New Yorker: Hunger Games = High School

In answer to the question “what’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for younger readers?” Laura Miller wrote in a June New Yorker magazine that “for young readers, dystopia isn’t a future to be averted; it’s a version of what’s already happening in the world they inhabit” (see ‘Fresh Hell,’ 14 June 2010). It’s not an especially challenging thesis — and Miller’s command of the literature in question is admirable — but, though non-falsifiable in nature, I think it misses on at least two counts the greater appeal of Ms. Collins’ Hunger Games, the popularity of which series prompted the essay.

About Hunger Games she writes:

Sambell’s observation implies that dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.

Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this. “The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.”

After a quick and unfortunately dismissive review of the Hunger Games narrative line, she concludes:

As a tool of practical propaganda, the games don’t make much sense. They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience. (“Think of yourself among friends,” Katniss’s media handler urges.) Are the games a disciplinary measure or an extreme sporting event? A beauty pageant or an exercise in despotic terror? Given that the winning tribute’s district is “showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,” why isn’t it the poorer, hungrier districts that pool their resources to train Career Tributes, instead of the wealthier ones? And the practice of carrying off a population’s innocent children and commanding their parents to watch them be slaughtered for entertainment—wouldn’t that do more to provoke a rebellion than to head one off?

If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.

Again, not much to argue with here, at least in as much as dystopian fiction is a critique of the contemporary world, to include the secondary school world of its target audience.

But there are two points worth noting that I think point to this being much less than the final word on the artistry and meaning of Ms. Collins’ work.

First, the argument that YA dystopian fiction is allegorical doesn’t mean much than that it is fiction. It is as true for utopian fiction and Science-fiction-fantasy — really, of any literature with an allegorical aspect, which is to say anything worth reading. Northrup Frye explains this neatly with his spectrum of mythic to realist fiction; the work that engages and changes us us is the Romance in the mean of this spectrum’s ends that is just realistic enough for us to suspend disbelief, but whose characters, action, and setting are allegorical and mythic enough that the story acts as transparency and translucency for us to have a transcendent experience. Cue Eliade’s thesis here.

Last, Miller’s assertion that these books are not didactic because not openly preaching a point, that they are not offering arguments but an experience, misses the whole point of reading for most people, which is Eliade’s thesis: in a secular culture, fiction serves a mythic function, the non-local place in which thoughtful people experience a world greater than their ego-focused pursuit of advantage. The experience is the argument, especially the allegorical and sublime or anagogical power to be had in the best novels.

Hence the great interest of adults in YA fiction rather than dystopian realism of the fare offered to them as appropriate to their age. YA Fiction does what Frye, Eliade, Ruskin, and Spencer say the best poems, plays, and novels are supposed to do — and contemporary psychological novels for the most part will not and, inasmuch as they deny a transcendent sphere, a spiritual beyond the reality of the personae of individuals, they cannot do.

Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted. (H/T to Arabella!)


  1. Hi all–
    I think most reviews of SF and dystopic fiction miss the idea that these genres are, at root, non-allegorical, but rather thought-experiments. “What would happen if…?” guides each novel and the best writers follow each thread through to its conclusion.

    C.S. Lewis (and I’m paraphrasing here from a long-ago read) said he didn’t intend the Chronicles of Narnia to be straight allegory, but rather answers to the question of “What would happen if Jesus went to another, different, world?”

    The best SF–I’m thinking LeGuin, in particular–has this thought-experiment feel to it, and so does the best dystopic fiction: Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Z for Zachariah…

    Dystopias just happen to be set in our world, though, unlike most SF, and so readers and reviewers struggle with the question of whether the fictional world is meant to be prophetic, or represents some branching-off of our timeline that wouldn’t result from current choices and situations.

