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May 15, 2012

‘Game of Thrones’: George R.R. Martin fights the genre wars

Posted in: Books

Nickolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in “Game of Thrones.” (Helen Sloan / HBO)

The just-published book “Beyond the Wall” is a collection of essays regarding George R.R. Martin and his work. Below is one of the selections: Los Angeles author and essayist Ned Vizzini’s piece on the disdain and disinterest traditionally facing fantasy works that look for a spot on the bookshelf of respected literature.   

When I set out to get blurbs for a young adult novel with fantasy elements that I sold in 2010, the person I wanted to beg most was George R.R. Martin. While reading up on roleplaying games’ influence on American culture, I discovered his work through Dreamsongs: Volume II, which, if you’re already chafing for The Winds of Winter, documents Martin’s creative ventures in Los Angeles with Tyrion-esque cynicism. In Dreamsongs I found that in 1983 Martin started playing the Call of Cthulhu and Superworld games so much that he stopped writing for a year and nearly went broke. As he explained in an introduction to the Wild Cards novels that resulted from his obsession: “[My wife] Parris used to listen at my office door, hoping to hear the clicking of my keyboard from within, only to shudder at the ominous rattle of dice.”

This was the first time I’d read about a writer having a fantasy gaming problem, as opposed to, say, a drug or alcohol problem. Since I’d recently weathered my own ten-year addiction to Magic: The Gathering, I saw a kindred spirit in Martin, someone who might understand me—and dig my book. My publisher approved of my blurb quest, as Martin is a phenomenal success, with more than 8.5 million books sold in the Song of Ice and Fire series according to USA Today. But those sales are supported by a surprising development for an author steeped in roleplaying games and genre fiction — canonical critical acclaim. Time Magazine gave Martin the ultimate blurb in 2005: “the American Tolkien.”

But when did that become a distinction? Tolkien has been part of our culture for so long that it’s easy to forget that “The Lord of the Rings” was derided as escapist—and worse, foreign—when it first appeared here. You can get a sense of just how harsh the criticisms were in Michael Saler’s excellent 2012 critical overview of fantasy, “As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality”: “Certain people—especially, perhaps, in Britain—have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash,” declared Edmund Wilson in 1956. “What apparently gets kids square in their post-adolescent sensibilities is not the scholarly top-dressing but the undemanding, comfortable, child-sized story underneath,” chided Life.

This argument—that fantasy is simple, formulaic, and for children—has kept it in a genre ghetto since its inception as a modern literary form in the nineteenth century. Although it has been creeping into academia for years, and Martin has accelerated its move toward acceptance by serious circles like the New York Times Book Review, it is still dismissed by many critics as by-the-numbers hackwork created to serve a market: nerds like me, Martin, and, let’s face it, you. Fantasy’s story, from formulation through critical dismissal to massive popular success and overdue academic assessment, is part of an ongoing intellectual conflict as grueling as the War of the Ninepenny Kings—the genre wars—that is only now approaching detente.

More than anything, “genre” is a marketing term. It’s meant to help booksellers shelve product, and thus it doesn’t have much relevance prior to the ascendance of the book as a mass-market product in England in the mid-1800s, where reduced printing costs led to an explosion of garishly illustrated “penny dreadfuls.” These serialized entertainments, marketed as literature to lower- and middle-class readers, forced critics to draw the first line in the genre wars: between “literary” and “popular” fiction.

It was clear to academics that the work of, say, George W.M. Reynolds (who never used the word “face” when “countenance” would suffice, and avoided “said” in favor of “ejaculated”) was not literature. It had to be something else, and “crap” seemed impolite. The problem was, people loved it: in ten years, according to The Victorian Web, Reynolds moved over a million copies of The Mysteries of London and its sequel The Mysteries of the Court of London, which would make them bestsellers even today. “Popular” fiction seemed a safe place to sequester his output from serious work.

Yet even when separated from literature, popular fiction was seen as a threat. Henry James warned against it in his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” aiming squarely at Robert Louis Stevenson, who had just written the well-liked adventure tale Treasure Island. For James, “a novelist writes out of and about ‘all experience’ and aims to represent nothing less than ‘life’ itself in all its complexities,” says Ken Gelder in his 2004 survey Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. In contrast, “Treasure Island [. . .] is nothing more than a fantasy.”

Stevenson responded in an essay of his own, “speaking up precisely for those qualities found in ‘the novel of adventure’ that Henry James had so disdained: a plot or a ‘story’, as well as ‘danger’, ‘passion’ and ‘intrigue’.” Hidden in this defense lies the problem that still hampers fantasy fiction today: “danger” and “intrigue” are one thing, and they’re both in heroic supply in A Song of Ice and Fire, but what makes a bookseller shelve a novel under “fantasy” is often that it stars a farm boy who doesn’t realize he’s a prince; or a farm boy who has to face a series of challenges having to do with earth, fire, water, and air. The persistence of cliché in fantasy allows critics in the Jamesian tradition to continue to dismiss it as writing for children, whereas Stevenson and his contemporaries preferred to think of themselves as pioneers of the imagination.

