Last night I started reading Suzanne Collins’ YA novel Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, which I enjoyed much more than I expected earlier this year. It just came out. Here's a good Lev Grossman piece from Time magazine about the series.
Anyway, I picked up the book at 3 a.m. to read the first chapter or so, and I ended up reading straight through and finishing it at almost 8 a.m. Partly this is just because, being a YA novel, it’s typeset in such a way that reading a single page can take as little as 45 seconds. But it’s also because I wanted to see what happens. My feeling upon starting the book, however, was similar to my feeling on starting The Hunger Games—God, this is pretty lazy writing, isn’t it? Clumsy and silly, so obvious… okay, it’s YA, but still…. And by lazy, I mean it’s constantly like, she’ll just write something like, “They start their conversation with a few easy and funny jokes that show how comfortable they are with each other.” That’s outline writing, not book writing! You have to do the hard work and come up with the jokes! … Don’t you?
Anyway, what it feels like is she had to get the sequel finished so it could be published quickly. And she wrote a comprehensive outline, and then fucking sat down and just ZOOMED through writing the actual manuscript. For about the first hundred pages I was kind of rolling my eyes because it was silly, and the names of the characters are so stupid (“Katniss” is the main character… why would you name your main character something that rhymes with “cat piss”?) and the only thing that kept me reading was my memory of how much I ultimately liked the first book and just a reluctant sort of DNA-level, gut-based, pictures-on-the-cave-wall desire to See What Happened.
But then, gradually, I was reading again because I was actually, actively gripped by the story. I came around. I still thought the writing was “lazy” in a “Okay, you didn’t spend hours on the prose here, did you?” way—not just in terms of the rushed dialogue but in terms of the logistical description; I have no idea how the Cornucopia area of the arena was actually laid out in the second half of the book; this was utterly fucking incomprehensible to me; every time it was described, I saw it differently—BUT I began to genuinely admire the storytelling on a structural/character level.
Collins is a really fucking good storyteller. The structure of this book is impeccable. That outline I mentioned? It works. And one reason many scenes are so compressed, with a “They told jokes” feel instead of dialogue scenes containing actual jokes, is that the outline is so long and involved; as it is, the book runs 400 pages, and it could have been a lot longer. And it’s very, very gripping; the stakes and tension are expertly escalated. Storytelling like that is an art. In ideal cases it’s combined with prose-writing on the same level—but when it isn’t, that doesn’t mean it’s not an art.
She had a problem when sitting down to write this book, I think: Was she going to put the characters back into the Hunger Games? If she did, wouldn’t it feel redundant, given that the first book took place almost entirely in the arena—and the characters were already victors? But could she really write the second book in the “Hunger Games trilogy” and not have the characters be forced to play the Hunger Games? I won’t say how she deals with this problem, but I will say that they do return to the arena, and I was impressed with how/when Collins got them there.
So that’s that. I hope it’s a bestseller. Currently ranked at #11 on Amazon, so looks like it will be. Good for you, America’s Youth, keep reading. And good for you, Ms. Collins, for writing books about teenagers forced to kill each other on reality TV that America’s Youth can enjoy.