  2. Three quick thoughts:

    (1) Do you think it’s possible was using allegory not in the sense of alieniloquium (one thing speaking of another), which all stories are as stories, but allegory in the very specific and pejorative sense of “didactic parables with tit-for-tat correspondents”? I do. Too much is made of his saying that the Narniad was not “allegorical” when obviously it is in the right use of that word and CSL knew it was.

    (2) Elizabeth Baird-Hardy, a little bird tells me, has already written on this discussion of dystopian fiction here at Hogwarts Professor, back, y’know, when the article appeared. Man, I am out of it…

    (3) To risk repeating myself for the sake of clarity, YA titles have more readers than modern novels, the only accepted ‘adult’ fare, because they work at a greater depth and deliver experience of the transcendent. Novels written with the conviction that there is no transcendent, no reality greater than the material and psychological, cannot “go there” and, however well written or majestic in language, fail as literature, at least in the Eliade/Frye understanding discussed in the post above.

    Remember A. S. Byatt’s jealous rant in the New York Times about the popularity of the Harry Potter novels years ago? The so-called ‘Goblet of Bile’ review? Because Ms. Byatt, a supreme stylist, couldn’t understand the popularity (or equal it), she was obliged to attribute it to the ignorance and immaturity of Ms. Rowling’s readers.

    Laura Miller’s dismissal of Suzanne Collins’ achievement in the Hunger Games trilogy as fiction for the satisfying depiction and wish-fulfillment resolution of High school angst belongs in the same file. Neither writer gets the magic of YA fiction because they assume ‘adult’ means ‘more intelligent,’ ‘profound,’ or just ‘better.’

    I think that word, when used with ‘fiction,’ like ‘adult movies,’ means something closer to “near death” or just its homophone, “a dolt.” That’s a hard idea to get your head around — that children’s fare is more profound, edifying, and challenging in the depth of reading and imaginative experience it offers than so-called adult work — but I think the marketplace, our experience, and the writing of more thoughtful critics (and writers) demonstrate it is true.

  3. Laura Miller must have had a much less pleasent experience of high school than I did. I would never have connected The Hunger Games with what goes on in a high school.

    What is really hard for me to understand is why people have a hard time understanding why these books are popular. The Hunger Games is well written with engaging characters and a plot that immerses the reader in the story. In addition, it is built on a solid alchemical scaffold. I doubt many readers pick up on the alchemy. I wouldn’t have without this website. However, I think that readers do sense layers of meaning beneath the surface and are attracted by that meaning.

  4. Arabella Figg says

    Integrated with the “what if” of dystopian fiction is the “who am I?” or “who would I be?” in a survival situation. Most of us will never have such a hideous experience that strips us to the core of who we are (or even a war that tears down society as we know it). Dystopian fiction offers us a vicarious opportunity to discover, through the characters, if we would survive, how we would cope, what might result from our action or inaction, who we are. Thus, with the characters, we can transcend our own limited experience and discover the potential spiritual power that we have.

    In the Games, the tributes are distilled to their base character and personality, in the need to survive, with all others being the enemy. It’s when Katniss and Peeta examine their spirits, and decide they will be more than their most animalistic selves (starting with Katniss with Rue and Peeta on the roof), that they triumph.

    I know what I mean, but am not sure I’m expressing the thought well.

  5. @ Sbark. Highschool’s horrible for teens nowadays. They were bad back when Joseph Campbell was writing about the need for myth in society, the void of the masculine rite of passage, and the chord Star Wars struck in that generation. I don’t know of a single peer of mine who wouldn’t have a gut-check complaint when I mention “high school”. Few think, “man those were the days.” They’re hungry for something that the schools can’t give them, hungry for something beyond the game.

    I definitely agree with Dana on the “what if” portion, at least in regard to dystopia. They are prophetic critique, like most of Vonnegut (a la Slaughterhouse Five).