Imagination was a dangerous force in nineteenth-century Europe. Polite people were not supposed to imagine too much, lest they suffer like two causalities of earlier skirmishes in the genre wars: Madame Bovary, who read too many romance novels, or Don Quixote, who read too many knight’s tales. Real literature was supposed to be set in the real world, where real-world people navigated real-world problems. As Rousseau argued in 1762: “The real world has its limits, the imaginary world is infinite. Unable to enlarge the one, let us restrict the other.”

But imagination did have its place among the masses, in folklore, satire, and children’s literature such as Alice in Wonderland (1865). In the guise of juvenile fiction, fantastical tales were acceptable even for upper-class readers, some of whom, like Stevenson, grew up to be authors who couldn’t constrain themselves to the realist mode sanctioned by the Enlightenment. They produced books at the turn of the twentieth century that embraced impossibility but were grounded in reality. Jules Verne called them “Les Voyages Extraordinaires”; H.G. Wells called them “scientific romance,” and that term works for me: it spells out the books’ necessary characteristics of fantastic premises and empirical prose.

“The Gods of Pegāna” by Lord Dunsany, “King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard and “With the Night Mail” by Rudyard Kipling.

In part, scientific romance—which included “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885) by H. Rider Haggard, “The Gods of Pegāna” (1905) by Lord Dunsany, and “With the Night Mail” (1909) by Rudyard Kipling—was a response to the antiseptic climate ushered in by the modern era. At the end of the nineteenth century, science was honing in on the most basic explanations of the natural world. (Or so we thought; nobody ever expected us to need CERN.) People had a chance to completely separate themselves from spiritual meaning—to abandon their souls in favor of cold, hard intellect—and the departure of magic from everyday life left a void. Scientific romance strove to fill that void while remaining true to the secularism that the modern world demanded. That meant presenting stories as if they were non-fiction, complete with glossaries, footnotes, and that essential component of today’s fantasy novel: the map. By buffeting their imaginative texts with ancillary paratexts, these authors anticipated the contemporary fantasy writer’s task of world-building: going behind the scenes to create a coherent world that readers could make their own.

This new movement demanded critical attention. For one thing, scientific romance writers outstripped George W.M. Reynolds and the penny-dreadful crowd in sheer skill. Wells, Verne, and Kipling weren’t hacks; they were gifted if workmanlike storytellers who exhibited a legitimate, cohesive response to the modern era. Their books also became beloved around the world, even by children who would later become intellectuals. As Jean-Paul Sartre says of Verne: “When I opened [his books], I forgot about everything. Was that reading? No, but it was death by ecstasy.” If you’ve lost weeks to A Song of Ice and Fire, you know what he’s talking about.

Yet the success of scientific romance did not sway critics, who accused it of being juvenile, having undeveloped characters, and not engaging the problems of the real world. Luckily for them, they soon had a more specific ghetto to place it in: “science fiction & fantasy.”

Emilia Clarke in “Game of Thrones.” (HBO)

This dual category, since formally split by critic Darko Suvin but still found in many bookstores with that dragon-like ampersand, was established in America in the early twentieth century through the pulp magazines. Like genre itself, the pulps were a marketing construct created, according to Richard Mathews’s Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, to compete with popular-fiction dime novels. Through them, several major forerunners of George R.R. Martin first saw print, and within their pages many clichés were established that still dog fantasy: swords and sorcery, swords and sandals, and evil, sexy sorceresses. H.P. Lovecraft, who used the format to create a world of alien gods, felt that traditional fantasy stories were useless—as does Tyrion Lannister in A Dance with Dragons: “Talking dragons, dragons hoarding gold and gems [. . .] nonsense, all of it.” Lovecraft in particular went through great pains to create empirical backdrops for his tales, including the Necronomicon, an invented book of dark magic that has since been published in several versions. Unfortunately he had little success in his lifetime—and in death Edmund Wilson dismissed his oeuvre as “a boy’s game.”

Yet outside the realm of literary criticism, pulp readers were treating “science fiction & fantasy” as more than a game. They were discussing it extensively and building the groundwork for what we now call “fandom.” Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories, did the movement an immense service by publishing the addresses of those who sent in letters, enabling readers to contact one another directly to discuss the work. By the middle of the twentieth century, genre outsold literary fiction by something like nine to one . . . yet it continued to founder in the critical establishment, which had doubled down on its commitment to real-world settings. Serious literature was “defined by most critics as narrative realism and admitted nothing that was non-realistic,” according to Ken Keegan in 2006’s ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction; nowhere in the vast stylistic void between Joyce and Hemingway was there room for a dragon or a flying god.

