Sunday, 18 November 2012

Hunger Games vs Twilight

Not long after I started at the library, I had a challenge which I failed utterly miserably.

A tall, shy, pretty teenage girl came up to me and said
"Can you recommend a book?"
She waved her hand at the shelf of teen fiction. At this time we were operating a temporary library with only a quarter of the stock whilst the library was being remodelled. But I still didn't recognise any of the books or authors, except for Neil Gaiman's Coraline, which looked a bit young for her.

What was I reading as a teenager? I don't recall any such thing as a teen section when I was her age, there were kids' books and adult books and not much in between. I never used to  have problems choosing myself a book, either, that's one of the pleasures of libraries, or of fiction. Just diving right in.  It was distressing to think that she'd got to that age, 14, without knowing how to choose a book for herself. But at least she'd asked.  I didn't know what to recommend her. I failed her. This will haunt me...

But now I do! I read all the Hunger Games books and they are properly amazing. It is rare to come across something like this in fiction - page-turning, thrilling, popular, with massive crossover appeal, but also beautifully written, substantial and having some real weight and thought and meaning...  If we'd have read about Katniss, this inspiring,three dimensional heroine when we were kids, and less of Little Women, who knows where we'd be now?

Suzanne Collins was famously inspired by channel-hopping between reality shows and news reports about war, as well as the Theseus and the Minotaur story, and imagined a post-apocalyptic world in which teens are drawn from a lottery to compete in war games to the death. This chimes with how most teenagers see the world, in satisfyingly gloomy, apocalyptic terms (I know every story I wrote in English between the age of 14 and 16 was heavily inspired by 1984 and usually featured someone being tortured to death for their political beliefs.)

But the detail in the writing, the subtlety, the grasp of politics, both personal and in the wider sense... I was blown away by it.   The author's father was a soldier. My father was career Air Force and was also a Vietnam veteran. He was in Vietnam the year I was six. But beyond that, he was a doctor of political science, he was a military specialist, he was very well educated. And he talked about war with us from very early on. It was very important to him that we understood things, I think because of both what he did and what he had experienced.If you went to a battlefield with him you didn't just stand there. You would hear what led up to this war and to this particular battle, what transpired there, and what the fallout was. It wasn't like, there's a field. It would be, here's a story.

And the books keep getting better, as the first one focuses on Katniss' own story, the next one moves on to look at the wider society and the last one to all-out war and it grows more powerful and significant until you realise she's done something quite astounding with a series of children's books.  On the surface it seems like a page-turning thriller, and along the way she's got you to think about heavy-weight issues like class and economics, media spin, media manipulation and propaganda, loyalty, family, self-determination, strategy, politics and war ...

I am not going to diss Twilight (though clearly it is not in the same league.) I gave the book a go after getting reluctantly hooked on the movies but won't be reading the sequels, because Bella the narrator is, quite frankly, very tedious. Especially after reading about Katniss. You realise that it's one of those bad-books-that-make-a-better-film, like the Bridges of Madison County, and it's only the charm of the actors that breathes life into these 2D people.

Stephenie Meyer is clever in her own way though, it is the super potent teenage fantasy in another way from the Hunger Games - the idea of being the outsider, yet also of being the most popular girl in the school, of having a cast-iron reason for hollow-cheeked teenage angst (you can never be with your true beloved because he's a vampire who wants to suck your blood) and - come on - of having TWO extremely hot boys fighting over you. Oh and your vampire boyfriend being immensely wealthy and ten times cooler than everyone else in school and having a lovely fast car and living in this amazing house (actually I can't blame her for the house, have you seen the house?)

Bella is passive in this book and forced to suppress her own desires towards her vampire in case he gets all over-excited and BITES HER TO DEATH. This has excited the ire of feminists. But anybody getting up in arms about the twisted messages encoded in this book clearly hasn't read any Virginia Andrews, whose incest-rape-murder-body-horror shlock-fests were considered light reading for teens in the 80s and were enough to make you swear eternal chastity for life.

So, yes, Katniss beats Bella, no contest. But I do like the Twilight films, I can't help it. They are so emo, and everyone is so absurdly good-looking. I do wonder about the mummy vampire of the vampire family though. The daddy is a doctor at the local hospital. But what can she do all day as an immortal, seeing as nobody eats and she doesn't need to cook? And does anybody else find the idea of eternity with one person rather worrying, rather than romantic?

UPDATE: Interesting - Ruth Jamieson's Modern Day Marketing Fairytale in the Guardian - on Hollywood waking up to the teenage girl demographic


  1. Please don't be haunted. Library and bookstore workers can't read everything (nor should we) but can rely on the genre expertise of colleagues to help us help people. Will you become the teen queen in the building?
    Yup, the only teen reading matter in the early 70s I knew of was the Jackie. Then the absolute worst thing that could happen was to fall pregnant - a girl might as well die of shame and horror on the spot. The boyfriend might as well have been a vampire as far as sex was concerned. Nowadays, TV pays huge money to make pregnant teens into entertainment but perhaps, there's a little residue of the horror of the recent past in the Twilight world?

  2. Thanks, hon. I don't think I will have a section as I'm only there part-time on weekends, and they are pretty disorganised with training and managing staff. It is quite astonishing, the amount of vampire books in the teen section though.

    Hm, you may be right. Interestingly in the film, when Bella gets pregnant - in about 5 seconds into the honeymoon, tough luck - she's all happy and fulfilled but the vampire boyfriend says 'we're going to get that thing out of you'. Because it's a vampire baby that is killing her. Mixed messages on motherhood there, I feel.

    Feminists love Twilight.