by Leanne Phillips
Don’t Read the Comments is Eric Smith’s fifth young adult novel. Smith heavily integrates popular culture into his fiction, and this novel is no exception. The protagonist, Divya Sharma, is an eighteen-year old celebrity gamer known as “D1V” who supports herself and her mother through corporate sponsorships, free merchandise, and subscribers to her “Glitch” channel (a live game streaming platform). Divya’s current live-stream game of choice is Reclaim the Sun, a universe exploration game the likes of which does not yet exist outside of fiction, but which is vividly described by Smith and in such detail that my kids and grandkids are ready to pre-order it.
The book’s title derives from Divya’s admonition when her mother expresses her concern about the comments posted to Divya’s Glitch channel. “‘Don’t read the comments,’” Divya tells her mother, because as a “girl gamer,” Divya is exposed to trolls who threaten, harass, and objectify her and to commenters who sexualize her and tell her to wear less clothing. Divya’s mother is understandably concerned, but eighteen-year-old Divya thinks she has it under control.
Divya has the moral support of her best friend, Rebekah, who has a secret that makes her more comfortable working behind the scenes editing and uploading videos to D1V’s Glitch channel. Divya and Rebekah are “awesome gamers for girls” (not Smith’s words, the words of some of the more dense commenters). Divya also has the support of the “Angst Armada,” her fans and allies in Reclaim the Sun, so named because in their chats on Divya’s Glitch channel, they vent about school, breakups, and parents.
Enter the Vox Populi, a group of white male gamers who don’t think Divya has earned her place and set out to destroy D1V. Their harassment is initially confined to the game, but it gradually leaks into Divya’s real life, threatening her livelihood and sense of security. While the Vox Populi deny it, their escalating harassment focuses on gender and race. The gaming community’s comments about the Vox Populi’s all-out war against D1V and her Angst Armada run the gamut from supportive to victim blaming, with some saying she deserves what’s happening to her because she put herself out there. Notably, the “[v]ideo game companies stay silent” and reap the benefits of the free publicity.
Aaron, a seventeen-year-old gamer who dreams of a career writing video games, “meets” celebrity gamer D1V on an unclaimed planet in the Reclaim the Sun game when Divya is at her lowest point and trying to rebuild, not only in the game, but in real life. An interesting detail in the novel is that, although Divya’s family is poor, she has a first-class gaming rig and all the best accessories because of her corporate sponsorships. Aaron, though, has had to build his less-than-satisfactory “Frankensteined” gaming rig from parts he finds in the dumpsters at a nearby university, not because his family can’t afford one, but because his mother wants him to become a doctor and doesn’t support his gaming dreams. Divya and Aaron begin to form a friendship, but can Divya trust him? With the anonymity of the internet, Divya can’t be sure that Aaron isn’t one of the Vox Populi.
The tension in the novel mounts as D1V plans to make an appearance as the only woman on an upcoming Gamescon panel: “Harassment in Video Game Culture and Women: A Conversation.” Divya is being pressured by friends and family to cancel her appearance amidst increasingly scary internet threats that she doesn’t belong there. The plot turns on whether D1V will dare show her face at Gamescon, and if she does, how will she deal with the threats of the Vox Populi?
Rebekah is my favorite character in this novel. She’s the epitome of the best friend character, but unlike many one-dimensional best friends who are only there to act as a foil for the protagonist, Rebekah is her own woman with her own backstory. Despite her fears, she faces the world with hair dyed blood orange, a fierce sense of loyalty, and a sassy, take-no-guff demeanor. My favorite experience of the novel was watching Rebekah face her fears and come into her own. She could definitely carry her own story (hint: I’d buy a sequel).
Smith peoples his novel with diverse characters and successfully broaches topics outside his lane with knowledge, insight, and sensitivity, including sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence. You can tell Smith put the work in to try to get it right. I think an opportunity was missed, though, to give us more about the characters’ cultures and home lives. I imagine there are differences in the way the members of Divya’s Indian household or Aaron’s mixed Honduran and Pakistani family live from the way my white family lives. I would have liked to have seen some of these differences depicted.
Don’t Read the Comments is a good story with a compelling, contemporary plot that urges the reader forward. This is a novel with heart and intelligent things to say about some very real concerns in the gaming world, a world which is in some small or big way a part of the lives of most of us. The book is recommended for ages approximately 13-18, but I think readers of all ages will enjoy it. After reading the book myself, I bought four copies as gifts for “kids” in my life, ages 12 through 43, who I thought would enjoy it. I liked the book immensely and appreciated the shoutout to Firefly. (Watch for it.)
Leanne Phillips is a writer based on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at leannephillips.com.