I was having a lunch with a good friend earlier this week and the conversation strayed to books and The Hunger Games came up. My friend (who read and enjoyed The Hunger Games) said “it’s trashy, but enjoyable”. This provoked a shocked gasp and much sputtering from me and she continued, “Well, it’s not literature, is it? People won’t be reading it 100 years from now.”
Some English Literature graduates find themselves completely turning their back on reading, unable to derive pleasure from books after years of intensive analysis and study. Me? I went to the other extreme, gleefully revelling in the fact that I was free to read whatever the hell I wanted and now six years later, my reading binge shows no signs of abating. However, my degree did not leave me without scars. To this day, there is no quicker way to put me off a book than for it to be an award winning, critically lauded darling.
I always struggled to write academically about novels - poetry and plays were no problem, but something about detailed analysis of a novel was out of my grasp. When I think of all the novels I studied during my degree, I really don’t remember any I especially enjoyed.
Take Robinson Crusoe. You mention Robinson Crusoe to people and they smile fondly and remember a story of a man and his struggle to survive. What they have actually done is mistakenly superimpose an enjoyable book over what is in fact a soul-suckingly dull story of a tosser who deserved to stay marooned alone forever and ever, never to bother us again. To be completely fair, it is one of the earliest examples of a ‘novel’ and so perhaps I should cut it some slack, but ultimately it’s a great concept that is written in such a dull and unengaging manner (the table scene, anyone??? GAH) that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone I liked.
And yet here we are, nearly 300 years after it was written, and people are still reading it. Because it’s “literature”. I am slowly inching towards my point, I promise.
Too often, when I have read widely-praised, critically beloved novels, I have found myself confronted with unlikeable characters doing unpleasant or unremarkable things, leaving me unable to connect. And I need to care. I need to have the faintest desire to want to know what will happen to these creations, how events will unfold.
The Hunger Games is written in a first-person present tense that drops you straight into the mind of a young woman facing horrific choices. And I was completely hooked as I read. It’s a book that has stayed with me, despite having read it four years ago.
I hope people are reading The Hunger Games 100 years from now. Is it the greatest book that has ever been written in the entire universe? No. But should it be dismissed as being “non-literary” because it’s popular and engaging and doesn’t keep you at an emotional arm’s length so you are forced to appreciate clever writing / biting social commentary / metafictional allusions etc? Hell no.
The best literature is the kind that provokes a powerful response in the reader. Let’s not be afraid of popular books, people.