Why the World Needs Hunger Games

 For the past several years, in YA literature especially, "dystopian" has become the new "supernatural romance".  The sub-genres have their own official sections at Barnes and Nobles, as well as a line-up of some critics from Generation X standing ready at their podiums to dismiss the legitimacy of these novels; though personally I feel this has more to do with invalidating young adult literature than a legitimate disapproval of the genre's content.

It's easy to see where critics of this new wave of YA are coming from, and I certainly agreed with a lot of them at the start of it all.  When the Twilight series came out,  I was ready to say, "Okay, I'll bite", but soon after the market was flooded with seeming "Twilight clones", novels packed to the brim with angsty teenagers, love triangles, and monsters from mythology that had been modernized into something more erotic than horrifying.  It seemed to me that after Twilight's incredible commercial success, authors were scrambling to hop on the bandwagon, producing the most sloppily put together romances that otherwise might have spent the entirety of their shelf-life on the discount aisle of a Walmart.

But then people made the same criticism of the Hunger Games trilogy, a series I had thoroughly enjoyed, and so naturally it was only then that I realized the mistake I had made in judging the Twilight series and its inspired waves of clones so quickly.

The first error I'd made was in supposing that YA "supernatural romance" was "new", or a genre that Twilight had invented.  That would certainly be giving Stephanie Meyer way too much credit.  Authors had been writing this sort of fiction for years, and Twilight  had merely popularized it, opening up the market to old as well as up-and-coming writers of the genre, and finally paving the way for their success.

That being said, I have personally never read any pre-Twilight supernatural romances myself.  I am supposing this concept is correct crucially on what I know of the genres which are dearest to my heart - fantasy and sci-fi/dystopian.

We all know The Hunger Games did not invent a genre.  There are hundreds of sci-fi authors that came before Suzanne Collins, dating back to the 19th century and beyond, but who no doubt had an influence in developing her work.  I don't suppose Hunger Games is comparable to Nineteen Eighty-Four, or that Katniss Everdeen is equal to Rick Deckard of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Though I believe in the merit of Hunger Games as literature, and personally feel it is well-written, immensely imaginative, and incredibly gripping, I would not begrudge critics for saying that, especially by comparison, the series is not as innovative as Collins' fore-bearers.  I don't expect them to.  Not everyone will find it as satisfying as I did.

The real mistake in their criticism lies at the heart of all criticisms made of our Millennial generation, the same mistake I've seen made in every snobbish comment about social media, every commentary on "the dependence of technology" today, and pretty much any remark ever concerned with the "end of intellectual thinking".

What Generation X and baby boomers might not understand, is that in modernizing themes and concepts of the past, we are not "dumbing them down", but restructuring them for a changing time.  The impact that the Millennials are making is not on the "death" of intellectual thinking, but on the accessibility of it.

Twilight is not widely regarded as a well-written book.  But during its genesis, I saw entire grades of middle school students, floundering in school systems that were struggling to raise their reading levels any higher than 5th grade, suddenly turn into avid readers.  They devoured the series overnight - books which were all well over 500 pages in length, if not much more - and desperately longed to get their hands on something more.  And they weren't left disappointed, as surely a new clone was being published every coming month.  An entire generation of readers produced, who otherwise would have never in their lives touched anything more dense than a magazine - and I am speaking from experience.

The reason that Hunger Games is so absolutely essential, not just to my generation, but to the sci-fi and dystopian genre, is not because it is an "epic" or the next "great", but because it has made the ideas and concepts of this genre attainable to the average reader.  Many may not like it, but with every coming generation, Brave New World and Frankenstein will become less approachable for consumption.  This does not invalidate these novels, or make them any less remarkable.  But what our world needs now isn't a new, pretty edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The world needs Katniss Everdeen.  It needs authors that can convey concepts that a wide variety of people can understand, and never has this been more important than in genres like sci-fi and dystopia, because these genres are more than just fiction.  They are the blueprints we build our society on, and expressions of how we are experiencing injustice in our everyday world.

Look at history.  Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia both started as utopic visions quickly turned sour.  Look at the news.  Look at Ferguson, and the protesters who tagged the Hunger Games' quote, "If we burn, you burn with us" on the St. Louis Arch, or the ralliers in Thailand who were detained after using the Hunger Games salute.  As a society, as a world, we constantly strive for utopia but fall treacherously short of it, time and time again.  Our times inform our literature, and our literature informs our times.  The rise in popularity of YA dystopian novels has proven itself to be a powerful symbol for those struggling against oppression, and calling out the suffering that occurs within unjust systems and cultures.  Even more importantly, by conveying what it is we do not want for our budding world - by challenging real-life dystopia for what it is - we attain a firmer grasp of what it is we do want for ourselves, and our future.  We build a concept that is nearer to utopia than ever before.

I do not believe in the formal idea of utopia.  Personally, I feel that a true utopia cannot exist so long as we have memory of dystopian systems.  That is why I feel that utopia, in practice, is not a particular place, but a destination.  It exists as a concept to empower society to transformation.  It cannot be reached, but it can be striven for.  Without overarching concepts such as these, society does not continue to evolve.

If every new generation is to be more informed than the latter, than we need a "dystopian YA" section in Barnes and Nobles.  And we need it to stay there, or at least until the next generation evolves a genre far more accessible to them.  Our future depends on it.

 

Shai Cotten