Don’t tell Joel Stein I like The Hunger Games

I was taken aback when I read Joel Stein’s essay in The New York Times, “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” He writes that the only thing more embarrassing than seeing an adult looking at pornography on his computer is catching him reading The Hunger Games.

How dare a grown-up read a “children’s book” in public! The least he can do is read it in the privacy of his own home!

Not that Stein has actually read The Hunger Games, mind you. This Stanford-educated guy doesn’t read “children’s books,” and he’s making no exception in this case, at least not until he’s read his way through the 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

Let’s hope that will keep him so busy he won’t have time to write more inane essays.

It’s not clear to me if Stein actually believes what he’s written or if he’s trying to be provocative. It’s also not clear to me why an essay of this sort deserves to be in The New York Times unless, like many newspapers, they’re desperate for readers and looking to generate plenty of buzz.

I see nothing insightful about Stein’s comments, no fine sensibility or subtlety of thought, though Stein expects as much from adult literature. “Children’s books,” just aren’t up to the challenge of satisfying discriminating grown-up readers. (Stein appears to be unaware of the genre of Young Adult literature, or perhaps discounts it as bogus.)

Stein’s viewpoint (if it is genuine) surprises me because it demands that literature adhere to strictly defined boundaries when, in fact, its boundaries are shifting dramatically in terms of physical form, delivery, and content. That is something to be celebrated.

Hundreds of readers did, indeed, respond to Stein’s viewpoint, most of them defending the value of children’s and YA literature for everyone, young and old.  The other essays in “The Power of Young Adult Fiction,” written by a teen blogger, a librarian, a book reviewer, and three authors, are worth reading.

It seems as though extreme or obnoxious or edgy, in the manner of Stein’s essay, is now the way to rise above the crowd and be heard. Which brings me to the movie, The Hunger Games.

As violent and dramatic as the plot is, I found the style and tone of the movie to be understated. That, in my view, made it all the more powerful. One critic found Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) to be detached, but I felt that, without carrying on or becoming hysterical, Lawrence radiated terror, courage, and determination. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) delivered equally strong performances without going over the top.

The blood and gore were mostly offstage, which disappointed some, but I thought it kept the focus on the psychological terror (and made the movie palatable for younger audiences).

John Garder said that in great fiction the writer creates the illusion of a dream world. The reader enters that dream, but with just one false or inauthentic moment the dream vanishes and the connection to the reader is lost. I easily entered The Hunger Games dream and didn’t leave until (reluctantly) the closing credits.

Joel Stein doesn’t know what he’s missing.

10 responses

  1. I really enjoyed the Hunger Games too, the books much more than the movie. I kept trying to figure out why I enjoyed–compelling sympathetic characters, even (or perhpas especially) the difficult Katniss, a believable world, believable story-line that kept you guessing and reading. I was disappointed in the ending, and felt that could have been better and sometimes I wished for more pychological insight into the characters and the political realm, more interior dialogue perhaps, more lyricism, but then I remembered this was written for young adults, not for me, and it made sense then. I’m liking the Game of Thrones series now–written more for “me” it seems.

  2. What I first noticed about his ridiculous essay was the fact that he put all of the books in quotation marks instead of italics. This immediately made me regard him as amateur to the subject. Maybe they don’t allow it? I don’t know. The second annoyance was that he admits that he doesn’t even know what it’s about. It’s like drawing a name out of a hat and assuming they’re lame. If he’s going to make a judgment call like this, he should at least look at the first few pages so that when he sticks up his nose he can give us a valid example from the read to back his spine. I can’t stand it when others “criticize” or “analyze” with nothing but opinion. It just seems arrogant doesn’t it? Good post! I completely agree that there should be no boundaries when it comes to personal reads.

  3. I have to say that when I was in library school, I had to fill in one semester with some course….the only thing that seemed somewhat interesting was a course on young adult novels. I remember years ago actually being a young adult reader. I’m old now, so, when I was in that category, there was nothing to read. I was not allowed to take books from the adult collection in the library (that’s the truth) and was stuck with children’s books. I’d already read most of them – seeing as I was, as many young adults are, a voracious reader and the collection in my public library was somewhat limited. In library school, I discovered novels that I would have loved to have found as a young adult. Surprisingly, I found novels that spoke to me as an adult (an older adult??). I find many so called adult novels pretentious. I want a story. I return, often, to what is classified as young adult literature, mostly because these are stories of life. Stories – in the true sense of the word.

    And, I can’t help but say that, years ago, I was saying to people, “Have you read the Harry Potter book?” And everyone said no. Then came that glorious day on the L in Chicago, traveling home from work, and I saw not one, not two, but six adults reading the book. I wanted to laugh out loud at the thought of those six people entering into another world….

    I thank my class in library school for introducing me to the likes of “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes” – one of my all time favorite novels.

    Let us write and tell stories for all ages.

    Thanks for the blog. I love it.

    • I wish there had been YA novels of the type we have today when I was younger, too. I don’t know exactly why they are so fascinating to me even at my advanced age, but I think that during the late teen years we’re finding ourselves, and dealing with huge issues – it is an unforgettably intense time. So, now that I’m older, when I read a YA novel, I return with a kind of fascination to the mental age of about 16 or so….I look back at the person I was with a lot more compassion for her than I had when I was that age. I suppose it’s a way of taking stock of how you’ve turned out, how your life has worked out. Then, too, if you are the parent of teens, it’s a way to tuning in to their world.

      I loved reading the Harry Potter books with my boys. We’d actually read them aloud by the fireplace in the winter or in our tent by flashlight in the summer when we went camping. They grew up with Harry Potter. I can’t imagine having missed that shared experience with them. To enter the world of Harry Potter together…..what fun.

      Thanks for these great comments.

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