Joel Stein is a moron

Today's previously scheduled post about a particularly annoying alternative medicine huckster whose infomercials finally got on my nerves too much has been preempted by a brief rant about one man's stupidity (and the fact that I didn't finish the original post in time to post it today). We will return to our regularly scheduled posts on medicine, science, and skepticism tomorrow.

In the meantime, via Stupid Evil Bastard, I was directed to this op-ed by Joel Stein. Apparently Mr. Stein thinks that adults who enjoy the Harry Potter novels are, as he so quaintly puts it in the title of his op-ed, "stupid, stupid, stupid":
I read 50 pages of the first "Harry Potter" book, and it seemed witty, imaginative and fast-paced. It also seemed like it was for children. It's about wizards and magic cats and evil stepparents, and has a reading-level that is only slightly above this column.
So what if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was aimed primarily at children? You know what one of the hardest things to write in literature is? A good children's story that entertains adults as much as it does children. (It's the same with movies, too; films that appeal to children and can entertain the parents as well are rare commodities because they're so hard to do well.) No less a literary figure than J.R.R. Tolkien did it with The Hobbit, which served as the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. I'm not sure if Mr. Stein was dissing just The Hobbit or all of Tolkien's work when he asked of Tolkien, E. B. White, and C. S. Lewis: "Isn't it a clue that you should be ashamed of reading these books past puberty when the adults who write them are hiding their first names?" However, I do wonder if he would say the same thing about E. L. Doctorow? In any case, the very statement shows the utter depths of his idiocy and vacuousness, particulary since he dismisses the Harry Potter in essence only because it was intended as a children's book and in spite of his recognition that it is "witty, imaginative, and fast-paced"! Gee, wouldn't a book that is "witty, imaginative, and fast-paced" be entertaining to read? And why does the fact that it's "about wizards and magic cats and evil stepparents" automatically make it only for children? Did it ever occur to Mr. Stein that perhaps the imagination and wit of J. K. Rowling's writing might--just might--possibly be one reason why her books turned out to be so popular among adults as well as children?

Not satisified with displaying his arrogance and stupidity for all to see, Mr. Stein had to go on to bury himself deeper by trying to use the popularity of the Harry Potter books as an indictment of the entire Baby Boomer generation:
After a generation of boomers choosing to remain in a state of stunted adolescence — wearing jeans, smoking pot and cranking their BMW stereos to blast Eminem songs they clearly don't like — the next generation has opted for a stunted toddlerhood. Adults see "Finding Nemo" without bothering with the socially accepted ruse of dragging an unwilling 11-year-old nephew along. Grown men play video games and couples go to Disneyworld on their honeymoon, often for reasons other than having sex in Cinderella's castle with the dwarfs watching. You need a wad of Disney Dollars for that one, by the way, 50th anniversary or no 50th anniversary.
There may be many reasons to disparage the Baby Boom generation (and they've probably all been used at one time or another), but the popularity of the Harry Potter books is not among them. I wonder if Mr. Stein would also direct his bile at all those adults who've watched, for example, The Wizard of Oz almost every year when it's on TV for the last 40 or 50 years. I would also point out to him that it wasn't just children who enjoyed those serials from the 1930's-1950's, such as Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon movies, and that my grandmother used to love the old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies until she was well into her 80's.

Stein has also clearly not even checked out the later books. J. K. Rowling grew as a writer as the Harry Potter series progressed. The third book contained a clever plot device involving time travel. In addition, the fourth and fifth novels no longer read like children's books and contained multilayered plots more emotional resonance in which Harry has to learn how to deal with death, particularly the end of the fifth book.

If Mr. Stein were to make fun of me for enjoying the latest Harry Potter novel, I'd look him right in the eye, smile, and tell him I have an M.D., a Ph.D.; treat patients with cancer; and run a laboratory that studies tumor angiogenesis. Then I'd mention that reading this book is one of the things I enjoy in my limited spare time before inquiring of him what his level of education is and what great works of literature he's read lately for pleasure while preparing to appear on such erudite works as VH1's I Love the '80's (or I Love the '90's or I love whatever decade). What, Mr. Stein? You mean to tell me that you don't frequently read Herman Melville, Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy, or the like for pleasure in your spare time? I'm disappointed.

Finally, I'd turn my back on him and resume enjoying the novel.


  1. A discussion on the Usenet group more-or-less came to the conclusion that Stein wasn't being completely serious (Sirius?) when he wrote his article. It definitely has some characteristics of, shall we say, a modest proposal.

