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Is The Hunger Games Literature?

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Greetings, literarians. We start off this hungry Hunger Games Friday with the following question: is the Hunger Games trilogy literature? Well, what is literature, anyway? Our old friend Wikipedia defines it like this: “Literature (from Latin litterae (plural); letter) is the art of written work.” Okay, so that doesn’t help, at all, but maybe this is the point, right? Literature is difficult to define, perhaps impossible to define in a single sentence, and yet there must be some consistent constellation of elements that constitute literature.

Let’s consider the following statements we’re going to somewhat arbitrarily make about literature (and determine whether The Hunger Games makes the cut, it obviously will, fyi, if you can’t handle the suspense):

It should have a good story:
Think Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, Le Morte D’Arthur. Critics and cranky English professors like to say things like “there are no new stories, only retelling of ancient stories,” but that doesn’t mean a piece of writing shouldn’t have a good story. Give us a freaking story, for crying out loud. Enrapture your reader! Before you write your Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses masterpiece, figure out how to tell a story about an unlikely young person with a shadowy background whose parents may or may not be dead, who’s suddenly thrust into a position or quest he or she doesn’t want, and is only willing to accept when they meet their sidekick / Virgil / Obe-Wan figure, who then helps them begin kicking ass left and right. Tell a story! Figure out your prose later. Does the Hunger Games tell a good story? Hell yes.

Is the writing any good?
Phew. Let the controversy begin on this one. What is good writing, anyway? Who knows. Hemingway and Faulkner used to famously piss and moan at each other because Faulkner thought Hemingway didn’t know any big words, and Hemingway said something bad ass like “it’s not big words, but the old words, the strong words that the writer must command.” Well said, Hem. We of the literary tribe believe in clarity and brevity, but on the other hand we think THE RECOGNITIONS by William Gaddis and CATCH-22 are two of the greatest novels ever written. Maybe we can all agree that there’s only one book on writing that really matters: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Here’s an exemplary passage: Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.  Is the Hunger Games good writing? Good enough for us!

Do you think about it after you’ve finished it?
You know the feeling. You’ve finished the book and you’re like: huh. Huh? What just happened to me? Kafka, Woolf, Garcia Marquez, et cetera. I felt this way after Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, too. Something just sticks with you and you think about the book for weeks, months, years later. Do you think about the Hunger Games after finishing it? Book 1, yes, less so with Books 2 and 3.

Does it capture a specific zeitgeist?
This is the ON THE ROAD or CATCHER IN THE RYE test, or even, to a certain extent, Jane Austen, from whose books historians make many claims about what life was really like in early 19th century England.  Okay. Admittedly, Hunger Games is a dystopian sci-fi novel, but is it? It’s about an American society in which children are forced to perform “to the death” in front of millions of viewers. I mean, couldn’t that same sentence be applied to You Tube or Toddlers in Tiaras? Scary stuff. The point is that the book is “about” a lot more than just some futuristic society in which children kill each other with people watching on monstrous floating televisions in the sky. It’s about worlds within worlds. It’s about the simulacrum. So: does the Hunger Games capture a specific zeitgeist? I’d say yes, welcome to America in the Twenty-First Century.

Net result: is the Hunger Games literature? We here at the Literary Man are all too happy to have jumped on this literary bandwagon. May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor, dear readers. Please chime in and let us know what you think!

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Literary Man

22 Comments to Is The Hunger Games Literature?

  1. grandfathersky

    Great analysis, not only of ‘the Hunger Games”‘ but of literature. I once asked a friend who taught Literature in college what was the difference between writing and literature, and the said without hesitation “The reader!”

  2. musingsfrommelody

    Great post & love grandfathersky’s comment. I’d add that for me that sometimes literature like other art forms painting, sculpture, music,etc is in the eye and/or ear of the beholder. And in this day and age anything that gets young people reading has some inherent good.

  3. Kaitlin Sullivan

    In a children’s (more like YA) lit class in grad school the professor, a former Random House (?) editor, said that The Hunger Games is what Harry Potter wishes it could have been. Just. Saying.

