At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, was asked the question: Why doesn’t he include gay male sex scenes? His answer is problematic in several ways.
The third person limited point of view style that Martin favors does limit the available scenes he can write. Especially when all of those main point of view characters are straight. Or largely straight in the cases of Dany and Cersie.
But why are there no male point of view characters that engage in same sex activity?
Martin claims that, “If the plot lends itself to that, if one of my viewpoint characters is in a situation, then I’m not going to shy away from it, but you can’t just insert things because everyone wants to see them.” This is where I have a problem with Martin’s answer. The inclusion of gay and bisexual characters, of characters of color, of women, or of what have you should not be determined by the needs of the plot. So often, this argument is made by readers, intentionally homophobic or not, to prevent gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered characters from appearing.
Is Jon Snow’s heterosexuality intrinsic to his character? To his story? What about Dany? Are her lesbian sex scenes essential to the narrative?
Do I think George R.R. Martin will include a gay male sex scene? Maybe if he creates a gay or bisexual male point of view character. But will he create such a character? I don’t know. He’s got two books left. I seriously doubt it.
Martin is right that, “it isn’t a democracy.” A Song of Ice and Fire is Martin’s baby. He is the absolute dictator. He is the god of that creation. Whether he wants to write a gay or bisexual male character’s point of view is up to him.
Honestly, I find Martin’s answer disingenuous. It gives, I think, false hope that Martin may create a gay or bisexual male character. He hasn’t yet. What makes anyone think that such a character/ scene will become “relevant” to the plot?
I sometimes write rants on this blog. These rants are often therapeutic. I feel a weight of annoyance lifts off me. But I also worry about my rants. Am I writing something stupid? Should I have taken more time to think about whatever I’m ranting about? Rants are a spur of the moment unleashing of pent up frustration and anger. Maybe there should be a lack of forethought? Whatever the answer, sometimes it might be wise to look back over a rant and revise the opinions expressed.
So let me do that with “A Rant of Hot and Cold” from almost two years ago.
My Issue with A Song of Ice and Fire
I am not exactly fond of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. My problem isn’t exactly that I don’t like Martin’s extensive usage of history as basis for his fantasy. I do, however, think his myriad influences are a little too obvious in the text. Especially The Wars of the Roses, the Norman Conquest, etc.
My problem with the series is that I find it to be bloated. And, honestly, dull. There are only two characters that I have any interest in: Dany and Bran.
Part of the problem is that I find the primary concern for the first half of the series to be unexciting. I don’t care who is sitting on the Iron Throne. That is not interesting. The Others/ White Walkers are interesting. Dany’s adventures are interesting. Bran’s adventures are interesting. The rest of it? A too long prologue to the main event which will, I fear, come off as too rushed to really have any sort of emotional impact.
I get that A Song of Ice and Fire’s major selling point is the historical roots. Most people love the fight for the Iron Throne. I understand that my view is likely to be in the minority of readers. And yes, I still haven’t gone back to the series. Nor have I read A Feast for Crows or A Dance with Dragons. I feel that maybe I should give the series a second chance. Or maybe I should just take the plunge and give A Game of Thrones a chance. (Now that I think of it, I wonder if Martin didn’t subconsciously structure the series to resemble a television series).
What is History’s Role in Fantasy? Historical Fiction, Too.
History has a role in fantasy as an inspiration. It also has a role in providing the author with tools to ground the narrative. No matter what type of fantasy one wants to write, doing research is essential. Even if most of it will never see print.
But the work should not become dependent on history. Fantasy is a literature of the imagination. Use it. Don’t just rehash the Wars of the Roses. Or, if one must, please don’t make it so blasted obvious. Unless, of course, the work is alternate history or historical fantasy. Then it is okay.
In my “Rant of Hot and Cold,” I stated several times that if I wanted history, I’d go and read a history text. Why say this when there are numerous examples of great historical fiction?
I’ve come the conclusion that history is, ultimately, a relative subject. There is no way for us to know exactly what happened. What we have are images, glimpses, texts, etc. that provide an idea of what history is. We, then, create a narrative based upon what fragments we have. But our historical narratives are as much about our present as our past.
Personally, I feel that historical fiction, or maybe just certain subgenres within the larger genre, are too obvious in the present reading the past. And exactly how authentic is the history here, anyway? ( Keep in mind, I have an academic bias when it comes to historical texts).
The Grim Dark Calling Itself Real
I’ve followed the crowd in allowing grim dark fantasy to apply “real” to its description. Is an unrelenting march of horrors any more “real” than an idyll in the Shire? Honestly, no.
What we have here is the changing fashion between pessimism and optimism. Neither side is any more real than the other. But by claiming “the real,” grim dark fantasy makes an argument for its worth.
