Monday, July 11, 2005

L.A. Times obtuse, half-baked, thickheaded

The last few days, I've been particularly heavy on links and light on original thought, but I'd run dry on commentary until today. Read this L.A. Times op-ed by Joel Klein, titled eloquently Hogwarts fans, you're stupid, stupid, stupid.

As Stein does, let's tackle the obvious first, although, unlike his article, I will attempt to progress beyond it. He uses his finely-honed taste to judge the first 50 pages of the first Harry Potter book as witty, imaginative, and fast-paced. Many of us modern readers find that combination rarer than we'd like, but Stein implies you're a moron if you continue reading or detect more than the plot maneuverings of a kiddie story. Though fairies as such don't play a role in the Potter books (as yet), when Stein dismisses them as fairy tales, I think I know what silliness he's attempting in his fumbling way to communicate.

Of course, such a broad category of fairy tales would naturally include some of our earliest literature, stories rife with ethical dilemmas, with heroes and magic and monsters, stories like Beowulf and the Iliad. However, most thinking folk don't consider these merely ripping adventure yarns for antiquity's children. These tales, which might have survived due to their popularity in their own times, serve as anthropological documents. Just like modern fairy tales, they provide explanations of the living conditions, value systems, and culture of their eras, as well as being our best record of certain historical events. They examine themes of loyalty, love, sacrifice, the cruelties of politics and tragedies of the human condition. Children and adults would have heard the legendary stories of their civilizations repeated, teaching them their pasts, giving them a safe introduction to hard truths, and demonstrating their society's preferred qualities and response to adversity. In more contemporary analogs, the stories of the Brothers Grimm are quite dark. Acts of sadism and trickery are common, and though cleverness and bravery are celebrated, they don't always triumph. Grimm tales don't encourage children or anyone else to trust things at face value, and with their impoverished orphans and frail, crippled creatures, they provide the comfort of companionship to those suffering painful lives.

But fairy tales aren't worth reading, Stein says, because they "simplify the world down to good and evil." Has he read what he's condemning? To be accurate, he specifically condemns the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and E.B. White, other authors in which deluded readers and scholars detect thematic subtleties beyond the mere he-said-she-said of plot schema. With such incisiveness, Stein may yet believe Orwell's Animal Farm to be a happy-time tale about the countryside.

Ah well, if we must eliminate discussing layered content since Stein can't perceive it, could he have instead discussed the books' popularity itself in an interesting, coherent way? He might have examined J.K Rowling by examining the similar sensation of Hans Christian Andersen in his day. What about L. Frank Baum or J.M. Barrie? What were the respectable adults saying when those authors' works first crossed age barriers to find such huge and devoted audiences? Besides recent attention to Barrie vis-a-vis Neverland, there are new biographies of Andersen that could've provided historical viewpoints of what made his work, and by comparison Rowlings', so universally compelling. Though, to be fair, I can't suppose a man who solely uses his grandmothers for quotes would be expected to have background or facts at hand.
Stein does deprecate his vocabulary and his own negligible bibliophilia before berating the LAT's readers that they ought to choose to read things with more complexity, and henceforth, to omit reading his columns we must infer. But my strongest intent is not to defend the Potter series, which doesn't need it, or to defend the aesthetics of visual art in modern animation which are inarguably groundbreaking and breathtaking. Mostly, I want to point out how clearly this piece demonstrates the L.A. Times' descent into fishwrapping irrelevance.

Joel Stein's article is a lousy bit of writing and a worse piece of journalism. His goal may have been to goad the public to reaction by attacking its beloved, especially in the heart of entertainment land, where Harry Potter and friends have been a boon to parents and media companies alike. But I had assumed something more discerning than calling them stupid, stupid, stupid would've been required for publication. And while I am reading and focusing on Stein and his employers today, I probably won't again. And not because I disagree with what I can locate as a premise in this scattered, inarticulate op-ed. But because it's puerile, both badly written and worse conceived. I, like every other reader, deserve better.

When the L.A. Times experimented with Wiki-style contributions to their editorials, in two days they'd shut down the thing due to porno spam. Well, hell- anyone with an e-mail address could have seen that one coming. People actually expect more from a paper than a careless pass-through for morons, thus my objection to Stein. Would it have been so hard to set up a language filter for mass deletions and to station an editorial assistant, even an unpaid college intern, to screen the rest before accepting for post? Sure, you'd have to dedicate a whole person to your interaction with your reading public. Sure, you'd probably have to highlight some of the best and most representative posts to encourage lively contribution. Sure, you'd actually have to hold up your side of the conversation by investing in it with human capital not just opening a message board under your domain name. But why should you bother to listen besides telling, in a decreasingly cogent manner, might I add? Why should you bother to hire intellectually engaged journalists who write pieces substantive enough to deserve discussion and who are unafraid to respond to questions and critique? Why should you indeed? After all, people are always going to read the LAT anyway?...Right?

1 comment:

Chad Picou said...

Mmm... so what?