  4. RebeccaV

    I love this question, and I love dissecting it when it comes up (disclaimer: I have not read The Hunger Games). The post and comments are very true. It seems that, as in many areas of life, certain consideration should be given to the maturity of a person’s reading life. Someone who is not often a fan of reading might be drawn to a more popular work (meeting all the aforementioned criteria) and that may propel him or her to further growth in their analysis and preferences (not something to scorn – always good to get other reading). Another reader may be well established in the literary classics and perhaps refer to more popular works with an air of disdain or “guilty pleasure”, not because the work is inherently bad but because the reader is looking at it through a more broadly-informed lens. Doesn’t make either one wrong, it just means they found the book at different stages in their “reading life.” All that to say, ditto grandfathersky and musingsfrommelody.

    • theliteraryman

      Thx for reblogging and for joining the dialogue! Your comments are so true. The reader builds up their muscles slowly but surely, and it’s completely fair to argue that “popular” books should aid the young reader’s development and growing interest in the medium. Too many high school reading lists are fully of incomprehensible texts fulfilling someone else’s political agenda rather than instilling a love of literature or desire to understand the world through words. Why make a sixteen year old read Ulysses? Why not save it? A professor of mine at Vanderbilt wisely told me not to read Proust until after I was 30. I haven’t, but now I’m 30 and am tempted to dive in.

      All in all, time is the only critic that matters. Literature is what’s left when the rest is out of print.

  5. RebeccaV

    Reblogged this on Reading Today and commented:
    If you aren’t following The Literary Man, you should be. Here’s another great post on an age-old question. While he here refers it specifically to “The Hunger Games,” it can easily be applied elsewhere and more broadly. “What is literature?”
    Full disclosure: I’ve not read The Hunger Games yet…I’m debating whether to add it to the TBR pile or just watch the movie and be done with it. I posted a comment which basically reiterated what others had commented on this post. For Reading Today readers, here are some of my questions/theories/views to throw into the discussion, in a very haphazard, undefined sort of way.
    * Just because something is an “enjoyable” read or “popular” should not immediately disqualify it for literary standing. I confess that in high school I pretty much assumed anything that was considered a classic (save Jane Austen, of course) must be depressing and boring. Perhaps this is more the fault of high school reading lists – could we engage more students in an open dialogue about reading and literature by at least starting with a book that is generally popular in the day. Once you get students to start asking the right questions, much more in the book world becomes interesting!
    *I do believe that someone’s perspective on a particular work will be greatly influenced by their previous reading history. There are books that I read early on that I enjoyed for the story (Les Miserables and War and Peace, for example) but would probably get much more out of if I were to read them now. There were other books that I read or started about the same time that I greatly disliked (Doctor Zhivago and Catch-22) that I wonder if I might not appreciate them more now. The most important piece is that I still love to read. Somewhere along the way, my parents didn’t worry so much about what specifically I was reading, but that I was doing it and enjoying it. They knew if it caught on, I would continue. And the same is true for my other three siblings. We read very different works and prefer different styles and stories, but we keep reading. You appreciate a book based on where you are.
    *But none of those observations really answer the question “What is literature”? This post puts forth some pretty good parameters, but applying them is still subjective. And so the discussion continues as readers continue to read and non-readers are enticed by good stories in popular novels (and there are a lot of them out there). What should be clear is that literary snobbishness does more to discredit than affirm the value and joy of reading.
    ….Which could then lead us down the road of does it matter what someone reads as long as they are reading? Or, in the theme of this post, does it matter if something is “literature” or not?
    That’s enough rambling for tonight. Seriously, check out The Literary Man – good stuff.

  6. lms398

    Love the thoughts you shared here! I tore through The Hunger Games early last year and couldn’t wait to share with the world how much I adored it – and then I went on it’s website. Another young adult series that I’m in love with in my adult life? You’ve got to be kidding me. All of the sudden, embarrassment settled in. Until the world became abuzz, and I felt off the hook. Have you read Ender’s Game yet? Also a delicious read. That and Battle Royale are the two stories that interested me and have been compared to The Hunger Games. I still need to read the latter. I’m excited to read more of your posts!

  7. Colline

    What I love about books like The Hunger Games is that it is getting children to READ – even those who would normally find it difficult to read half a page. The story captivates them and the author is helping teachers and parents in encouraging kids to read.

