Many of the most important scholars of religion and ethics, from Martha Nussbaum to Stanley Hauerwas, argue that fiction can enrich our understanding of the moral life in a manner that cannot be replicated by abstract argument. But when these scholars speak of “fiction”, they almost always mean realistic works, such as the “traditional” novel, dominated by social concerns and by the interior lives of the characters. What does it mean, then, that many of the stories that have captured the popular imagination in the past few years have been works of speculative fiction aimed at young adults?
One theory often proffered is simple escapism: living as we do in the shadow of no towers, rising political tensions around the world and widespread financial collapse, it requires an ever-growing share of our daily allotment of courage simply to read the newspaper. And so the turn to young adult (YA) works such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and now The Hunger Games — the first two of which remake our world on explicitly supernatural lines, and the last of which incorporates no magic but is set in a dystopian future—signals a retreat from reality, pure and simple: books and movies targeted at an adolescent audience, and set in a world (or a version of this world) unlike our own, offer adult readers an opportunity to experience vicarious thrills without putting anything about our own lives at risk.
Some literary critics have risen to the defense of YA literature in the speculative vein. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik argues that teenage readers find in speculative fiction not escape, but rather a heightened recasting of their own experiences of growing up: “not for escape but for organisation, and a little elevation.” Lev Grossman’s defense in the New York Times goes further, acknowledging that heroic coming-of-age narratives can also feel personal for adult readers. He makes this claim even as he argues that some of the generic traits of YA writing—strong voices and brisk pacing—can be a welcome relief even for those who sometimes enjoy literary fiction. But even if imagined worlds are the logical terrain for coming-of-age stories, it is still unclear why they would hold a peculiar attraction for adult readers, especially if Grossman and Gopnik are right and that the savor of such imaginative tales is not their safety but their intuitive familiarity.
The world of The Hunger Games and its two sequels illustrates with unsparing detail exactly how familiar, and how unsafe, an imagined world can be. The country of Panem, built on the ruins of what was once the United States, is a distillation of all our darkest civic nightmares, Orwell’s Oceania in the age of cloud computing, the genome and reality TV, and all by way of Imperial Rome.
Panem is comprised of 12 districts that are under the thumb of the Capitol, at once the seat of the country’s totalitarian regime and a bastion of comfort and luxury for the privileged few who live there. Meanwhile, the denizens of the 12 client districts pay a steep price for the pleasures of the one percent. District 12, the home of protagonist Katniss Everdeen, is coal country, as poor as any corner of contemporary Appalachia; the District’s well-to-do are recognisable by the fact that they do business with the Capitol’s “peacekeeper” soldiers, and because they almost always—almost—get enough to eat. And against the risk that these starving, struggling citizens consider challenging the regime that bleeds them, there are the Hunger Games: an annual multi-day competition in which teenagers from each of the 12 districts hunt and kill one another in an unpredictable arena while all of Panem watches, until the final survivor is crowned victor.
For the districts, the Games are compulsory viewing, a reminder that the Capitol’s control encompasses their very bodies. For the citizens of the Capitol, it is the highlight of the cultural calendar. Caught between sympathy for Katniss (who becomes a contestant for District 12) and a voluntary spectator’s eagerness to see how the Games transpire, the reader can hardly help but recognise herself as caught in the uncomfortable middle, as we (and all of Panem) watch Katniss negotiate both mortal danger and the complicated landscape of her own emotions.
In other words, it is not much of an escape. Panem is, if anything, more relentlessly troubling than our own world, and the complete absence of any kind of religious practice makes it even more suffocating. In a world with no faith communities, no wider metaphysical horizon, there is no counterweight to the struggle for physical existence and the constant pressures of civic life. There are also, it is worth noting, no competing registers of significance: as Katniss comes to command the attention and the respect of Panem’s citizenry/viewing audience, she unwittingly takes to hand tremendous power and influence, precisely because the viewers’ connection to her is one of the most authentic things in their reach.
But, like the protagonist of most speculative fiction, Katniss manages to traverse this most pitilessly intractable of landscapes (both literal and moral). Though resisting the narrative that the Capitol has arranged for her is a small act of defiance, it gains power and significance from the very fact that it costs so much to accomplish so little. Katniss’s small gesture creates large echoes.
Harry defeats Voldemort; Frodo saves the Shire; Katniss lives. Perhaps the “escape” these figures represent is not that they take us out of this world, but rather in the manner in which they take us through their own, uniting personal struggle with a quest of (or perhaps for) some larger significance. What gets “solved” by this intersection? Rarely are we led to believe that the protagonist’s troubles are at a complete end; and peace, if it is secured, is rarely of a lasting kind. The resolution, rather, is that these two different kinds of resolution are brought together; the difficulties of the protagonist’s life align with those of the larger world, and are addressed together because they cannot be teased apart. These stories are powerful because they speak to an essential gap in the moral or religious life: the staggering incommensurability of our individual lives to the tasks that the world seems to set for us. This confluence of personal and global narrative arcs suggests that we are, in fact, a part of the world we live in. Is it an escape to try to believe that we, too, are able to respond meaningfully to the demands of the world’s problems?
“The Power of Young Adult Fiction”, New York Times, March 28, 2012
Adam Gopnik, “The Dragon’s Egg: High Fantasy for Young Adults”, The New Yorker, December 5, 2011.
Emanuelle Burton is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the Divinity School and a 2011-2012 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, publisher of Sightings.
This article was first published in Insights magazine and is reprinted here with permission.