    @ A.Figg – The “Who?” question is always the kicker, and you made perfect sense by the way ;D

    In our culture’s conversation concerning appropriate questions, we as a people always argue “what?” against “why?” or”how?” against “when?”. I know a why who always tries to question the motive of a when that only sees her details. I know hows who never actually get a chance to see what’s going on, and whats who never know how it all works. The problem with asking all the wrong questions at the wrong time is not that we’re inattentive, but that we haven’t asked “who?” yet, namely “who am I?” and “who am I to love?” and “who put me here?” It’s the Job-complex. Without the “who”, the other questions will just rot in our minds.

    So yes, the “what if” is a means to test the character of, well, the characters, the end being the who/whom question.

    Lewis would say something about the Seeing I, and the perspective of the person reading/experiencing the what if? What if God isn’t in space? What if he is? This is the main question fueling his deconstruction not of the question, but OF THE QUESTIONER. The what if doesn’t matter if we don’t know what kind of person is asking the question, or to whom the question is being asked.

    If I ask, “what if they don’t understand what I wrote”, it’s not about the actual sequence of events that play out from the time I hit “submit comment.” It has more to do with my identity issues, which, if you’re familiar with the work of CIY, is something often neglected for the youth of the day.

  6. Tinuvielas says

    Insightful comments, all of them – thanks! As to John’s: “… they work at a greater depth and deliver experience of the transcendent. Novels written with the conviction that there is no transcendent, no reality greater than the material and psychological, cannot “go there” and, however well written or majestic in language, fail as literature…”: agreed up to a certain point. I wouldn’t restrict “literature” to texts with allegorical meaning, but I would argue for the popularity of “allegorical” literature (in the best sense), be it “young adult”-fiction or fantastical literature (my field). Here are four theses I came up with while analyzing the role of symbolic space in Tolkien and Rowling (quick translation from the original German, so bear with me) using Eliades terminology. Especially the last two may be pertinent to this discussion, I think:
    1. Fantasy is, as Frank Weinreich defined in his introduction to the Genre (, “metaphysics with a wink”. It aims at “satisfying the need for transgression of reality rooted in the (human) psyche”. However, unlike religion and myth it doesn’t claim to be ‘real’. While religion presents itself as belief and conviction, Fantasy is a game relying upon the Coleridgian prerequisite of the Suspension of Disbelief.
    2. Fantasy utilizes the same images, codes and themes as myth and religion. Using traditional symbols, it deals with cosmogony, man’s status in the world, Free Will, death and rebirth and the power of love. Just like holy space (as described by Eliade) is an image of the cosmos, spaces in the novels mirror the fictional cosmogony and world-order – often in reference to modern, ‘profane’ existence. This includes self-reference: The reader who disbeliefs myth may experience in the playfully mythological world of Fantasy disbelieving and – in the face of evil – despairing – man. (The German has a connection between “disbelieving, doubting” and “despairing” – the latter,”verzweifeln” appears as augmentation of the former, “zweifeln”).
    3. As opposed to the ‘realistic’ novel, Fantasy can display the supernatural, the holy and transcendent as well as absolute ethical values as existing within the narrated world, and thus broach the theme of the opposition of cosmos and chaos. As in religious thought, but unlike profane, contingent and relative reality, Good and Evil, the divine and the diabolical, ‘exist’ within the cosmos of the narrated world as absolutes – they are part of the reality of the novel’s heroes, with whom the reader identifies.
    4. Fantasy thereby renders possible ‘crypto-religious’ experiences of transcendence. The act of reading is similar to religious absorption: We read something and experience it at the same time; we are simultaneously present in two different places, our cosy living-room and the place of the story, just like the believer is simultaneously present in church and in the presence of the Divine. In both cases the individual experiences the condition of Flow, the total immersion in a here-and-now that is not identical with the here-and-now of profane reality. In both cases the reader transcends reality and his egocentrical perspective and gains access to another world. This goes for all novels, but especially for for the genre of Fantasy which by definition deals with ‘other worlds’. By means of the Flow of the reading-process and the immersion in the literary cosmos, Fantasy satisfies the metaphysical need of the reader.”

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