  2. I had considered that possibility, but, if he was being facetious, he did it so ineptly that he deserves the scorn I heaped on him anyway...

  3. I know this isn't Harry Potter-related, but at the start of your post you hint at an alt medicine post for tomorrow, and thought I would mention the latest news from the EU and the UK, which may interest you:,8363,1526891,00.html

  4. I always suspect that harsh criticism of any popular work is based primarily on envy.

  5. So pleased to learn that you're a Harry Potter fan.

    I knew there was a good reason I liked you ...

  6. And I'm always encouraging my adult friends to see such movies as Finding Nemo and Hercules. Didn't realize we were all so "stupid, stupid, stupid."

  7. my favorite part was when the Weasly brothers injected that sexy cylon with some thimerasol until she was poisoned to look like something between a Nazi and a picaninny... uh, what thread was this again?

  8. It's Joel Stein. The "funny guy" from Time. Yes, he's full of shit, but that's because he's always full of shit.

    Ever hear the one about a mounted knight attacking a cream puff? Harsh criticism of any popular work may be based primarily on envy, but your response sounds like you're maybe not fully comfortable with what society may think of you for reading the Potter books either.

    And yes, I've read and enjoyed the books myself.

  9. Ian, I never said I read Harry Potter books or any other books, popular or otherwise, for that matter. It happens that I do, and so do many of my friends, both adult and children. I am perfectly comfortable saying that and feel no need to defend myself or my taste in reading. I wonder why you feel the need to undermine my observation. Have you harshly criticized popular works?

  10. "Isn't it a clue that you should be ashamed of reading these books past puberty when the adults who write them are hiding their first names?"

    Yeah, that's why I had to finally quit reading A.S. Byatt (especially her pop-up books).

  11. Anyone who thinks fairy tales are simple or for children only simply hasn't read them. Or is too shallow to understand them.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Speaking of Clive Staples Lewis -- ohmigosh, I've blown his cover, there's his full name. But what do you think anyway of a guy with a dignified name like that, whose friends call him "Jack"? He adopted the nickname when he was about 6 years old -- talk about arrested development, JRRT and other people were still calling him Jack 50 years later!

    And how could that have happened without any baby boomers around?

    But speaking of C. S. Lewis: there was a man not embarrassed in the slightest by loving children's literature. He said that the stuff he read as a "boy", meaning, I think, pre-teen and teen, was crap (though he used a slightly different vocabulary); but what he read as a "child" was good, and he was glad to read it again once he'd outgrown adolescent attitudes.

    The idea was that growing up lets you appreciate more: things that children just don't get. If that means you have to give up everything that was good when you were a child, how much have you gained? It's as if (I believe this is the exact analogy he used) when you grow up you gain sex but have to give up chocolate.

    If that last bit doesn't sound much like a Christian moralist to you, perhaps you've been listening to the wrong moralists.

    BTW I haven't read H Potter, and I've read only a couple of the Narnia books. But The Silver Chair is a ripping yarn.

  14. ... which is not to say that there are not certain popular childrens' books which are not up to the highest standards of, say, Classic Comics. I once wondered how RL Stein could write so many books in his Goosebumps series. I read a few of them and said, "Oh, so that's how he does it." But you might also notice that, at least in the adult popular press, Goosebumps has pretty much disappeared as a topic of conversation, and I doubt the books will be read voraciously 100 years from now.

  15. I don't believe Mr. Stein was being completely serious when writing the article. But, you are correct in that it was poorly done. I am an adult who does watch children's movies, with and without my toddler. I read Harry Potter as well. I was really searching for something that would tip me off to his "Modest Proposal" leanings, and I couldn't really anything.

    As a subscriber to the LA Times, I have had the misfortune of being exposed to his writing on a weekly basis. The paper has been inundated with complaints as to why a writer like Stein is entitled to write in what is supposedly the op-ed section of the paper. Well, they got around that by renaming and reorganizing that particular section, claiming it is now more of a "cultural touchstone" type of editorial page. Whatever that means.

    But, longtime subcribers such as myself are trying to get this guy relegated to the entertainment section where he belongs, since they insist upon issuing him a paycheck.

  16. I also considered the possibility that he was being tongue-in-cheek, but I couldn't find any good indication that he was.

    I still can't figure out why Time Magazine occasionally publishes his drivel. He's a a "comedian" who isn't particularly funny most of the time.


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