Clichés are bad when they create ambiguity. Compare the following passages: “The fog rolled into downtown Portland.” “The fog snaked through the high-rises of downtown Portland.”
The first isn’t likely to evoke anything specific in the mind. Writers have used the cliché of a fog rolling to describe such a diversity of images that it can now only be imprecise. Words smuggle in a lot of assumptions. Authors who want to transfer a vision should arrange plot and prose to be a little bit alien.
This is why people over the age of 16 should consider “young adult fiction” bad. This class of literature, which would be more accurate to term “teen fiction” or “preteen fiction,” encompasses pop-culture juggernauts like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
The narrative is similar in such works. A teenager exists in a society full of mean and boring authority figures that deny his special nature. He goes on a journey of self-discovery to find that it’s actually his special snowflake-ness that ends up proving the adults wrong and saving the day.
It’s no accident that this sounds like the daydream of a child pouting through a time-out. Her parents instruct the child to think about what she’s done, but in her mind there are no questions; the world is unfair for no reason. What is good is what makes her comfortable and what is bad is what makes her feel upset.
To think this way is to be juvenile, something ten-year-olds cannot be faulted for. Neither can we fault the novels written with this audience in mind for being cartoons, archetypes stripped of any questions at all. Harry Potter is the good guy and Voldemort is the bad guy. Harry Potter wasn’t appreciated by his mean adoptive parents, but he showed them by becoming a magical hero. No amount of critical thinking can glean more than this.
It’s Idiotic to Compare Trump to Voldemort
But we can fault adults in their 20s and 30s for ordering the world in these terms. Harry Potter is not a meditation on moral philosophy or on anything relevant to the world as experienced by grown-ups, but a children’s novel about kids defeating evil with magic wands and friendship. Since Donald Trump won the election, we have had “Donald Trump is Voldemort, but us kids in Dumbledore’s army will stop him and his dementors!” declared incisive political commentary by the hundreds of thousands of adults who lended their retweets.
READ ANOTHER BOOK pic.twitter.com/SHcVKcTslG
— T. Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) January 31, 2017
— Will Urquhart (@Urquwill) November 15, 2016
After your nausea subsides, you might glimpse the adolescent moral philosophy of social justice warriors. Restrictions on immigration are enacted to be mean and make me feel unsafe. Diversity and inclusion are nice and make me feel comfy. People who don’t disagree are bad guys who exist to be the objects of violence from the good guys.
At the most superficial level, this is hard to contest. Why not be big-hearted? A great deal of the attendant propaganda has this shallowness as its substance, which has its drawbacks. The concepts have been red-shifted through propaganda so much that that it’s hard to separate them from elementary-school rules. Does anyone else remember you had to get a card or candy for every kid in the class or none at all? Even a third-grade me struggled to figure out what the point could be.
Escapism Doesn’t Map Perfectly Onto the Real World
It’s much easier to see through empty gestures by the time adulthood creeps around. Imagination is no longer the usual, and we sometimes have to mind-kill ourselves to no longer see things as they are. That’s what escapism is: closing your eyes until imagination crowds out reality for a few moments. Why not make it a juvenile flight of fancy?
Ideology often withers under scrutiny. Unquestioned wickedness and nobility, then, creates a favorable state of mind for the ideologue. Gender is fluid and magical, but biologists and their white male science are trying to keep us from going on journeys of self-discovery. This belief is as a priori as an emotional child’s belief that the world is “against” her. Social justice warriors believe the world is against the magic of gender expression for no good reason. Why would they even think to question the wickedness of their Saturday morning cartoon political opponents?
Even J.K. Rowling joined in the Potter politics farce on Twitter. Progressive media personality Piers Morgan failed to signal his hatred for Trump, so he had to be “skewered” with a Harry Potter reference.
.@piersmorgan If only you'd read Harry Potter, you'd know the downside of sucking up to the biggest bully in school is getting burned alive.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) February 11, 2017
We Don’t Like Thinking Because It’s Hard
Rowling may have an army of grown-up children to pile on her Twitter enemies, but she’s still a bad writer. Her prose is a few notches below Stephen King, who admits he is nothing special. Yale professor Harold Bloom, who is perhaps the most illustrious living literary critic, writes:
The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible. As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character ‘stretched his legs.’ I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times. I was incredulous. Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.
On the other end of the spectrum is Shakespeare. Such a wide swath of critics acclaim him, no matter how parochial their tastes, that it’s almost become cliché itself. The Bard broke so much ground that it necessitated creating dozens of new words. It’s not pretension if talent possessed matches talent signaled.
Maybe this is the biggest sin of the 20-years-too-old Harry Potter crowd. They smear authors—almost always white male—as pretentious and thus inferior to YA writers because they aren’t easy to digest. Anything beyond their ken is dismissed as occult masturbation. Is there anything more adolescent than someone refusing to learn because of his supposed lack of flaws? Any worthy endeavor of the mind demands scrutiny. Critical thinking is painful because it involves taking apart the things one holds dear. That’s the pain of being an adult.
But white males haven’t always had an apparent monopoly on great literature. Virginia Woolf and George Eliot wrote novels arguably unsurpassed to this day. Contemporary female authors, even ones much better than Rowling, don’t approach them. And it’s a shame that it’s so hard to name a great novel by a black writer that isn’t about race. The same identity politics monomania afflicting Potterites locks women and writers of color into restatements of race and gender.