Fahrenheit 451: A Review
I’ve been amping up my reading of late, mostly catching up on sci-fi classics that I’ve missed or forgotten, and I’ve been posting reviews over on GoodReads. I wasn’t planning to even write a review for Fahrenheit 451 because it’s such a tiny, well-known, much-read book that I didn’t think there was much to say. And then I got to Bradbury’s notes at the end, and, well, I wrote this:
Spoilers! But come on. You’ve probably already read it.
I doubt I have much to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by a thousand high school freshmen. I liked it when I was that age but had mostly forgotten the details, so I picked it up again. It’s a very short read and entertaining; Bradbury’s language is florid, which I like. My main criticism was in the treatment of the fire chief, Beatty – he is obviously well-read and intelligent, but there’s no exploration on why he burns books…
…until the afterword (in my edition at least, which is a 1982 paperback), in which Bradbury discusses a play he wrote that had Beatty taking Montag to his home and showing him a library full of books that he has never read. He then tells Montag that he turned from books the way a stereotypical atheist turns from a god: a hard life for which books offered no reprieve. Eh. OK.
I was happy to give Bradbury a pass on his treatment of women as it isn’t egregiously bad compared to the rest of sci-fi/fantasy of this era written by fairly clueless men. It’s a man’s story told about men. The antagonists (save Beatty) of all genders are stupid, but their stupidity falls neatly along gender lines, with stupid men being violent, predatory animals and stupid women being vapid, screeching harlots. All the “good guys” are men save Clarisse, who has a few precious pages in which to kick everything off before she is killed off-stage without explanation. Bradbury implies in his afterword that he would, 30 years on, have preferred to keep her alive to show up at the end, which I appreciated. I figured time had possibly given him a bit more perspective on the use of a good character who happens to be a woman.
And then came the coda, the after-afterword, in which Bradbury comes across as a whining baby who confuses his right to write what he’d like with a right to keep others from criticizing what he writes or even helpfully making suggestions. In the novel, it was minorities who started all the problems by demanding that no writing ever offend them. I found that forgivable as I assumed that in his universe there were several “minorities” like the Religious Right – a minority in numbers but not in power.
The coda dispelled that notion for me, as Bradbury sobs over the horror of receiving a letter from a woman who liked the Martian Chronicles but would love to see more women in it, and from black people concerned about the treatment of blacks in the same book. “There’s more than one way to burn a book,” Bradbury cries.
If as he says those people had actually suggested he rewrite his books, I can certainly understand the impulse to say “That’s absurd.” But what’s truly absurd is to completely ignore the problematic portrayal of marginalized people in his past work and further to imply that pointing out those problematic portrayals amounts to censorship in any way, shape, or form. He also complains about an editor wanting to republish one of his short stories with two religious phrases deleted. He told them no and presumably that was that.
He finally tells the tragic tale of how he sent off a play to a university theater in the hopes it would be performed. The University responded to say that it had no female characters in it and that the “ERA ladies” would be furious if it was staged. Bradbury responded by half-sarcastically suggesting that they should perform his play followed by a production of “The Women.” It apparently escaped his notice that a play with an all-female cast was so remarkable that they had to title the play “THE WOMEN,” and that the screeching harpies of the ERA had probably seen enough all-male plays to fill a lifetime. Plus the fact that maybe the University just plain wasn’t interested in his Moby Dick-inspired play about “a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer.” I’m not saying that play was definitely terrible, I’m just saying it sounds terrible and I wouldn’t blame the University one bit for letting him down gently.
Anyway, it’s at that point I realized if Ray Bradbury were alive today, he’d be a Redditor.