What the heck just happened?
A few years back, I happened to read Ernest Cline’s paen to eighties nostalgia, Ready Player One. As I wrote about it here for TeleRead, I thought it was a pretty fun book. It read a lot like the young-adult novels I used to love growing up. Combined with all the shout-outs to the geeky things I also used to love growing up, it was right up my alley. The only thing was, it was a little puzzling who its intended audience was, as most people my age might not be so big on young adult books anymore, whereas people of the right age to enjoy YA might find all the eighties nostalgia mystifying.
Nonetheless, it seemed to be pretty popular back in the day. I saw reviews everywhere that pretty much loved it, and I don’t remember much overt negativity about it. Perhaps all that love for the book was part of what brought Steven Spielberg (himself the subject of a number of shout-outs in said book) to helm the movie adaptation of it.
But ever since the trailer to said movie came out, it seems like haters have been coming out of the woodwork. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see some new article about what a terrible, terrible thing the book is pop up in my daily Google news feed on my phone. It gets called out for “catering to male nerds.” People call the main character a Mary Sue. Even the more neutral articles nonetheless quote passages out of context and call it out for its “attempted wokeness.” Where did all this sudden hate come from? Did Ernest Cline suddenly start running over people’s dogs wholesale or something?
I’m not the only one who noticed this. A piece on US Gamer points to all the positive reviews from back when the book first came out, and suggests that they effectively came about because everyone else was breathlessly enthusiastic about the book, and they just got caught up in the excitement. Even outlets posting negative reviews now were more positive about the book back then.
The problem with pop-culture journalism is that sometimes it’s easy to get carried away in the zeitgeist, even when it’s so evidently manufactured. Eventually, the fogged glasses clear, and critical thought returns. It’s how overlooked bits of entertainment gain cult status decades later, or popular titles of nostalgia become less endearing in the proper light. Laura Hudson wrote in her 2015 Slate review of Cline’s second book, Armada, a preview of the Ready Player One backlash in 2017, “Ready Player One was far too joyously self-absorbed in its referential excesses to step back and examine what they might mean.”
I caught myself wondering if perhaps it was just that people who weren’t interested in that sort of book simply didn’t read it, until the new movie trailer brought it to their attention. But this sudden backlash seems bigger than one could account for by a few people suddenly noticing it for the first time.
As one who’s been reading genre fiction for a long time, a lot of the criticisms of Ready Player One and Armada seem awfully familiar. The same sorts of pejoratives are often used to dismiss genres, which are often deemed juvenile and shallow by comparison to “serious” fiction. Science fiction, mysteries, romance…who reads that “trash”? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see that same sort of argument resurface when another work of genre fiction becomes popular enough to be adapted by Spielberg into a major motion picture.
I’ve even seen some people (such as that Slate review linked above) tying these books to Gamergate, apparently for no other reason that they feature male gamer nerds as heroes. (Hey, guess what? Many of us who abhor Gamergate are nonetheless gamer nerds ourselves, and we actually can enjoy reading about video gamers being depicted as awesome while still feeling that women are people and worthy of respect, too.)
I don’t think these are the greatest books in the world—but then, that’s the same way I feel about the Harry Potter series. I think they’re a fun exercise in nostalgia, and a clever way to string together pop culture references. And, honestly, the world would be a lot duller if we were only allowed to read Great Literature.
I hope all this backlash is just a flash in the pan, and won’t hurt Ready Player One at the box office. I know I’m looking forward to seeing the movie when it comes out.