Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mockingjay Never Grows Wings (Brace Yourself for a Long Post)

All right people. I've rolled up my sleeves. I've got snacks at hand and tissues (for mucus or possibly blood). And this cold has let up enough that my brain seems to be operating at relatively normal levels. I think I'm finally ready to blog about Mockingjay.

Please note: (read the following line in this voice))

OH YES. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Actually, there's going to be some blood too.

Mockingjay, book three in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, was a huge disappointment. I'm genuinely stunned by all the glowing reviews, gathered with links here by the Huffington Post for your perusal.

I was particularly shocked by the effusive review from Publisher's Weekly whom I trust so blindly (especially with its red stars. How could you, PW??)

Now I'm not going to drag you through every single reason why I was disappointed in this book. Why? Because a reviewer on Amazon named Suzanne G. has said it all (or most of it, anyway) and said it in a much calmer, rational voice than I could probably manage. So please please pretty please, read her review right now and then come back.

Review you must go read right now.


Done? Okay, great.

To quote Suzanne G., "I think the vital counterpart to accurately portraying the horror and corruption of war is the possibility of redemption, of pursuing redemption."

I completely agree. If I wanted to read in grim, brutal detail about the horrors of war and PTSD with no sense of redemption whatsoever, I would just read a nonfiction book about war. I would NOT read a Young Adult fiction book. See, that's the beauty of fiction. You can show the reader sadness and horror but also lift them above the fray to reveal something MORE. As in, the redemptive powers of helping others, the resilience of humanity, the power of love to survive attacks that scar the body forever, or the beauty that can be found in simply moving forward.

At the end of Mockingjay, I felt none of this. Nope. I just felt sick to my stomach. Depressed. Numb.

It's tempting to drag Collins into the town square and hold her responsible for our collective grievances against this book. But as a writer, I know how easy it can be to be blinded. Collins has a lot of (explosive) balls in the air and there were so many places that almost worked. I can't help but think she had the best of intentions. And yet, the book fell short. So I want to talk about the publishing industry and where some of the blame should fall with the failure of this book.

Where was her editor? Seriously, where was she? My very first thought when I finished Mockingjay was, "Well, that book needed another round of revisions for emotional growth and character development." (Yes, that really was my first thought.)

Look, we all know how these big series work, right? They're cash cows for publishers. The first book is a huge hit and the readership clamors for more, working themselves up into a lathered frenzy of anticipation. The next book comes out and we ALL buy it in hardcover, no questions asked. Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games. They've made big bucks for publishing houses and bookstores during a time when many industry professionals are peeing themselves with fear over the impending publishing Armageddon.

There's always a push for the next book to come out sooner, while the fan excitement is at fever pitch. Why worry about the quality of the story when the publisher knows for sure that we'll all buy it anyway? Now that Mockingjay is out, who are fans like me waving their fist at? The author Suzanne Collins. No one is coming to the doors of Scholastic with torches and pitchforks. And what does Scholastic care about Suzanne Collins? Her trilogy is over. That cash cow has been milked. On to the next author. The next trilogy. The next big thing, which we will all go out and buy in droves, no questions asked.

You will notice that stylistically Mockingjay is very similiar to the previous books in the series, in my opinion, to a fault. Every single accursed chapter ends with a ludiscrous "twist." Now, Collins' used her amazing ability to write a good cliff hanger to breathtaking affect in the first two books. But in Mockingjay it was overused. The story no longer takes place in the Hunger Games/ Quarter Quell arena and life doesn't always involve a twist. It would have been more effective to end a few chapters on an emotional cliff with no twist and then punch the reader in the face with an unexpected twist when the plot genuinely called for it.

As is, I began to anticipate when something would go wrong and often, how it would go wrong (Oh great, Peeta's all crazy in the head.) I can't help the fact that I can physically see the chapter coming to an end. Now, either an editor failed to reign in Collins' obsessive need for end of chapter twists or (more likely) Collins' was strongly encouraged by her editors to invent twists with which to end each chapter because that's something the reviewers have praised about this series.

