I haven't been on the blog for a while, and don't necessarily intend to. Still, I comment on various blogs (mostly about writing genre-fiction), and one comment grew large enough I feel I have to link to it.
Cliches are, or at least can be, the backbone of excellent writing. The problem is when they aren't recognized as cliches, that is as potential problems.
Patrick Rothfuss recently wrote a book about (Warning: minor spoilers):
1) An orphan
2) Who goes on to be the greatest poet/fighter/wizard of all time
3) In a fantasy setting with a deep history, told in sparse, poetic, mythographic language
4) Who fights a dragon
5) Who has a mysterious love interest
6) Who goes to a wizard's school, where he is taught by an eccentric-to-the-point-of-insanity wizard
7) Who gets into the wizard school on scholarship, having been a poor beggar literally pages before
8) Who has a legendary instrument
His book was preceded by two pages of the best writers in the SF/fantasy field praising his originality, his merit, and the sheer wonder and goodness of his story. It is also full to the gills of cliches--the most obvious, post-Tolkien cliches of fantasy literature.
At the same time, there was another author, Joe Abercrombie. He wrote a trilogy in which (major spoilers hidden, highlight text to reveal):
1) One of the main characters is a crude, bitter, violent cripple and torturer
2) The nearly omnipotent wizard supporting the forces of civilization turns out to be both cynical and ruthless, happily killing thousands of innocent people for the greater good
3) The characters go on an epic quest for a magical item, which they fail
4) One of the most beloved characters dies horribly outside of battle (of cancer)
5) One of the most sympathetic characters tends to kill his friends
6) The young, idle, philandering prince stays a young, idle, philandering prince despite ruining the life and reputation of his one (lower-class) true love
7) The most honorable character in the trilogy gains a promotion as a result of a horrible breach of trust--rashly murdering his king.
8) The evil artifact of doom is not destroyed, but used to save civilization.
In short, the difference between the books is one of their use of cliches. Whenever Abercrombie finds himself about to voice a cliche of fantasy, he runs away, to the point where his quite-serious trilogy reads, in summary, like an inverted spoof of The Lord of the Rings. Whenever Rothfuss finds himself brushing against a cliche, he often embraces it. Conventional wisdom would say that Abercrombie would be the better author: more "serious," more "original," more engaging. Conventional wisdom is wrong on all accounts.
The reason is that Rothfuss has a better ear than Abercrombie for cliches, and plays on them as if they are a musical instrument--in a variety of keys, with unexpected syncopation, and with the slight differences of a master. Many of the "cliches" in Rothfuss's list are put into play in absolutely original ways (the dragon, for instance, is unlike any dragon I have read about), while others are played straight (does anyone doubt that the protagonist in a book called The Name of the Wind will learn, er, "the name of the wind," which no-one has known in a thousand years?) Rothfuss loves cliches, but he is not a slave to them--sometimes he serves them straight, sometimes slanted, sometimes he hints at a cliche before turning away from it entirely. But always he remembers something simple and obvious--most people started reading fantasy because they loved it and felt its cliches meant something, despite the cheesy sense of emptiness caused by excessive repetition.
Abercrombie, on the other hand, actually comes to seem the less original author by his rejection of cliches, and his books drop off in quality as he works his way to the inversion of the expected "heroic fantasy" climax. For moments (and strangely enough these moments often coincide with his unironic use of fantasy cliches) the human complexity of his characters place him at the top of his category. One is refreshed to see a party of diverse people where tensions are real, for instance, and to see them joined together by bonds and hatreds (however tenuous and uncomfortable) that feel infinitely more richer than those found in almost any other writing, in any field. But this is only true for stretches--as the story goes on, one gets the dominant impression not of human, suffering characters but of "hey, wouldn't it be cool if what happened was merely the opposite of what you expected?"
The problem with cliches, one begins to think, is just as strong if one tries to avoid them blindly as it is when one follows them blindly. Instead, perhaps they should simply be used.