For this entire month of November, I’ll be reviewing and spotlighting some of the best,noteworthy titles (just my opinion of the “best,” feel free to disagree,please!!) that I thought were thought-provoking reads!
When teens start to show any countercultural, stigma-defying interest in reading, the first reaction from the snobbery caste of the literary hierarchy is to question the intelligence of the books, then make sneaky insults about the supposed “dumbing down” of literature that is evidenced by these teen’s enthusiastic love for YA dystopian series like Divergent and Hunger Games. Three years ago, I was at an academic symposium, where I heard some of my peers, speaking in a dismissive undertone about “those horrid Hunger Game books,” “those fake-y readers,” “this is clearly the bane of fiction these days.” If fiction is objectively geared first and foremost for entertainment and geared for the pleasure of the reader, it is somehow mistakenly seen as being devoid of intelligence. Many older works of literature, including Charles Dicken’s slew of classic novels written in the nineteenth century, were popular fiction of the time, yet have now been relegated to the classics shelf, loved and appreciated by the many haughty literary snobs. It is somehow their guideline that literature must be aged a certain period, and then they graduate from the laymen category of popular fiction, and instantly become part of the elegiac ranks of classic fiction.
There has been a lot of fatalistic hand-wringing over the popularity of series like Hunger Games and Divergent,not just for teen readers, but for the fact that adults are unabashedly reading these books in a very public way.This is enough to make AS Byatt types cringe, and decry the apocalyptic “dumbing down” of literature.” These groups are normally more conservative, not in a political sense, but in a more rigid/mind-closing state of mind, where the objective behind holding ideas is to preserve the traditional,classical gloss of much older ideas, rather than constantly ponder, question, and examine new ideas, as true active thinkers are wont to do. This kind of dusty, insularized state of mind is driven by fear, and the fear stems from experimentation in literature, or different modes of storytelling that happens to appeal to a wide array of different readers.
It is easy to deride series like Hunger Games and Divergent for their popular appeal, or certain romance/soap-opera tropes that are really a ubiquitous, accepted element of these series. These are just surface-level elements of these stories though; the real reason for their appeal is the fact that these series are engaging teens to come to grips with certain irrepressible vexations with modern society. Hunger Games does a fabulous job, satirizing the vapidness of our media, which duplicitously acts as a way of diverting people away from serious sociological and ethical concerns affecting our world now. While we might not be living in a perfect-storm scenario of a Hunger Games dystopian world, there are many key elements in these books that do subtly offer a critique or sounding board for teen readers to really engage with these questions- the effects of imperialism, the dangers of a totalitarian,overreaching centralized government, the paralytic symptoms of the a society that constructs a slippery moral slope that makes wholesale warfare and violence ethically easy. These books hit upon so many relevant issues, and it gives teens a safe place, outside of the ideological-limited prisons of chattering, talking-head networks, to really deal with these issues in a more nuanced manner that goes beyond the safety bubbles of liberal and conservative. As a reader, Hunger Games deals with some really tough and difficult ethical issues, which sometimes goes further than more genre-limited adult fiction. The number one reason for YA fiction’s appeal is that there are no set limits on genre elements and tropes to be utilized, and it is why even adults are venturing into this section, in a not-so shy way, because well-written, resonating stories like the Hunger Games satisfies some deeper need for ourselves, to read fiction that effectively acts as a catharsis for us; a way for us to project ourselves onto another character, and self-empty our minds in another reality, which helps deeply change ourselves by the story’s end, or leave us with an entirely new way of thinking about different social,political issues that occupy our minds each and everyday.
Having just finished the marvelous Divergent, written by Veronica Roth, the amount of vitriol directed at this series is very intense, very didactic, and discordant. I had to forcibly remove my mind from reading too much of it, as much of it was strangely motivated by mob psychology. I found the collective stance of deep hatred and resent, for Veronica Roth, for the supposed controversial ending to Allegiant to be curious at first, but now it’s almost humorously ironic, given this is a book series that deals with the psychological paradox we face everyday of trying to be strong-opinion individuals, in a loud, boisterous world of strong, group psychology impulses. Many people found the premise of Divergent’s dystopian world to be implausible, considering it deals more with group psychology/ideological enclaves, more-so than Hunger Games. Yet, Veronica Roth’s series powerfully acts as a very deep analysis of internet culture, and how internet culture may be causing an erosion of democracy, and really fueling more pernicious patterns of group psychology.