There's also the unforgivable matter of not explaining why Katniss voted yes to a final Hunger Games involving the children of Capitol leaders, as Suzanne G. mentions in her review. Smart readers can make the assumption that Katniss voted this way on purpose to make President Coin trust her thereby leaving the President open to Katniss' deadly attack. But this was in no way explained. Immediately after Katniss kills President Coin, she is dragged into a room where she promptly contemplates suicide for the billionth time in the book (yet another lost opportunity for character growth and some sense of gratitude for life and the resiliency of the human spirit. No?) That was a perfect time for Katniss to take the reader through her thought process, thereby reassuring us that she would never, NEVER actually support another Hunger Games, no matter who participated. I'm truly shocked that no one caught this mistake. And as a writer who tends to leave out important explanations by accident, I'm going to blame the editor for this one.

Really what I'm getting at here, is that these cash cow series are often congratulated for keeping the industry going. They also reassure people that readers do care about books in spite of blockbuster movies and video games. And I think instead of milking them for short term gain, publishers owe it to us, the readers, the industry, and themselves, to make these books as great as possible and stop worrying about making sure the book hits its release date.

Because if that's all the editors care about, then the publishing Armageddon really is on the horizon.

[Editor's Note 1:55 PM, same day:] The voices in my head were arguing with me (as they do) and so I felt the need to explain a bit more about this post. I don't want anyone to think I'm putting all the blame squarely on the editor. I just think as readers, writers, and consumers of stories, we need to demand that the story is what matters, not the deadline.

Basically, it takes a village to write a book. The author writes the best book she can. But she should feel comfortable telling the editor that the story is taking longer than the predetermined schedule. And the editor should then take the book and make it even better than the author ever could on her own. But she should also feel comfortable walking into a meeting with the President and the marketing people and say, "Look, Author and I have been working as hard as we can, but this story isn't ready yet. We need to push back the release date." And the higher ups should be supportive of this. They shouldn't punish the editor or the author.

So as readers, how can we help? We can demand better books. And we can be patient when a book doesn't come out on schedule. Because in the end, it's the story that matters. The story is what will be left behind. And it deserves to be the best story it can possibly be. No matter what the cost.


  1. ***SPOILERS***
    I have two thoughts to add to this. I agree that I thought it needed more revisions and that there were some lost opportunities for character interaction. Between that and the letdown of team 451 in the capitol (why did all those people die again?) I found myself reading the last page and thinking, "that's it? Its over?". And that is 100% the fault of the editor in my mind.
    I think the most dissapointing aspect of the books, however, was the complete lack of Katniss' personal growth and development. She never thinks about others, she avoids Peeta at all costs when it is painful for her to see him, and she is constantly moping about, thinking of suicide. In my opinion, this is completely the fault of Collins.
    Young Adult books ESPECIALLY should show perseverence and growth instead of the numb detatchment that Katniss feels every time she reflects on hardship. In the epilogue, not only has she not grown but she seems to be broken in spirit and even worse off than when she started. It seems that she has taken no interest in helping rebuild District 12, let alone the rest of Panem. She doesn't even take much joy in her children, only thinking about how hard it will be on HER to have to tell them her and Peeta's story.
    I really liked Katniss in the first book, but she ended up wearing on me by the third and I didn't find myself rooting for her in the same way. Collins missed the boat big time on that one.

  2. I'm in agreement with both assessments. Especially on the character development (or, really, complete lack thereof) of Katniss. She certainly went through innumerable hardships...but as a reader, what did I learn from this character? I learned that in the face of great tragedy and seemingly insurmountable obstacles I should probably just abandon my loved ones and those who need me most to take naps in forgotten closets and also spend my non-nappy nap time trying to figure out how to end it all.

    The first book brought up so many great questions...and the second two books, especially Mockingjay, completely failed in their attempts to answer them.

