Feb 28 2012 1:00pm

Genre in the Mainstream: The Literary Fleet-Footedness of The Hunger Games

The taxonomy of The Hunger Games is notable insofar as you can confuse its literary identity with a slew of classifications. It is science fiction. It is dystopian science fiction. It is a romance novel. It is an adventure story. It’s a classic hero’s journey. It’s a hip YA novel marketed at a specific demographic. It’s a social novel criticizing everything from class to politics, to how we perceive art and entertainment. It’s not a western.

But like a silver parachute falling out of the sky, the The Hunger Games is a piece of literature we were craving, but didn’t know what form it would take. Suzanne Collins’s prose alternates from super-deft to hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-rock obvious and in doing so, succeeds at creating a super-memorable novel that is actually for everyone.

One of the things I try to get at in Genre in the Mainstream is not just recommending great books to readers who might not be aware of them, but also to try to explore why something fantastical is perceived differently outside the wall of a genre camp. I’ll likely argue about definitions of science fiction/fantasy and why something is or is not work of genre fiction until Katniss shoots me through the eye with an arrow. And though the jury is going to be out on the answers to all these question for awhile, one direction I’m leaning is this: something becomes mainstream when the mainstream picks it up.

This isn’t to say the popularity of the The Hunger Games removes its science fiction stripes, but it is a mainstream novel inherently. And that’s because Collins does things in the text itself to make this the most risky/safe book written in ages. To me, the compelling thing about The Hunger Games isn’t just the premise of teenagers fighting to the death, but that notion coupled with the fact that it’s written in 1st person present-tense. Sure, Twilight is written in first person too, but the stakes of Twilight aren’t exactly life or death. Oddly, despite the death-struggle inherent to the premise of The Hunger Games, it also doesn’t have life or death stakes. And that’s because you know for a fact the main character will not die. In a lot of hero-narratives we know this in the back of our mind, but the use of the third person (like in Harry Potter) makes the reader think there’s a chance the main character might die. If the reader is confronted with a story told in the first person, we know intrinsically the last line of the story will not be a  “and then I died.”

The 1st person present tense serves The Hunger Games well because nothing about the book or the fictional universe it takes place in are remotely objective. In the first book, we don’t wonder too much about the rebellions that preceded everything because we’re too busy getting to know Katniss. She’s kind of badass and she tried to drown a kitten at some point. This isn’t a textbook sympathetic protagonist, but she’s not an anti-hero either. By giving Katniss a little bit of a temper, but not a caricature of a temper she becomes the most difficult thing to accomplish in literature, a character who seems like a real person who is also a bona fide hero. Part of the reason she’s so likeable is the adult reader is often several steps ahead of her, as if we are actually watching the Hunger Games on our screens too. We know for a fact that Katniss shooting the arrow into the apple of the pig will win her favor with the gamemakers, and it’s charming that she thinks that it won’t. One couldn’t really accomplish this in a third-person point of view, even if it was a close third person. The straight, immediate narration is what makes the naivety of Katniss so great and compelling.  Here’s what I mean:

The pain in my hands can in no way compete with that in my calf. I hate burns; have always hated them, even a small one gotten from pulling a pan of bread from the oven. It is the worst kind of pain to me, but I have never experienced anything like this.

Collins does this a lot: she gives us Katniss’s opinions and wonderful imagery from her past all wrapped up in a present-tense conflict. This scene is not only gripping and exciting; it’s calm and emotional too. I love the idea that Katniss is in deep shit here and is meditating on how much she dislikes burns in particular. It’s such strange contradiction, and not at all a clean or efficient way to tell a story. And yet, though conflicts and stakes and obstacles and goals pervade the structure of The Hunger Games, it isn’t a plot-based book, or a concept-driven SF thing. It’s just a character piece. It’s all about hanging out with Katniss and seeing how she gets through her day. In this first book, we happen to hang out with her through some of her worst days, but the writing is so good, so rich with a real, developed and pleasantly rough character, that I could easily read an entire book about Katniss driving her Honda Civic to work in the morning.

You can’t make a character likable by choosing to tell your novel’s story in the first-person. In fact, I might argue you make your job even harder, because a direct address to the reader can come across as too precious, or worse, precocious. But when you’ve got a person who admits to trying to drown a kitten in the first page, and the bitches about seemingly petty things in the midst of mortal danger, you’ve gotta love her. The conceit of everyone watching her is part of what makes the reader fall in love with Katniss. Just like the audience in the Capital and various districts are being manipulated into feeling certain things about the tributes, we the readers are equally manipulated.

