Wednesday, May 02, 2012

From the "Nothing Attracts a Crowd Like a Crowd" Files

They tried to make me love the latest hyped bestselling trilogy, and I said no, no, no...

I can hear it now. Now that I have finally read The Hunger Games, I will discuss its flaws and then people will accuse me of disliking it because it's popular. Please let me assure you that popularity is not what I dislike about The Hunger Games.

Oh, wait. Perhaps I should rewrite those sentences so Suzanne Collins and her fans can better understand them. Let's try this:

I can hear it now, that I have finally read The Hunger Games, I will discuss its flaws and then people will accuse me of disliking it -- because it's popular -- please let me assure you that popularity is literally not what I dislike, about The Hunger Games.

Unfortunately, that is how Suzanne Collins writes  in The Hunger Games, way too often for my liking. Yes, my basic idea is still communicated in the above paragraph. Yes, someone might write that way on a daily basis -- someone like a blogger, or perhaps a junior high student writing a note to a friend. You know what should not be written that haphazardly and punctuated that poorly?  Books! The atrocious writing in itself would be bad enough, but then you have to think about the editing. Who are the people at Scholastic Press who let sentences like that go to print?

I do have things to say about The Hunger Games' anti-war allegory (oh yes! there is one!) but first we have got to talk about the punctuation. I was not aware that as the publishing industry crashes and burns their plan was to just release books without bothering to copy edit them, but I really have no other explanation for what happened here. I am not sure when I have ever been so frustrated by run-on sentences, missing commas, extra commas, and missing apostrophes. I thought maybe I was reading my Facebook news feed, but no, it was an actual published book.

You want examples? OK!  Page numbers are from the hardcover edition I borrowed from my local public library.
  •  "Electricity in District 12 comes and goes, usually we only have it a few hours a day." -p.80
  • "When suddenly I notice Peeta, he's about five tributes to my right, quite a fair distance, still I can tell he's looking at me and I think he might be shaking his head." -p.150
  •  "But I don't dare leave the jacket, scorched and smoldering as it is, I take the risk of shoving it in my sleeping bag, hoping the lack of air will quell what I haven't extinguished." -p.173
  •  "The girl with the arrows, Glimmer I hear someone call her -- ugh, the names the people in District 1 give their children are so ridiculous -- anyway Glimmer scales the tree until the branches begin to crack under her feet and then has the good sense to stop." -p.182
  •  "They know I have the bow and arrows, of course, Cato saw me take them from Glimmer's body." -p.241
  •  "I chew a few mint leaves, my stomach isn't up for much more." - p.282
  •  "The strong fatty cheese tastes just like the kind Prim makes, the apples are sweet and crunchy." - p.309
  • "Portia and Cinna receive huge cheers, of course, they've been brilliant, had a dazzling debut." - p.360
I'm pretty sure Suzanne Collins' computer might actually be missing its semi-colon key. 

Meanwhile, she manages to do something else terrible. In multiple instances, first-person narrator Katniss explains that a character "literally" did something or other. I noticed at least four, such as:

  • "To say I make it in the nick of time is an understatement. I have literally just dragged myself into the tangle of bushes at the base of the trees when there's Cato..." -p.223
  • "He tosses his fork over his shoulder and literally licks his plate clean with his tongue making loud, satisfied sounds." -p.312
There is nothing more colloquial, current, and annoying than the use of the word "literally" in all kinds of sentences where it doesn't belong.  Turn on your television or radio and you will hear everyone from sportscasters to politicians adding "literally" into their sentences for emphasis. You will hear them use it in place of "very" or "actually" or even "not literally at all" such as when an ESPN commentator the other night said the NFL draft was "literally consuming New York City." No, it was not literally consuming New York City. That's the whole point of using a metaphor, or speaking in entertaining hyperbole.

It is becoming rarer and rarer to hear or read a use of the word "literally" in which the word means what it means, namely, the opposite of figuratively. Millions of us have been guilty of overuse of "literally" in excited casual speech. That's bad enough, but the misuse is even more annoying than the overuse, in my opinion. I recognize that word saturation happens; sometimes words achieve a weird place in the vernacular. Does this mean published, edited books should succumb? No! That is why it annoyed me in The Hunger Games. It's too easy for Suzanne Collins to write as if she is blogging. It's too easy to fail to be careful and creative with language. It's too easy to require nothing special from our writers and editors, in a world where everyone can self-publish and cheapen the value of the written word.

I'm sure someone will say that Katniss talks that way. Katniss is supposed to be our postmodern heroine, telling her story in a casual, personal, freewheeling tone. Yes, creating a narrative voice -- even a casual one -- is a literary achievement. The writer should create a voice, maybe even a jaded one peppered with slang, like Holden Caulfield.  Consider all the ways J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is nothing at all like The Hunger Games. The author isn't creating a magical Katniss voice if Katniss just sounds like the author herself. That is my objection to "literally." It doesn't sound like a young, fierce hunter from District 12 in the dystopian future. It sounds like Suzanne Collins. Today.

This stuff bugged me to no end as I read The Hunger Games.  The story is all right. In my next post, I will address how very much it is indeed an anti-war novel. But I find myself once again disappointed by the latest hypity-hype-hyped bestseller, and I have no immediate desire to rush out to get my hands on the next installment in the series.The fact that shoddy work can get published and that millions will breathlessly enthuse about it without stopping to notice or care about such basic mistakes offends all of my writerly and readerly sensibilities.

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