Aaron R. Davis
With the release of the film version of Ender’s Game, there’s been much discussion about the ethics of supporting the film.
There are people who refuse to give the film any of their money because they don’t want its racist homophobic author Orson Scott Card profiting from their money. (That led to a suspiciously well-timed story a few days ago swearing that Card isn’t making any money from it because the film adaptation is sprouting from an older rights deal with no profit participation, which led to more discussions about whether a film adaptation makes Card more money from the increased sales in books.)
There are also the people who want us to separate the art from the artist, which is a legitimate case to make. There are a lot of artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. throughout history who were absolute monsters, but who created works that transcend their origins. Certainly I think Roman Polanski’s made at least four of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and I don’t like to be told that watching his films is tantamount to saying that rape isn’t a big deal.
But the fans of the book Ender’s Game — the people who defend his work mainly because they read it as children and it really affected them at the time — have a tendency to overdo it. I’ve had too many extremely irritating conversations with people who love the book and act like they’re being personally hurt by the people who are having ethical reservations about the film. These people — and I’ve personally spoken to about nine of them now — have reactions that disturb me.
For example, a couple of people described Card’s crazy rants about homosexuality being the unnatural result of shame at childhood sexual molestation (and subsequently using his fame and fortune to sit on the board of an organization whose sole purpose is to deny gay people full legal and civil equality) as “problematic.” That’s a weak word for it. Personally, I think a guy who uses his notoriety to spout off about how our first African-American President is going to use “urban youths” as his own personal SS is more of a monster than “problematic,” but then, he didn’t write a book that made me feel better about being bullied as a kid.
Other people took issue with a description I shared (someone else’s, not my own) of Ender’s Game as being a racist work born of white privilege. Mainly this description had to do with a character named Alai, who talks on and off in a cartoon caricature of jive talk, doesn’t flinch when he’s called a nigger and casually makes jokes about black people being slaves. (And let’s be honest, he’s the first of a couple of racial caricatures in the book.) It’s the typical trick of a bad writer: let’s show how racially tolerant people are in the future by showing black people being cool and accepting casual racism as the natural order. See, this black character I invented doesn’t think someone making a joke about selling him is racist, so obviously I’m not a racist. Tolerance!
Anyway, the book’s defenders told me that description was “unfair,” “angry,” “misguided” and even “an outright lie.” It was creepy because it was so defensive.
Here’s the thing: writers don’t write in a vacuum. Bigots don’t automatically stop being bigots just because they’re writing a work of fiction. If someone reacts to the world through the filters of being a sexist or a racist or a homophobe (and Card has demonstrated repeatedly that he’s all of those things), then that’s what informs their feelings when they write about it. It goes in there. Maybe you don’t always see it. Maybe you’re not always old enough to understand it. But it’s there and you have to accept that it’s there.
One of my favorite novels is Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. But I also accept that people find a lot of sexism in it. I don’t hush them up and tell them they’re lying, because I’m an adult with critical faculties. Same thing with Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or, honestly, a lot of what Heinlein wrote. A lot of his attempts to be progressive when it comes to gender politics sometimes come across as women of the future just accepting their natural role as concubines. It’s a problem in his work. But I don’t get defensive about it; I confront it and am open to discussion. I say for the thousandth time: when someone disagrees with you, don’t tell them they’re wrong. Ask them what they mean.
The response I kept getting over and over again about Ender’s Game was this: read it for yourself and find out. No one mounted an impressive defense of the book, they just said that the naysayers were wrong and “read it for yourself.” That’s always the response of people who can’t defend something but think that you’ll immediately be converted. I’m not a fan of that kind of thinking. It’s uncritical and unwilling to engage criticism.
But you know what? Just to be a pal, I read the book. I went to my library, picked up Ender’s Game, brought it home, and started reading it. It didn’t take long to finish it. And now that I have, I can tell you this: yes, the racism is there. Yes, the sexism is there. And wow, there are a lot of naked children in this book. Also, apparently Orson Scott Card has never been around a child before and thinks every insult they hurl at each other has to do with farts and butts. Also, if I only had this novel to go by, I’d say Card’s a severe closet case, because there’s this uncomfortable undercurrent where the homophobia becomes a lingering fascination.
But mostly, my problem with Ender’s Game is really this: it’s terrible. It reads like someone’s unaltered first draft. It’s full of sickeningly self-righteous moral intentionalism, where the ends justify the means and it’s acceptable for kid who gets bullied to then turn around and become an even bigger bully because he’s the hero and intentions are more important than deeds.
And the character of Ender Wiggin is a sociopathic blank slate. There’s no essential character to Ender Wiggin: he only exists as a constant reinforcement of the idea that boys who are socially awkward and who are bullied are only victimized because they’re special. We’re constantly told how special Ender is. We’re constantly told he’s an outcast and a victim, yet he excels at what he does and is better than everyone else and he fascinates people who instantly recognize that he’s better than everyone else. The whole point of the book is how this friendless dork who’s great at video games is only treated badly because people just can’t handle how special he is. In fact, he’s so goddamn special that he’s going to save the human race, and that’s what happens when someone is too special to be normal and nice to other people. See, boys: don’t bother to be a good person, because your awkwardness only masks your messianic abilities.
Ender Wiggin is Bella Swan, and Ender’s Game is Twilight for boys.
That’s my opinion on Ender’s Game. I notice now that when I say that, people still tell me “That’s not what it’s about. Read the book for yourself and find out.” And when I tell them that I have read the book and that’s where my opinion comes from, they don’t reply. Not once. It’s gone from uncritical defensiveness to uncritical denial.
I don’t get what the point of telling me to read the book was if we’re just going to leave it at that. But on the other hand, I’ll be happy to go through life not devoting any more time or mental space to this story about a sociopathic, privileged, racist homophobe with a mean streak.
Or the shitty book he wrote.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.