Until the 1990s, fantasy had the reputation, whether earned or not, of being for kids. And as we all know, kid stuff is full of sweetness and light.
Grim dark fantasy, then, is a reaction against idyllic forms of fantasy. But, perhaps, the grim dark has gone too far. Maybe it is time for a moderate tone to be struck.
What did I mean when I value myth over real?
To me, myth pushes fantasy to strive beyond itself and reach for greatness. Entertainment for its own sake is great and undervalued. But who doesn’t want to reach for the stars?
Wrapping This Post Up
Well, this post is getting bloated, so I’ll wrap this up.
I hope this revision to “A Rant of Hot and Cold” gives a better explanation of my position towards A Song of Ice and Fire, history’s role in fantasy, and the purported “realism” of grim dark fantasy.
I don’t like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I remember fully reading A Game of Thrones and being impressed that it wasn’t the usual dreck that I read. Which consisted mostly of the old Tor Conan pastiches. This was ten years ago. Then, about 2o03, I picked up A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. I skimmed those two novels. And I was not impressed. Now, almost a decade later, I have no desire to go back and give them another look. Why?
My problem with ASoIaF is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. At first, the historic-political elements of the novels are balanced by the high/ epic fantasy elements. But as the series gains in popularity and the series has to be approaching its conclusion (if there are still to be seven novels), the stronger fantasy elements seem to be thrust into the back seat. And the game for that damned Iron Throne takes center stage. (As an aside, I also think the series is too bloated).
The series, when advertised for the HBO adaptation, is described as The Sopranos meets The Lord of the Rings. Am I the only one who goes ugh? Am I the only one who really does not want this kind of fantasy?
I think I shall start calling the school of fantasy that has developed around Martin the historicist school of fantasy. Or just historicist fantasy. Now what is this new genre? Well, it is a constructed world fantasy that utilizes history as inspiration and the basis for world building. It is separate from historical fantasy in that it does not take place on Earth.
And I really don’t like this type of fantasy. If I wanted to read fantastical visions of history, I’d read historical fantasy. Or I would actually read a history book. Which would be more entertaining.
What I want is fantasy not history. I want myth not realism. Often, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief is brought up in critical discussions of fantasy. Maybe I just have an easier time of accepting the world building, but I could give a crap if a writer inserts bales of hay or gets the weaponry wrong or neglects religion. I don’t care. Is the story good? Can I see it in my mind’s eye?
This brings me to the grimdark fantasy. I’m honestly not very interested in them, either. I did enjoy reading Morgan’s The Steel Remains and liked Polansky’s Low Town far more than I thought I would. But Bakker, Abercrombie, etc.? No, thank you.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of darkness in what I read. But, I like that darkness mixed with almost an equal measure of light. I want joy with sadness; I want hope with despair. I don’t want a continual parade of despair and horror.
I guess what I’m yearning for is a rediscovery of the fantastic, of pushing the boundaries of the imagination out from what we have.
Will I ever write a historicist fantasy? Maybe. But if I do, I want to do it right. I want to write the type of story that I would enjoy.
Sometimes, I think I should just ignore these stupid and repetitive critical arguments that erupt in fantasy every few months. It’s stupid because nothing is ever solved, no progress made. And repetitive because these arguments, in one form or another, reemerge every couple of months. And why I jump in? I’m bored.
Anyway, this recent fracas comes about thanks to renewed arguments over authenticity and history. Daniel Abraham authored a post last week that explored whether or not fantasy needs to be historically authentic. And yesterday, Theo over at Black Gate authored a rebuttal arguing for an increased level of authenticity, the “Primacy of History,” if you will.
My own take is skeptical of the need for historical authenticity. History is always contested. Every generation rewrites history for its own reasons. So, what is meant by authenticity? Is it inspiration that matches the writer’s, or a specific reader’s, definition of what “authentic history” is? Is it a work that has an authenticity, historic or not, of its own? What is it?
Abraham’s argument takes to task certain reader’s (and writer’s) defense of works that have questionable and objectionable issues for a modern audience. That an inspiration is misogynistic does not give the writer a pass to write misogyny. That people of color may not have been in certain areas does not excuse whitewashing.
The reason, I think, why we are having this repeated debate is because of the market. With the success of A Song of Ice and Fire, there is a demand for “realistic,” “historical,” etc. fantasy. Basically, there is a subset of readership who only read ASOIAF because of its similarities to historical fiction. And these readers exert pressure to produce and market more works like ASOIAF.
Now, I get that this form of fantasy is a reaction to Tolkien and his imitators who have (and still do) dominate the genre. “Historic authenticity” plays, I think, a rallying point and bulwark for the gritty school of fantasy.
