Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
– John Adams
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
– Daniel Patrick Moynihan (attributed)
And at last our rules have reached stability, and we regard them now with the virtuous pride of men who have persisted in a great undertaking and arrived at precision after much tribulation.
– H.G. Wells, Little Wars
Singing the strong light works of engineers,
The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
– Walt Whitman, Passage to India
I had thought we were past the distinctions between high culture and low culture, that we were past exclusionary fandom, that we were able to celebrate a diversity of cultural experiences. But then I read the reviews of Ready Player One and it was clear that we are still back in 1980s high school.
I have never read a review of a Western where the critic first needed to declare, in no uncertain terms, that he was not a cowboy, nor have I read a review of The French Connection that felt it necessary to critique car culture before mentioning the car chase. But somehow critics seem to feel the need to state that they are definitely not geeks or fans of video games when reviewing Ready Player One. It’s as if they’re all I-r0k, loudly proclaiming “If I didn’t spend so much time offline, getting laid…” Is this some high school clique thing all over again? The theatre club in one corner of the cafeteria looking down on the D&D club? Because you know, pretending to be someone else on a stage is totally different than pretending to be someone else in a game.
Or the reviews are full of praise about how Spielberg removed all the yucky geekiness from the book. Yeah, I know, I like Midsummer Night’s Dream, but only if the director takes out all that weird magic stuff.
If you think I’m exaggerating:
- The Outline – ‘Ready Player One’ is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie
- Vox – Ready Player One is a truly awful book. I’m really looking forward to the movie.
- (I could go on for many lines, but you get the idea.)
The New York Times tries to do a balanced review, but then has a line like this:
I, for one, didn’t quite understand why, given the global reach of the Oasis, all the relevant players were so conveniently clustered in Ohio. (If anyone wants to explain, please find me on Twitter so I can mute you.)
Can you imagine this is some other context? In a review of Jerry Maguire? “I for one, don’t quite understand what a touchdown is. (If anyone wants to explain, please find me on Twitter so I can mute you.)”
Because that’s where we still are apparently. We’re still in a world where the New York Times can have entire sections about games with invented rules, called Sports and Finance, but no section about video games, even though video games are a $36 billion industry.
“Get a life!” said William Shatner infamously in his 1986 Saturday Night Live skit. Over 30 years later, we get the spectacle of critics bringing all their insightful expertise and analysis together to say… Get a life. Quite the progress we’ve made.
Oh but it’s ok, if you’re dismissing those people, the ones with the weird obsessions.
Can you imagine the New York Times reviewing a performance of Das Rheingold and talking about the magic silver bracelet? Repeatedly? Can you imagine the outraged erudite letters?
But the New York Times has no problem reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy and talking about “the blue rock”. Um, it’s not blue, it’s purple. I know that doesn’t matter to you, New York Times, but it matters in the context of the movie. There are six infinity stones, they have different colours with different powers, Marvel just spent literally a decade and well over a billion dollars building up to a movie about them. But hey, who cares about rules and facts.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that the invented rules and resulting facts of sports and your other favoured cultures are important, and the invented rules and facts of video games and comic book movies aren’t.
But we all know how this goes, The Onion explained it long ago: Walking Sports Database Scorns Walking Sci-Fi Database.
Put on a Star Trek uniform and go to an event where you pretend to understand people up on a stage talking in Klingon? Weird.
Put on a tuxedo and go to an event where you pretend to understand people up on a stage singing in Italian? Totally normal. Opera! High culture!
Opera which is all about ridiculous and often magical turns of events. Which uses absurd spectacle to take you to the highs and lows of human emotion. Which is totally different from a comic book movie, which uses absurd spectacle to… well you get the idea.
SCENA I SCENE I
Figaro con una misura in mano e Figaro has a measuring-stick in hand
Susanna allo specchio che si sta and Susanna stands in front of the mirror,
mettendo un capellino ornato di trying on a hat decorated with
N. 1 Duettino No. 1 Duet
Cinque ... dieci ... venti ... Five ... ten ... twenty ...
trenta ... trentasei ... quarantatre. thirty ... thirty-six ... forty-three.
Yes, opera, featuring… counting. In Italian!
Anyway, Anna Russell can do a much better job of the absurdities of opera than I can.
Is Ready Player One an amazing book? No. I will readily admit it is a book about horrible people. But lots of books (and movies, and opera, and theatre) are about horrible people, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist, or that they aren’t entertaining.
Please don’t dismiss entire genres. There are people who like those genres. You’re dismissing actual people, or worse saying they shouldn’t even exist. And don’t try to take some lonely kid sitting in front of a computer in 1986 and try to paint him as some symbol of 2018’s online trolls or misogynists or whatever current cultural problems you want to critique.
I’m not going to write sports reviews or opera reviews; I don’t know anything about sports and opera. But if you like them, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong. Who am I to tell you how to experience culture?
Brandon (Justin Long) and his friends in Galaxy Quest? They’re just having fun. Just because it’s not your idea of fun, doesn’t mean that you should just dismiss them.
I did find some reviews that I could identify with:
It’s fair to be critical of something within its own context. That can be useful. Does it follow its own rules? Does it fit in its own genre? io9 did a critical review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that is a kind of masterpiece. There is lots to critique out there, there are lots of terrible movies. But just because a movie or a book is in a genre doesn’t mean you get to automatically dismiss it. Terminator 2 is a powerful movie about nuclear war. Wall-E is a powerful movie about loneliness. Science fiction, fantasy, gaming… they can all bring real insights. And they can also just be fun.
The point being, this is all just invented rules for our entertainment. Enjoy what you enjoy. Bridge the arts and technology, connect genres. Have empathy. Be inclusive.
xkcd 1480: Super Bowl