By Steve Brady
“As ugly as a teenage millionaire, pretending it’s a whiz kid world …”
-David Bowie, “Teenage Wildlife”
Trying to be a palatable dude, I was reading bell hooks’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. I came across this fascinating bit:
“While feminism may ignore boys and young males, capitalist, patriarchal men do not. It was adult, wealthy white males in this country who first read and fell in love with the Harry Potter books … J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are clever modern reworkings of the English schoolboy novel. Harry as our modern day hero is the super smart, gifted, blessed white boy genius (a mini patriarch) … the Harry Potter movies glorify the use of violence to maintain control over others … “
From someone who writes a lot about love, that’s some beautiful hate! I never found the franchise that interesting: I read a chapter or two of the first book then it wandered off into the recesses of the punk house, and someone took me to the first movie but I don’t remember the story. All too bland to even dislike. But in 2004, long before Rowling became notorious for public transphobia, bell hooks saw the looming patriarchal potential there. She continues:
“Of course American children were bombarded with an advertising blitz telling them they should read these books. Harry Potter began as national news sanctioned by mass media. Books that do not re-inscribe patriarchal masculinity do not get the approval the Harry Potter books have received … The phenomenal financial success of Harry Potter means that boys will henceforth have an array of literary clones to choose from.”
At this I realized two other very successful books I hate, Ready Player One and The Road, convey the same brand of isn’t-that-cute patriarchy—why do people I respect see visions of a better, more beautiful world in these things? Something strange is going on.
Marketing a game novel myself, I heard I should cite Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One as a comparable title. There’s some superficial similarities—find an artifact in a game to control the real world—and the movie was tolerable by Hollywood standards. So I got Ready Player One from the local library … and I was like OMG, it just replaced The Road as the most overrated book in English.
Disturbingly and offensively bad, it’s a sorta Game-Lit Fifty Shades of Grey, but while the latter was a guilty pleasure, people actually claim this blockbuster debut novel is good. I looked up some articles by people who hated it, and none of them touched on what was horrible to me:
It starts with fifty pages of sheer backstory tell. Common advice to beginners: your world isn’t as original as you think, and you need an actual story. Or at least throw in an active sentence every page or so. It’s already risky to depend on pure world-building, but Cline doesn’t have a particularly good world. Nor protagonist: it takes me fifty pages to even dislike the guy.
Yet what most offends me is that the boy supposedly lost his useless parents young, has maybe one friend and no early positive attachment, and while a damaged person can have a good heart, this guy is eager, chipper and industrious. Research since the Vietnam War has shown that trauma resilience comes from human connection. Instead he’s pulling himself up by his bootstraps in the style of Horatio Alger—oh, that’s why those other critics attack him on class, gender and race stuff. Did y’all ever have to write an autobiographical essay in high school? This reads like a privileged twit turning in a hastily written Prank essay.
Yet as bell hooks might predict:
“Ernest Cline, a self proclaimed Star Wars fan, writer of the film Fanboys, has nabbed a six-figure upfront deal for his first novel Ready Player One. Warner Bros. in conjunction with De Line Pictures won the bidding war for rights to the sci-fi adventure book shortly after Cline just secured publishing rights with Random House.” (fusedfilm.com)
The Road isn’t a whiz kid novel, but some of the same issues continue. Cormac McCarthy, from movie adaptations I’ve seen, writes Modern Westerns. Let’s just say he centers the experience of white people. The Road is a bit different: a father leads his male child through a post-cataclysmic wasteland where the only other people are bands of unfriendly cannibals. Kinda a white-male-individualist version of the second half of Parable of the Sower.
The first thing I noticed was that not only was the book fairly thin, there was a severe excess of white space on the pages. At 59K words, he’s marketed a novella as a novel, which he can do because of his previous successes. Add the non-use of quotation marks and other annoyances.
In a world of total evil and chaos, one relationship is the only source of goodness and meaning: a father protecting his son. Isn’t that adorable? From a more thoughtful writer perhaps it could be, but here, we remember that “patriarchy” comes from “patri”: it means that government, religion and business should be modeled on an authoritarian fatherhood. Thus this shining surviving example of fatherhood is the grain of sand from which proper reality can be restored.
Although the text does not explicitly mention climate change, The Guardian listed it as one of the five best climate change novels and George Monbiot has called it “the most important environmental book ever written” for depicting a world without a biosphere. (Wikipedia)
Well Cline’s sure pulled off something clever here. He repackaged the most tired cliches of the post-apocalyptic genre for the literary fiction crown, and they’ve eaten it up, even while they still claim science fiction is shallow pulp (see Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Science Fiction”). And no it doesn’t mention or relate to climate change: the cause of the disaster is unspecified to cowardly attempt to avoid “politics,” not realizing that patriarchy is political.
Hey, I’m not that woke. I’ve enjoyed Hemingway, Robert E. Howard, and Heinlein; I appreciate a well-written thoughtful book written by someone with very different values than me. These don’t make the cut. Why are they ultra-successful? Was bell hooks not far off the mark when she stopped just short of claiming a conspiracy to shove this stuff down our kids’ throats?
We want fantasy and sci-fi to inspire us with visions of a better world. One way to co-opt that is to pull the same liberal trick: not only a privileged elite living in a fantasy world, but the rest us aspiring to be like them, thinking that’s what it is to be “truly human.”
So the running theme is that, to the surprise of many of us, the epitome of toxic masculinity isn’t James Bond or Rambo, it’s a smug and annoying male child or teenage boy. Is it that old idea that traditional boys don’t have to grow up? Some boys: you may have noted how the media portrays a Black boy as a criminal adult and a white teen as a confused and misguided child. Something like that, but even with men who manage themselves well, every empire, whether military or corporate, is built around protecting a damaged boy from reality and intimacy.
They’ll spend a lot of money getting us to adore that cute boy. But when we expose him as the Man Behind the Curtain, we can bring anarchy to Oz.