One of the things I found absolutely ingenious about Divergent was this deep awareness of group dynamics, which is something very strong reminiscent to how people on the internet often engage in dialogue with one another. Venture sometime over to Huffington Post, read through a religious-themed article, but read the ridiculous, group-minded comments between the clashing internet Christians and Atheists in the bottom portion. You’ll see many of the more moderate, open-minded, disinterested thinkers (of either group or in between) often postulate more questions than provide answers, much like those in Divergent, who are part of the divergent group. Writers or artists normally are those, who are more observant, or born into the world as fence-sitting scrutinizers of the world around them; Tris and Four are uniquely two different forms of these types of disinterested observers of the world around them. Both characters uniquely provide readers of the Divergent Trilogy an opporitunity to really become deeply involved with the psychological interplay between different types of characters, with different psychological temperaments.
The best thing about this series is that amongst the exciting, frenetically-paced action sequences, some of the trademark (and slightly boring) requisite romance scenes is really this psychological drama that exists on every page. Tris is really the Freudian ego of the entire series, or whom the famous writer Doris Lessing would have called “the writer, artist, observer of the text.” While reading Divergent over the past few days, I borrowed a copy of Prisons we choose to Live Inside, from the library, to read and pore over the insights Doris Lessing makes about the complexity of human psychology, evidenced by the patterns of our social psychology.
Writers “are by nature, more easily able to achieve this detachment from mass emotions and social conditions.” (Lessing 7). This includes even writers, who are devout members of religions and ideologies, which again is a misunderstand of what Doris Lessing means by being wary or attentive of group motivations. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be part of a group, or somehow hazardous; it just means that in every group there is the individual able to achieve the paradoxical identity of being part of the group,but yet being themselves. It is what makes democracy work best, because it respects the importance of both parts of our identity: the social and individual factors. But, these things need to be underscored by liberality or a measure of dignity and worth to a person, granting them the ability to form these identities for themselves. In a democratic country, we still often live under the heavy burden of group obligations, that are often too severe, and psychologically-limiting, such as teaching children that they must belong to a certain religion, in order to escape from some nonsensical, mostly metaphorical “hell dimension.” This threat of punishment, implicit in some ideologies, is what destroys democracy; and this is when group psychology becomes lethal. Some religions, including certain forms of Islam, will threaten the death-sentence, for the crime of apostasy (which is a human rights violation which really needs to be outlawed all around the world).
In Divergent, not belonging to a group in a certain restrictive way causes one to become “factionless,” or ostracized from society, become the social psychological frame of their world is totalitarian. And ever since Hitler, Mai’s Cultural Revolution, the disheartening legacy of Russian communism, we have ample evidence of the dangers that extreme forms of group psychology, involving implicit or explicit threats of violence and coercion (this includes religions w/ threats of hell), have on limiting our rights to express ourselves as individual, to really have a more sound,clear, healthy mind to think more clearly and seriously about the many social and political issues of the day.
Books, like Hunger Games and Divergent,are really too important, thus, to begrudge people that read them, view them as insipid by just being influenced by group-motivated opinions. You don’t need to subjectively love them, to objectively recognize they do bring forth some very important issues for any readers, of any age group or demographic, to discuss. Yes, these books are really fun, very entertaining, (and not everyone may think that, but that’s not the point of this post); I think the important thing really for this post is really to try not to vilify the readers of these books, or be condescending towards people that read them, because neither series is what I would call brainless books.
In a world where we have sensationalized, chattering news-channels with talking heads, talking stupidly and boorishly about many important topics, or groups talking incessantly about “being mock offended” by something not-so PC, it’s getting harder to talk freely about serious social and political issues, without our conversations being silenced in the name of “politically-correct decorum,” or “ideologically-safe rhetoric.” You do not need to belong to a certain group, in order to engage with different issues, grapple with different viewpoints, etc. You can be part of a group, and still be an open-minded individual, because there are many, many moderate thinkers everywhere, who find the zealotry or extremist factions in any religious or ideological group quite off-putting. Our world is far too polarized now, with too many interest-groups, or lobby groups, for us to worry constantly about having a certain laundry list of ideologically-acceptable ideas, for whichever group you think you’re a part of. Being divergent, or a disinterested observer/fence-sitter, sometimes (who honestly doesn’t have a clue about every single thing in the world) is sometimes the most honest place to be, and this fence doesn’t need to be consigned to being perched outside your community, because belonging to human society, still requires engaging healthfully, sanely in human society in some way. And, Divergent and Hunger Games, like any dystopian fiction book, are equipping us with the necessary mental tools to acclimatize or adjust ourselves to a paradoxical world, and this kind of lesson is very important for teen readers today, and adult readers too often need to be reminded of this, as well, making these books really perfect for all readers!