Monday, April 2, 2012

Of Hunger Games and Literary Acclaim

Youmight have seen this provocative piece by Joel Stein entitled “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” If you haven’t, go ahead and click through- it’s all of five short paragraphs.

Predictably, in the wake of massive success for recent Young Adult series like Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games, people are eating him alive in the comments. Now, we’re not flocking to Stein’s banner by any means, but if you’ve hung around here long enough, you know we sympathize somewhat with the sentiment he’s trying to convey (though he might have tried honey instead of vinegar to get his point across).

Improve your self, Improve your shelf’ is the admonition featured in our header above. And the Henry David Thoreau quote on the right sidebar carries a similar message to readers. But who decides what the best books are, or which are worth your time?

I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not going to get into that today. People are gonna read what they’re gonna read. And while I’d love it if they mixed a little Scout Finch in with their Katniss Everdeen, I won‘t begrudge anyone their choice of reading material. It’s not like I don’t enjoy a good beach read now and again. What I’d like to know is this (regardless of what you read, and regardless of whether you have aspirations as a writer):

If you could choose between writing books that became celebrated literary works, taught in schools and revered for generations, -or- writing gripping YA novels that yielded you bucketloads of cash and worldwide fame- which would you choose?

Answer the poll question below, and feel free to elaborate in the comments. No wrong answers here, I’m just curious.


  1. I think there are a couple of reasons YA fiction is so popular among adults. First, most YA fiction includes a plot. Having just finished Richard Ford's Bascombe trilogy (including the pulitzer prize winning Independence Day), I am dismayed that I am unable to discern much of a plot after nearly 1000 pages. I am baffled that one of these books won a pulitzer. Ford is a workable writer, but a lousy storyteller.

    Second, most YA fiction features characters you can like. A lot of "real" fiction, at least much written in the past 40 years, lack any characters you can relate to. Frank Bascombe is a case in point. He's a jerk. And a racist. Hard to like.

    Given the choice between being liked by the editors at the New York Review of Books or being read by millions of fans, I'd take the latter.

    1. I accept your line of thought, 100 Best, and I’ll admit two things here: I have always been very intrigued by the premise of the Hunger Games, but I have not yet read the books. I imagine I’ll get around to reading them eventually, but I’m a little leery of following the same frantic masses that would lead me down the latest crap-hole of reality television or to the nth repetitive season of American Idol. I guess I’m a pop-culture skeptic. But some of my reticence is born of experience, too.

      I stopped reading the Harry Potter books at around book four, because it seemed like I was reading the same blasted story over and over. (Harry’s life sucks with the Dursleys, he is swept off to Hogwarts, where he, Ron and Hermione invariably get into trouble, have to break some rules to save the day, all looks lost, and then ends well. Rinse and repeat.

      We’ve talked about plot here. And touched on unlikeable characters here and here. To be clear, I’m all for interesting stories and great characters. But I don’t think things have to explode to make a plot great, and I don’t think a character needs to come from Central Casting to be interesting.

      A book like Crime and Punishment can blow your mind without a likeable character or an intricate plot. And my guess is that it will stick with the reader for longer than the latest bestseller. But I’ll admit I could be wrong about that…

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  3. I believe life is too short not to read good books. That being said, there is no definition for what a good book is. I believe that what we read in a way reflects who we are- complex, multifaceted individuals. I don't think readers should limit themselves- and this argument goes both ways. Readers should struggle out of the quagmire of Nora Roberts and Sophie Kinsella type novels to immerse themselves in deep, complex, and truly great literature. However, readers who blindfold themselves to anything but what would be required reading in a Yale classroom also misses out on wonderful reading experiences. I admit that I'm an eclectic reader. Give me Jane Eyre. Give me Harry Potter. I can love both and discuss both with equal fervor. It doesn't make me a bad reader.. it doesn't make me an unintelligent reader. It makes me a diverse reader. Thank God for that.

    1. Well put, Jillian. I have no argument with that.