And it feels great.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He would last 2 seconds in the Hunger Games.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
This article is part of The Hunger Games on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. JMSpencer
I think you miss something in stating that the first-person narrative allows for the assumption that the main character will survive. First-person past-tense would have done so, I agree, but in my reading of The Hunger Games, the first-person present-tense actually heightened the feeling that Katniss might not make it out of the book alive. I had no way of knowing (an intentionally avoided finding out) whether the narrator changed POV between this book and Catching Fire, and whether the trilogy was the continuing story of a character or more generally of the world in which multiple narrators find (again, present tense) themselves. The usage of the first-person present led to an immediacy to the action throughout the book that a past-tense recounting would not have provided.
James Hogan
2. Sonofthunder
Great article, thanks Ryan.

Also - I agree with JM - I also had no idea that Katniss would make it out alive. I actually didn't even know it was a trilogy when reading it(sister just gave me the one for Christmas, and I'm terribly literary-pop-culture ignorant), so I couldn't figure out if Peeta would survive or Katniss. This of course led to me finishing the book at 3-something in the morning...but I count it a night well spent.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
Yeah, I never really felt like Katniss was safe despite intellectually being aware of the fact that there was already a sequel out and a third one on the way. I do think Collins' writing really works well for the setting.

Can't wait for the movie, already have tickets.
4. Kwhopper88
Am I the only one that feels the writing was actually sub-par? Haters, give me a tick to explain.
I'll confess, I've always found first person narrative to be a literary turnoff. My exact opinion, if you must know, is that it's lazy and annoying; it's easy to make a character likeable when the only POV in the story is theirs.
That being said, my bias is unfair. Some stories need to be told in first person, just because that's the kind of story it is, and as long as it works for the story and the author, it's fine (Rachel Swirsky's "A Memory of Wind" is a prime example; well done and necessary first person narrative). My point here is, if it can't be done right, don't do it.
The Hunger Games, as far as story, setting, and characters goes, is good. I like it, and it feels real, plausible even, that society can deteriorate in such a way. Now for the ugly part: I barely managed to finish reading the books because I HATED THEM so much.
Most of the book (I'm sticking with the first, since it's, well, the first) is chock full of clunky, awkward sentences. Like, school bus full of pubescent teens on a bumpy road awkward.
For example, 'Her first reaping. She's about as safe as you can get, since she's only entered once. I wouldn't let her take out any tesserae. But she's worried about me. The unthinkable might happen.'
It doesn't flow well, and call me crazy but it drives me crazy. It feels to me that the words have been translated directly from thought. This can be a useful literary device in small doses, but when it's the main writing style, it makes me feel like I'm regarded as a random thought floating around in someone else's head, and it becomes blatantly obvious that I'm just reading a book rather than being told a story.
With a little polish, a little "clean up" if you will, the entire series has the potential to be dynamite. As it is, though, I feel it's pretty lacking.
In Collins' defense, however, I noticed that there were some parts of the book that the writing was SPOT ON. It leads me to wonder if, perhaps, much of it was written in one shots that she was very focused on, then let the rest fill itself in while trying to work a deadline. I do love the first paragraph of chapter 2, where she describes falling out of a blind and compares it to the feeling of Prim being drawn. That's the kind of writing that kept me reading, looking for more.
The Hunger Games, put bluntly, is a butter face. The body of the story is smokin'; the part of it that's actually facing you needs work.
5. Gavin McClements
I bought a Nook for Christmas and this was the first time I had heard of this series, but as I usually do with mainstream fiction, I ignored it. It wasnt until I found out that a movie was being made that I downloaded the free intro chapter, became intrigued, and bought the trilogy.

It was absolutely fascinating, and I loved the first person aspect. I, too, never felt she was totally safe, but even though so much of the book was predictable, it had a few, fun, "Ah-ha!" moments that I cherised as they occured. That being said, the one thing I wish the author had done differently was clean up her grammer. It had enough run-on sentences to power a locomotive for a full year. Its the only thing that makes me want to contest your statement of "but the writing is so good". It is pretty good...but for an editor like myself, could have been just that much better.
6. herewiss13
If the reader is confronted with a story told in the first person, we
know intrinsically the last line of the story will not be a “and then I

...there's a recent Hugo nominee that would disagree with you there. :-P To say more would be spoilerish
7. huntece
For first person point of view I think having the writing sound like thoughts occurring inside someones head makes the story more engaging and realistic. It makes it feel like you are experiencing the world while inside their brain instead of just through their eyes. It makes you almost feel like you are that character.
8. Mouette
To be honest, I don't actually like Katniss all that much. It's been long enough since I read the books that I can't give an accurate reasoning as to *why*, and it may just be that my enjoyment of the books was spoiled by the last half of the final volume. She is sympathetic enough of a character that I don't *dislike* her, but I don't intend to ever reread the books - and that's telling, for me. I tend to reread a lot because I don't have time to plow through new books to see if they're bad or good; I'm just as likely to pick up an old favorite I know I'll enjoy as to try a new one.

