The sequel to the book Ready Player One has apparently been released, which is news I’ve been told repeatedly for some reason. It’s a book that I’ve now read several passages from, despite having no interest in reading any of it.
Not long after the first book was released, I got a copy of it (and the audiobook!) based on the hype around it. But I realized it was not for me — or more accurately, it was 100,000% “for” me, but I didn’t want it — as soon as I’d read an excerpt from the first chapter. In a correctly-functioning universe, that should’ve been the beginning and end of my awareness of this series and the works of Ernest Cline in general.
But I haven’t been able to escape the new book. Not because of a marketing blitz, but because I can’t turn around on the internet without running into someone eager to dunk on it. And the same people who spend most of their time saying “just let people enjoy things” are now double plus eager to show how funny their snarky comments are.1For all I know, maybe that is part of the marketing blitz? Are publishers cynical enough these days to be investing in hate-reading campaigns?
Don’t we have better things to do? I mean, I recognize the irony in writing a blog post to say how much I don’t care about something, but I’m not convinced that everyone is self-aware enough to really understand the irony. And while it’d be a lot simpler just to say “That’s stupid, stop doing it,” followed immediately by deleting my Twitter account for good, this seems like a perfect opportunity to ask people to just try and be better.
A few years ago, I was a little sad to realize that something had changed, and I wasn’t enjoying RiffTrax or its live shows anymore. They were still funny more often than not, but there was something that felt hollow about all of it, that I could never quite put my finger on. Then I found out about a podcast called 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, in which Mike Nelson and another frequent contributor to RiffTrax would read sections of Ready Player One and then make fun of it.
After listening to the first episode2Which is an hour I’ll never get back, I felt like I finally understood what was missing. Mystery Science Theater 3000 felt like it was taking something bad and making something new and funny out of it. RiffTrax — even though it’s often funnier — just feels like derisively mocking something for being bad.
I get the same vibe from seeing all the take-downs of Ready Player Two. And I mean all of them; I’ve seen at least four people posting excerpts from it, just today. Hey, guys, remember that book from a few years ago that we made fun of because it just made clumsy and shallow references to things that we all remembered? Let me post examples from the new book and comment on how it is also bad in exactly the same way! It feels like they’re so close to becoming self-aware. Much like the sentient AI, SKYNET, from the Terminator franchise of movies.
One of the people making fun of the new book on Twitter started a thread with a big build-up, a link to how she’d dunked on Cline’s last book, and then excerpt after excerpt from the new one, all in the form of a photograph of the page with the parts she found most egregious underlined, and her eye-rolling commentary written in the margins. One of them was even a little cartoon drawing of eye-rolling, which, I mean, sure, I guess that’s something that adults do?
The first thing I think people need to acknowledge is that they’re not making fun of these books because they’re bad. Even not counting fan-fiction and self-published works, there are tons of published books that are worse. (Somehow). But those don’t get nearly as much attention. The difference is that Ready Player One was hugely popular.
Even more than that, Ready Player One is directly — blatantly, clumsily — targeted at a very specific demographic of 25-45-year-old men. The same demo that the marketing term “gamers” was invented for. The target audience, combined with the fact that it was a hit with its target audience, is what elevates “pointlessly shitting on a vapid book” to “speaking Truth to Power.” Nobody can call you a repulsively condescending bully if you can say “well, actually, I’m providing insightful social commentary.”
Except any insight dried up years ago. Turns out there are only so many ways to say “this is bad,” but some people are content to just keep playing the same note over and over again, year after year.
The Twitter thread that set me off made several mentions of the book’s clumsy and shallow treatment of a black female character, for reasons I didn’t understand at first. If a book that’s designed to deliver pop culture references can only do it in the most clumsy and shallow way, I can’t imagine why we should expect the characterization to be any less clumsy and shallow. Then I realized that they’re not there for critique; they’re there to justify shitting on something that, like the entry to describe the entirety of Earth and human achievement in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is mostly harmless. It’s intended to elevate it from pointless to righteous.
By the looks of it, quite a few people enjoy these not-good books. So what?
The whole “race to the bottom” mentality is responsible for so much completely unnecessary nonsense. It’s trivial to point out that instead of reading books you think are poorly written — or writing about them, or writing about people writing about them — there are literally dozens of other books that exist that you could be reading. Or writing. And you could be amplifying the works of authors who don’t get the amount of attention that Cline does.
But more than that, if you’re indulging in petty snobbery while refusing to acknowledge that you’re being a petty snob, you’re showing the exact same lack of self-awareness that you’re expecting from other people. Reducing Cline and the people who enjoy his work to a simple stereotype must make it easier to feel justified in criticizing his work for reducing characters to simple stereotypes.
Good stuff can come from critiquing bad work. Just for one recent, shallow, example: it was only by reading an extremely negative review of the recent movie Antebellum that I found out about the Octavia Butler book Kindred, which is a sci-fi classic that I somehow had never heard of. But good material gives you so much more to work with, by definition. Why focus on picking apart stuff that’s barren to begin with, except for the simple fact that it’s easier to do?
I’ve absolutely been guilty of making fun of harmless stuff, just because I didn’t like it and mocking it made me feel clever and smart. The thing is, I mostly grew out of it. I try to avoid wasting time on stuff that I don’t like, unless I think that reading or watching it prompted me to come to some insightful observation. And now, when I don’t like something, I at least try to read it or watch it with an eye towards better understanding the people who do like it. It doesn’t require defending the indefensible, or trying to find good in something that simply has no good in it; it just means trying to find something valuable and productive in the experience, instead of letting it be just a destructive waste of time.
It would be shallow and hypocritical for me to expect anyone else to have an epiphany of self-awareness, if I just kept banging on the same note, over and over and over and over again, much like the trailer for the film Inception, a magical-realistic heist thriller by Christopher Nolan. If you’re not willing to set aside your sense of superiority, and instead of mocking what’s popular, actually try to recognize why it’s popular and what people are getting out of it, then you’re not advancing anything, you’re just letting the top keep spinning on the table indefinitely. Which is also a reference to Inception by Christopher Nolan.