Portland author Blake Nelson is facing a backlash over his new book.
For longtime followers of the local literary scene, that might come as a surprise. Nelson made his name writing young adult novels, and won praise for his realistic depictions of teenage angst. Several of his novels were turned into movies and TV series, most notably Paranoid Park, which was adapted by Gus Van Sant in 2007.
But his latest book, The Red Pill, represents a shift in both genre and content.
The title is a reference to the online anti-feminist movement which divides men into "alpha" and "beta" males and has political associations with the alt-right. The plot spans the year prior to Trump's election through his first year in office, and centers around a "divorced, liberal-minded" man who begins taking dating advice from his Trump-supporting brother-in-law, and gradually gets drawn further into right-wing ideology.
"Can he still find love in the midst of #metoo and #resistance?" reads the tagline.
At a glance, the premise could read as the setup for satire. But his reading last night at Powell's on Hawthorne was met with sincere protest.
While Nelson read to about a dozen people inside the store, a small group—including some of the bookstore's employees—gathered outside near the entrance, handing out flyers describing the "red pill dating strategy" as "misogynistic" and accusing Nelson of being "openly racist, homophobic and transphobic" on social media.
Brianna Bonham, a Powell's employee who organized the protest, says the book reads as an espousal of the "red pill" philosophy.
"If a person is going to be using a name such as 'the red pill,' which is known for hateful rhetoric, and has recorded themselves saying they are part of the red pill movement," Bonham said, "that's enough to align them with a hateful movement that varies from just disrespecting women to rape. That's a dangerous ideology to support."
Nelson says his goal with The Red Pill was to show multiple sides of the current socio-political debate by exploring extremist rhetoric on both left and right—but he also believes the conservative viewpoint is portrayed unfairly in the media. And though self-described as "apolitical" in the past, Nelson now considers his position to be aligned with the main character in the book.
"There's this idea of two millennial extremes, but you really only see the left side of it [accurately portrayed]," Nelson told WW. "When you see the right, the opposite version, it's a weird mainstream-media version."
Nelson admits that compared to previous projects, he's had a hard time promoting what he describes as "one of [his] better books," so he began reaching out to fringe groups for potential support. (The book's publisher, Bombardier Books, is described on its website as largely focusing on "conservative political nonfiction works.")
"I couldn't get any publicity for it in any of the usual channels. I thought it would be a little controversial," Nelson says. "I found things—right-wing small outlets—and contacted them."
In April, Nelson appeared on cable access show Free Speech Northwest, which has previously hosted Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson. During the interview, Nelson discusses his own "red-pilling," rejects the idea that Donald Trump is racist, questions the believability of movies where "some girl beats up 50 guys" and says that "the right is where people are thinking in interesting ways."
Bonham said she made her concerns about Nelson's reading known to Powell's management, including owner Emily Powell. A spokesperson for the store declined WW's request for comment.
Bonham said the protest wasn't designed to censor Nelson or get the event cancelled, but only to inform the audience—which might know of Nelson from his previous work—of what they were about to hear.
"Powell's has merchandise that says: 'Read, Rise Resist,'" Bonham said. "It's basically that same ideology. I'm reading, I'm rising and I'm resisting."