Keynote speeches are hard. I was present for three last year: Libba Bray’s magnificent one at Austin Teen Book Fest last year; my own, at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, which I’m sure was twitchy and weird; and, at Houston’s TeenBookCon, Orson Scott Card’s.
These days some YA readers/writers are proposing to boycott Ender’s Game, the movie, because of what Orson has said over the years about homosexuality. Thank God, he did not mention homosexuality that morning, except maybe obliquely in a laugh line about how teenagers should know that sex “gets better.” “It gets better, guys,” he announced, vis-a-vis sex, and suddenly without warning several hundred teenagers and YA writers had been invited to imagine this 60ish man’s lifelong sexual journey, and the ways in which it got better, and there was just a ton of hunched shoulders and anguished squirming.
But that wasn’t the thing he said that I wanted to put here. The heart of his speech went something like this:
1. reading is just the best
2. how many worlds have you visited because of books? how many people have you gotten to be? a lot
Obviously everyone was on board with this. Reading is the fucking best! Also: thank God you are not talking about sex anymore!
3. everyone should get to read whatever they want
4. no one should ever try to stop you from reading something, or make fun of you for reading that thing
Absolutely. Yes. Throughout the audience, authors and readers alike are nodding happily.
5. if someone makes fun of you for reading, they are stupid
6. it is okay to make fun of stupid people
This was the part where we realized it was going to get weird.
7. in my high school i ascended to the apex of the social order by mocking people through song
What? What the fuck does that mean?
8. each time a person entered the classroom every other head would turn to look at me in delight and apprehension
9. and if i felt moved to do so, i would oblige them by standing and greeting this new person, who was often stupid, with a short but merciless song of mockery about them
Are you for goddamn real suggesting to these kids that that’s what you’re supposed to—FUCK, HE IS SAYING MORE THINGS
10. it’s stupid to read books about zombies
What the fuck is happening.
11. also vampires
Okay. Now you are just straight up trolling us. Because you just said—right?—that
12. also the hunger games
13. don’t read the hunger games because those books are stupid
It’s fine if you didn’t like The Hunger Games! But you don’t have to
14. have i read the hunger games? no
ORSON SCOTT CARD YOU ARE EVERY YOUTUBE COMMENTER
15. the end
Look: God knows it’s trendy to pile on Orson right now. But I really couldn’t stop thinking about the mocking-song part of the speech, afterwards. Could that possibly have worked?, I thought. It’s Calc I, and Tia Green or Dave Kowalski has just come back from the bathroom, and then some kid gets to his feet and sings a mean song about them (sings! It’s not just a poem! It’s got a melody and everything)—is there any universe in which that kid does so because he’s the most popular kid in school?
That’s why this speech broke my heart. It was so contentedly unself-aware. It was such a specifically teenage depiction, of this kind of sad delusion about what power is and how to get it. It was a portrait of a bully who thinks he’s doing an incredible job, and isn’t.
And so I’m not going to see the movie, or reread the book. But not out of principle. It’s just that I have an Ender Wiggin in my head, and I love that kid, and I don’t want him to change. I don’t want to have to start thinking about him singing mocking songs at people. And that’s why keynotes are hard. Not just for the one on stage.