It is funny how often we dismiss the works of "young adult fiction" into the realm of the non-literary works. As far as I know there is no established cannon that determines when a book admitted into the library of "literature." since the book industry in the U.S. and Britain provide us with the convenient categories to sort out our bookshelves many great books are destined to fall in the often forgotten and underrated realm of "fiction."
First of all, "fiction" is a very broad concept difficult to define in literature but too easily defined in the book industry. Stephen King? Fiction; J.K. Rowlings? Fiction; Aldous Huxley? Literature; Suzanne Collins? Young Adult Fiction. I am almost 30 years old and I read Young Adult Fiction. About three weeks ago, my eight grade students started raving about a series of books called "The Hunger Games." When I inquired further about the premise of the series, I found it difficult to accept. A futuristic world in which children fight to the death in a reality show version of-what can only be compared to-The Roman Gladiators. I was concerned that my barely thirteen year old students would be exposed to even more violence than usual and I challenge the suitability of it for a group of middle school teenagers. When I started reading the first book, I will admit I was hooked. With some embarrassment I have always debated the difference between what I read for pure entertainment and what I read for intellectual hunger. I found The Hunger Games fascinating and twisted.
Katniss, the protagonist, lives in a nightmare worthy society: totalitarian and superficial. In her country, Panem, children from all districts are selected each year and forced to kill for survival while being watched on T.V. by a captivated audience, captive in more ways than one. The name of the country "Panem" resonated in my memory of Roman history. "Panem et Circenses" was the motto by which Ancient Rome managed to entertain and hold a strong grip over its citizen: giving them bread (panem) and circuses(circenses). The concept, if you think about it, sounds awfully familiar and current. Entertaining the masses so they will ignore and dismiss the real, fundamental flaws of the government and society. After I finished the first book of the series and moved on to the second and third in what can only be described as literary hunger, I understood that what Collins does with this fictional world is just as note-worthy as many of the literary works of dystopian tradition. I had a hard time explaining to my students what a dystopia was, since they had even less idea of what a Utopia may look like. The only explanation that I could provide, was that of a world where government enforces the idea that they have the best of all possible worlds while in reality it is probably the worse, a concept that, once again, sounds very familiar.
It is difficult to explain how very pertinent "The Hunger Games" turn out to be in the psychology of the 21st century society. Mil.ions of people tun in every day to watch people tear each other apart, metaphorically speaking, in reality shows. The more escalating the violence and the "drama," larger the audience. Producers and hosts of these shows thrive to stir the pot and propitiate confrontation. Our hunger for violence and gore only increases as the media feeds us with it. Then, really, how far away are we from hosting the surge of real life hunger games.
Most Westerners couldn't care less for the poverty and starvation that many countries through the world suffer. The twenty-first century arrived and human trafficking still exists and is still in demand in rich countries. Therefore, the idea of a dystopian society where the powerful elites are entertained by other people's misery is not that far fetched. Despite the violence and crudeness of The Hunger Games novel, in the end I find it to be a riveting story, well constructed, with an acute aesthetic logic for the creation of its structure.
I am glad that my students are reading it, it has a powerful political message about the antics of power and the role that entertainment plays in the scheme. In itself, the novel is a lesson in civic values and the power of inconformity that entices the reader to keep on reading more. What else could a teacher like me want?