    How disappointing to find that Katniss hasn't grown at all! And when Gale comments to Peeta that Katniss will choose who she "can't survive without" Katniss is hurt, but doesn't ACTUALLY disagree! It's almost like a "heeey!! Well..huh, yeah. SHRUG" kind of response. Does she really think so little of herself? From the beginning of the trilogy, Katniss has been closed off and seemingly cold, but we always see moments of what I assumed was her true self...really a softness that she couldn't escape. This book seemed to completely ignore all of that! I had hoped that in this book we would finally see Katniss figure out who she really is...obviously she would be scarred and shaped by her terrible experiences, but I was still hoping she would find the inner strength to become the Katniss we all knew she could be. NOPE. Instead, she mopes, she contemplates suicide, she vites YES to having another Hunger Games??, and she turns her back on Peeta when he really needs her-I mean, how DARE he be brainwashed and therefore hate her! How DARE HE?!

    This was just a puzzling end to this trilogy and it felt rushed, poorly edited, and really did a great injustice to many, if not all, of the characters.

  3. Wow. Just wow. I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you both for your thoughtful comments!!

    Anyone else want to weigh in here on Mockingjay or the publishing industry? I would love to hear more opinions on both topics.

  4. I wish this book was like the "Hulk" movies or even the "Superman" movie(s)-since the first Hulk flopped they just remade it and pretended the first one had never happened...and then second one flopped (ouch-Hulk ANGRY!). Now, from what I've heard, it sounds like they're doing the same thing with "Superman Returns". Just ignoring that movie was ever made and moving on with a completely different and new Superman movie! Maybe we could do the same thing here with Mockinjay? Maybe Collins could get a Hollywood do-over? A Mockingjay Mulligan!!

  5. This book wasn't such a disappointment to me, more of a depressing novel where the problem never gets solved or comes to a conclusion in ones's mind.

  6. I guess I'll be the voice of dissent. :) I loved this book. But I agree with a point made over and over: the character arc probably isn't right for YA, and neither is the general theme. I think the YA label was a marketing decision based on the protagonist's age and gender.

    Collins didn’t neatly wrap up her story and make it more PG, more happily-ever-after. For that she earned even more of my respect. War is grim, messy and horrifying; people do terrible things in the name of protecting society; those we historically praise as "heroes" or as "great" (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, the various empires who colonized the planet, etc) did sooo much we'd find impossible to stomach if we weren't viewing them through a haze of classroom-sanctioned approval; it's all too easy to ignore turmoil when it's happening elsewhere; we don't need to continue on the path we've historically followed where war is glorified.

    As for Katniss's vote in favor of another Hunger Games, I assumed she had a reason for voting yes since it didn't fit with anything else she'd said or done so far in the series. It seemed Haymitch thought so too, and after all their meaningful eye-contact in that scene (and all the foreshadowing about how they'd communicated in the arena without spelling it out), voted to side with Katniss. The question was answered for me when she killed Coin. But it seems I'm in the minority.

    Katniss is one of my favorite protagonists ever, because she made sense to me. Even at the end. She was not a nice girl, and circumstances made her harder inside. But she ALWAYS tried, as much as she knew how. Even for Peeta. Everything she'd done was to save her sister, and then her sister died anyway. Somehow she managed to move forward after that, eventually. I'm not sure I would have.

    This is about half my original comment, but it's already my longest comment ever on someone else’s blog, so I’ll stop here. :) I just love these books so much, and I missed the first round of online discussions (when they first came out) because they sounded so violent I didn’t think I would ever read them.

  7. You know what bothers me most? The fact that most conversations I read concerning people's reactions to this book involve the stupid love triangle: Peeta vs Gale. That drives me crazy!!! Readers, please. I would have been happy if Katniss was on her own at the end. I was hoping she'd open a school to help others, to rebuild District 12. I don't get why she had to just push out some babies and then be all depressed about it. Since when has Katniss ever done what people expected of her? I just really really wanted her to find some speck of hope in life. The image of children playing on a graveyard is so bleak I actually felt it was disrespectful to the characters who sacrificed their lives for Katniss. I felt she owed it to all of those people to find a way to move forward. Oh well.