(Marvel Comics)

With the position of the establishment essentially unchanged for a century, genre readers couldn’t wait for academics to lend structure and insight to their obsessions. They formed a para-academic environment of bookshops, fanzines, and “Letters” pages in the pulps—and, later, comic books—to analyze the work in the context of its ever-lengthening history. One active participant in this culture was George R.R. Martin, whose fan letters mark his first appearances in print. In 1965’s Avengers #12, he praises “the fast-paced action, solid characterization, and that terrific ending,” some of the same characteristics Stevenson brought up in his defense of “the novel of adventure.” Thus the champions of fantasy moved from responding to Henry James to writing letters to Stan Lee — even after the cultural supernova of “The Lord of the Rings.” Things weren’t looking good for fantasy in the genre wars.

Enter “A Game of Thrones,” published as a genre title in 1996 to suspected commercial super-success. With Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga a hot commodity, publishers entered a fierce bidding war for what was then conceived as the Song of Fire and Ice trilogy. Subsequent sales have overshadowed the fact that Thrones was not an immediate hit, but rather a slow burn, encouraged by independent booksellers, reviewers, and a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. In retrospect it’s easy to see why: Martin grew up in a world where fantasy’s rules were well established, but he had the courage to break those rules in ways that challenged critics—and readers.

The continuum of genre writers from the scientific romance to today established tropes for fantasy that are less obvious and more insidious than the wizard in the black hat or the gruff dwarf. One, identified in John H. Timmerman’s Other Worlds: the Fantasy Genre (1983), is “commonness of character.” The heroes of Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series (1968–2001) are everyday people—or everyday rabbits—saddled with the problems of “country folk.” Bilbo and Frodo are hobbits, not hobbit kings.

Sean Astin plays Sam, left, and Elijah Wood plays Frodo, two Hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Martin Freeman is playing Bilbo Baggins in this year’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line)

Martin subverts this, returning instead to a pre-fantasy paradigm. The fourteen major point-of-view characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are not farmers or goatherds; they are men and women of noble birth worried about preserving their station and, in most cases, ruling the world. They have less to do with Le Guin’s young wizard Ged than the scheming protagonists of Trollope or Thackeray. And in this way they go against a trend of fiction—genre and literary—that has been gaining steam since the Renaissance. Mythic literature concerned kings and demigods, Enlightenment literature focused on nobles, and modern literature brought stories to the street. Martin transports us back to the halls of power, and that’s why A Song of Ice and Fire often feels less like a fantasy saga and more like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

Martin has been praised on Flavorwire by Lev Grossman, fantasy author and fashioner of the “American Tolkien” blurb, for shattering Middle-earth’s Manichaeism and replacing it with high-stakes political intrigue. But underlying this is the author’s refusal to make his characters naive—another common fantasy trope. “[N]aïveté in fantasy is always a good thing which suggests that the character has retained a willingness to wonder,” writes Timmerman. “[T]he pragmatists, the despoiled, the hard-bitten and cynical are often the villains of fantasy.”

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” stars Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. (Helen Sloan / HBO)

This is furthest from the truth in A Song of Ice and Fire. Pragmatists are the only survivors of the treachery of Westeros and Essos. The capacity for wonder that enables the childlike protagonists of traditional fantasy to enter another world or to make the best of it is a detriment here. The characters who stay alive are the despoiled—and thus, within Martin’s return to high-born Romanticism, we find antiheroes birthed from modern cynics. “[A] hero was too lofty to be utterly defiled, and so he might defile himself,” claims the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). More than Frodo or the Pevensie children or even Lovecraft’s tormented New Englanders, Tyrion Lannister resembles this modernist icon: what does he spend time on other than defiling himself?

Even the idea of a hero is up for grabs in Martin’s work. Fantasy has long been dominated, as has all genre fiction, by the mythic protagonist identified in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces: the one who leaves home, sacrifices himself for the good of his people, and is reborn to live happily ever after. This figure has become especially boring in film. He is a kid or a cop or a spy, common enough to earn empathy but superhuman enough to avoid the arcs of bullets that kill his companions. We know he’s going to win; we just don’t know how. That’s why Ned Stark’s death had such a resonance with the readers of A Game of Thrones and the viewers of HBO’s retelling. For once, the hero actually bit it—after showing that he was a brave and principled family man against the backdrop of schemers at King’s Landing. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as well as Martin, who served as executive producer, deserve special credit here for ensuring that Ned Stark was the marketing focus of Game of Thrones. The poster was Sean Bean on the Iron Throne! Having the guts to chop his head off in episode nine sent a lurch through TV viewers that was comparable to the gasp that greeted Janet Leigh’s demise in Psycho . . . and that stands as the greatest pop-culture moment of our developing decade.

– Ned Vizzini

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