rags" in Rowling's story comes, I suppose, from the fact that in the year she was writing and taking courses toward the teaching certificate, she was on the dole. I view this as being not terribly different than my own situation: working toward my degree, taking out student loans to pay for housing, etc. The difference is that Scotland, like most of the Western world, has a reasonable attitude toward public assistance. You don't have to be eating trash from a gutter to receive it, and you don't have to slink around in shame if you accept it.
Either way, neither Meyer nor Rowling was ever in rags, and neither was Collins (who, among other things, received an MFA in writing and worked as a writer on several children's television programs).

I hate the rags-to-riches myth, for a number of reasons. First, it's not true. None of these women were lounging in the diamond-encrusted lap of luxury, but none of them were living on the street or in true distress over where their next meal would come from. Second, I think it somehow obscures and glamorizes the work and craft of writing (okay, except where Meyer is concerned; you cannot convince me there's any real craft going on in Twilight, no artistry - and I have read the novel twice).
And finally, I simply oppose the rags-to-riches myth on general principles. I think it's unrealistic and counterproductive; it lionizes the wealthy as deserving of their wealth, and it similarly denigrates the poor for not having the gumption to become wealthy.

Dominus also refers to a New Yorker piece from Laura Miller, which I have not read, but which evidently suggests that The Hunger Games is "a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience," a description or analysis that makes me want to throw up.
I do think The Hunger Games trilogy is doing something both interesting and important with regard to adolescence, but "fever-dream allegory" is not that something. For me, every single time I've read any of the three books, what strikes me most are the political and economic critiques. The way that war is figured, the way that power is figured, the way that corruption and decadence are figured; the way the book thinks of reality television and consolidation of power and complicity and superficiality and ignorance about the broken backs on which one's luxury rests - this is what the trilogy is about.
It is NOT an allegory (which, in its strictest definition, requires consistent one-to-one correlations of symbols and meanings). The brutality of the arenas is not a good analog for the brutality of the school locker room, or the school cafeteria, and I am committed to believing in the brutality of both of those. That is: I believe, deeply and sincerely, that high school is a miserable hell full of pitfalls and dangers and humiliations that are unparalleled in the "adult" world. But even I can't make the allegoric leap from gladiatorial arena to high school hallway.
This quote from Miller - or Dominus's use of it, anyway - sells short the very important work of the trilogy, which is not a happy set of books. The last pages of Mockingjay are chilling rather than consoling or uplifting. I wrote my opinion of Mockingjay right after it was published (I read it in a day) - that opinion is here.
Here's how I wrapped up my reading of Mockingjay, and the trilogy as a whole:
The dead stay dead, the broken remain broken. There is no recovery, there is no "getting over" the Hunger Games and their aftermath. This is not a book about glorious happiness arising from the ashes of difficult struggle. We're not left on a happy note, at all - we're left with the Hunger Games, with the reminder of the terrible possibilities in the world. We're left with the fact that terrible things happen, and scar us for life. That sometimes, the nightmares never, ever end.

The way both Dominus and Miller seem to handle the texts tries to cover this over, with suggested allegories and backpedaling references to history and to the author's biography. Suzanne Collins, who I am beginning to admire more and more, despite her gushing over the decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, resists this; Dominus quotes her saying "I don’t write about adolescence ... I write about war. For adolescents." This is entirely to Collins's credit, and should be unsurprising to anyone who has read her trilogy (at least anyone who wasn't primarily concerned with whether Team Peeta or Team Gale would win out - and as always, I recall with very deep fondness, the class of undergrads who were revolted when I mentioned the "team" language circulating around the book; those kids said "I'm Team Katniss").

I do wish the Times or someone would hire - even as freelancing contractors - people who really and truly know the field of children's and YA literature, to write about that literature. It deserves better contextualization that it's given by writers like Dominus and Miller, for all the good they may be at their jobs (an assessment I am not capable of making). Besides, there's a glut of smart PhDs or PhDs-to-be out there, lusting for a chance to earn a wage based on their years of hard work and study and reading and writing.

Good writers about books are almost as important as good writers of books. This is true for adult fiction, for nonfiction, for poetry - and it is most certainly also true of children's and young adult literature.

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