And I disagree, respectfully, with a couple of the genre characterizations in the opening paragraph. Hunger Games has romance elements, but it is *not* a romance novel or romance series. I would personally hesitate to call it a classic hero's journey, though I can see enough of that shape in the books to acknowledge that another person can reasonably classify it so.
9. Mouette
Forgot to add - as to the first person narrative, I've never had a problem with it. I remember hearing a classmate declare that they hated first person narrative because she was obviously not the person acting, which has never made sense to me. When we tell stories to other people, we tell them in first person - "I did this, and then this happened." I never have understood how she thought first person narrative was somehow forcing her to think she was the main character...
10. Philis
"a character who seems like a real person who is also a bona fide hero." Go visit http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html where Kal has done a lot of work on this.
11. Philis
"a character who seems like a real person who is also a bona fide hero." Go visit http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html where Kal has done a lot of work on this.
12. Rnjane
As someone once said, "I don't know about art but I know what I like." I loved these books and found the first person present tense style very effective. I don't spend much time dissecting books, I just read them unless the errors of grammar or the stilted nature of the prose are too blatant to ignore. The Hunger Games trilogy caught my attention and didn't let go. I often found Katniss unlikable but never boring. She did seem a lot smarter than most but I suppose if you have to survive in that kind of world you'd better be smart. I never would have figured out a lot of things she did. I probably will read through them at least one more time because the first time I did I was reading them at light speed to see what happened next. I think they'll probably end up being classics. Then people can sit around and discuss what the writer "really" meant and what various things in the book "really" symbolized. Not me. I'll just be reading what I like.
13. Junipe
I'm actually kind of surprised at the accolades that you put on the book in this article. My view very strongly lines up with that of Kwhopper88, in the above comments. The plot, world, characters, and pacing are all relatively well done. Sure, the plot's been done before, but it's still a pretty fresh idea, and it was presented well. The writing though, just ripped the books apart for me. Even putting aside the issue of 1st person present (which works reasonably well in the story), the sentences were constantly jarring me and pulling me out of the story. Ideally, the writing and sentences should draw you in, or at least stay in the background, but I was constantly finding sentences that broke immersion because they flowed so poorly.

If I had just picked this series up off the shelf I doubt I would have finished even the first book, but several people me it was great so I slogged through it. Some of these same people, when I mentioned how much I hated the writing, tried to justify it by saying "But it's a young adult novel" which seems like a pretty thin excuse; Harry Potter was also aimed at the same demographic but wasn't nearly this cumbersome.
Ryan Britt
14. ryancbritt
@ 10 Philis: Very cool stuff!

@4Kwhopper and Junipe
Whoa! That "butterface anology" has my head-spinning. Yeah, I think the reason I used the phrase "fleet-footed" was because I felt like the prose is rapid. To me, there's lots of different kinds of "good" writing. Junipe you said that some of the sentences "flowed" poorly. Well, maybe you're right. But I guess I didn't think it was trying to "flow."

As far as accusations of clunkines or it sounding
adolescent, I guess I felt that was sort of what it was going for. (It's first person, teenager do talk like that.) Which it pulled off. I know that is like the second cousin of saying "it's a young adult novel," but for me it was much more. As far as the Harry Potter being less cumbersome, I'm not sure I agree. But perhaps that's another battle!
15. Eugene R.
I have some trouble with the moral calculus of The Hunger Games. Is our cheering for Katniss in the gladiatorial combat truly justified by her slight undermining of the terms of the Games (winding up with only 22 deaths instead of 23)? Or are we being fed a sop to our conscience so that we do not experience more fully the tragedy of so many deaths for fraudulent reasons? I see Katniss as a tragic protagonist in the mold of 1984's Winston Smith, who also rejects and undermines his totalitarian society, however slightly. The Hunger Games, however, fails to reveal the greater social tragedy and its personal consequences that 1984 does not avoid.
Teresa Jusino
16. TeresaJusino
Eugene @15 - I disagree. I don't want to spoil anyone who hasn't read the entire trilogy...


By "Mockingjay," we see that there's no such thing as a good/bad side of this rebellion. Katniss has been used by the rebellion as much as she was used as entertainment by the Snow regime. So much that happens in the books acknowledge the fact that Katniss "winning" the games isn't a true victory, because Panem is so fucked, and the series ends with a Panem still repairing itself.
17. LeeLowe
The pain in my hands can in no way compete with that in my calf. I hate burns; have always hated them, even a small one gotten from pulling a pan of bread from the oven. It is the worst kind of pain to me, but I have never experienced anything like this.
This is actually poor writing. Think about it: with pain supposedly that bad, Katniss is going to be too caught up in it to be doing any comparing. Collins has not thought through the ramifications of first-person narration.

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