  8. busdrivernyc

    My 12 year old daughter and all her friends, read the books, and had to see the movie. Thought they were great. A grandmother on my bus today told me she took her grand daughter to the movie and was shocked by all the killing. Well, there’s nothing new about killing, I told her. Like Colline above, I’m just glad she’s reading, is off the fach-book, and all the insipid games they waste time on…

  9. Eugene C Scott

    Well said. I would add (though you covered this somewhat under “Does it capture a specific zeitgeist?”) “Does it make us think, wrestle with, bigger ideas?” Again the answer is, yes. It seems to me, as book ends, literature must have a story, but that story must demand something more of us. The older meaning of the word entertainment here helps. To open your mind to something new or hard or bigger. Defined that way entertainment contains a compelling story and a challenge.

  10. Beth Christopher

    Reblogged this on Beth Christopher and commented:
    Thanks to my friend Eugene, I discovered this fantastic blog today, The Literary Man. Check out their recent post which asks the question, “Is the Hunger Games Literature?”

    And fyi… I’m jumping right on this happy bandwagon, too.

  11. dpbowman

    Have to agree with the “less so with Books 2 and 3.” I thought they could’ve been combined and made better as one book….Hmmmmmm, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” (Ah well, a forced trilogy is nice work if you can get it) :P
    I hope she writes again.
    Thanks for jumping on the bandwagon.

  12. bethwarstadt

    I’m a parapro in an elementary school, and I love discussing author purpose with the 3rd ,4th and 5th grade students who are reading these books. (For the record, I believe the books are too violent for this age group, but I don’t choose their reading material.) I emphasize with them Peeta’s conviction to hold on to his character and not allow the Hunger Games to turn him into an animal, and we talk about Catniss’ decisions that follow that same philosophy. With this and with other stories (like Star Wars) I am always trying to get them to realize that a person is defined by the decisions he or she makes. Even as young as they are, their decisions now are important for determining the paths they will take in life.

  13. katblogger

    Hey. Thanks for stopping by and liking my post! I think the Hunger Games manages to be literature, but I think all written work is literature of some degree. Infected with IB literature analysis, I have managed to pick out a lot of symbolism/motif action, if that counts for anything.

  14. lucky4the1

    Literature, good or otherwise should be at the least a bit challenging. The trilogy not only encompassed but put on in full display the human condition on both stand points. It had depth and was thought provoking and the subject matter leaves a person to question things such as who truly was the needy and wanton? It surely wasn’t lacking in issues concerning morality or entitlement. There are many a lesson to be pulled from the book. Is it literature? Wait a few years and see if it doesn’t become required reading in High School.

  15. fairybearconfessions

    Thanks for giving official props to the Hunger Games. We read it in my book club and it was one of the best discussions we’ve ever had – we actually stayed on topic for almost the entire 2 hours! The trilogy really is a tremendous piece of writing.

  16. deborahbrasket

    I really like how you’ve analyzed what makes a novel “literature”. I read once that “art evokes thought, entertainment distracts thought.” This could also be used as a criterion for evaluating if a novel is literature, or if someone is writing literary fiction. Another way to determine the difference is if you’d still continue to read even if it had no compelling plot–just for the language or insight into the human condition. I think Hunger Games evokes thought, and is also greatly entertaining. But if there was no compelling plotline, if I didn’t want to know what happened next, I never would have finished the book. As I was reading it, I kept asking myself, why is this working for me, why do I want to read on, even though the language was not as engaging as I’d wished. Because I cared about the characters and I wanted to know what happened to them, and because the world she had created was intriguing and I wanted to know more about that. And because the the book got me thinking about things long after I’d stopped reading for the night. But I still wouldn’t call it literature, or literary, because the language couldn’t stand on its own, and its insight into the human condition did not rise to the level of Shakespeare or Morrison or Conrad and the like. She brought up important issues about our time and about the human condition, but there wasn’t necessarily any insight into it, no revelations, no epiphanies. It doesn’t not rise to the level of literature–but its a darn good read.

  17. Mansi Sharma

    Great analysis! And thank you for the post! I soo want to throw it on my Literature Prof’s face! She just doesn’t get the fact that popular contemporary novels can very well be critical of the times and of society. (-_-)
    There are these theories that we use to critique a literary text and each one of them can be applied to analyse The Hunger Games. Keeping Katniss as the protagonist and telling the story through her internal monologue gives the book a strong Feminist thumbs up. There’s Marxism oozing out of the book in its description of the Capitol life and how it treates the districts. There’s Existentialism and Absurdism all along the internal monologues of Katniss. The HUnger Games is so much more that just a popular novel.