But, I think that Theo may be right. That so often “historical authenticity” is a way for some fantasy writers to get away with not exercising their imaginations to their fullest extent does not surprise me. Why create one’s own world when you can easily appropriate a historical culture, change the names, mutate some aspects of culture, and go to town?
Like Paul Cornell and Abraham have stated, what is added to a work: the characters, their personalities, the culture, etc. is the choice of the author. Using historical “authenticity” is an excuse. And not a very good one.
Personally, I don’t care about “historical authenticity.” If a writer wants to base his or her world on the Wars of the Roses, that’s great. If they want to spice it up by weakening religion or having warrior women running around, that’s great. If that author wants to merge feudal and modern Japan, that’s great, too (although Naruto has already done that). I personally don’t see any problems with women in armor, knights riding motorcycles, expies of Babylon and Hattusa connected by a train. In fact, I think that would be cool.
All I’m saying is that as long as the work is internally consistent, authentic to itself, and is excellently written, I don’t have a problem.
Who would win in a war between the United Federation of Planets and the Galactic Empire? How about Naruto versus Natsu? What about Suvudu’s homage to March Madness?
I’ve grown to detest these little thought games in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, Suvudu’s Cage Match was great fun in its first year, but it has gotten progressively less interesting with each year. And come on, could Jamie Lannister really beat Cthullu (or even Hermione Granger for that matter)?
Part of my problem is, to be honest, the fact that (as the Cage Match shows) the more popular character wins. Jaime Lannister did not go as far as he did because he could realistically beat any of the characters he faced. He won because he has more fans who voted for him than his opponents.
The root of the problem is, of course, the continual debate over which franchise is better: Star Wars or Star Trek? Often times, the debate degenerates into a question of technological superiority. Who would win a war between whatever factions (like the Federation against the Empire). At the end of the day, this all comes down to sputtering attempts to argue whose favorite Star Blank is better. How exactly perceived technological superiority is supposed to prove anything is beyond me, however.
Even scientists have gotten in on the act. Kaku, in drawing examples from popular culture for his Kardeshev illustration, uses the Federation for Type II and the Empire for Type III (and the Borg, too) civilizations. But is Kaku using the actual source of power or the size of the space polity?
At the end of the day, no matter my own personal level of annoyance, there has to be something valuable for those fans who enjoy participating in these thought games, these crossover wars. Perhaps it is a sense of victory when you, as a fan, can prove why the Empire will crush the Federation, why Ichigo could beat Yuuske, and why whichever character from A Song of Ice and Fire will make a deep run in Suvudu’s tournament this year (like every year).
Sometimes, if I brood on something for a while, I get a better handle on things. I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy, history, and reading lately. Obviously, it has been a somewhat regular feature of my blog (that and Bas Lag). So, I’ve been brooding, and I’ve come to an interesting and obvious conclusion. No matter what time a fantasy is set, it is always reflective about the concerns of the present.
We can all accept that most fantasy set on secondary worlds take place in historic periods relative to our own day. Typically, these worlds are highly inspired by the medieval period of Europe. My argument is that while interest in the roles of English queens may provide an intellectual inspiration, more often than not, the work is not really about an alternate version of Queen Isabella or Queen Margaret.
Take King Arthur. He performs different meanings for different times. For the early myths, he represents a national hero, a defender from invasion. For the Pearl Poet, he represents an idealized court. For Malory, he represents another form of the idealized court. For Bradley, his myth represents a religious conflict between nascent Christianity and the Old Faith. The story of Arthur is a reflection of the concerns of the writer’s present colored through the lens of a mythic past.
Howard’s Hyborian Age is another excellent example of writing with the present in mind. There is a strong concern about the decline of civilization, of degeneration, of a loss of vitality. These concerns play into an early twentieth century dealing with the effects of modernism and the Depression.
Even Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire can be seen in this light. I would like to know exactly how much of the series was planed from the start and how much of it developed in the writing. I’ve heard that Martin is a gardener when it comes to his writing, so it would be really interesting to see how the series developed. Part of my curiosity lies in whether or not Martin originally intended to focus most of the attention on the war for the Iron Throne or if it gradually supplanted the epic conflict with the Others as the main focus.
I suspect the fascination with A Song of Ice and Fire has something to do with concerns about our own political issues. That the political problem, instead of being shunted to an impediment, has become the main focus is one I think needs to be addressed.
China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels obviously belong in this discussion due to the highly political nature of the narratives. Each one, in one form or another, are highly suspicious of authority. The novels are also highly challenging to the notions of neoliberalism and globalization. And, I think, in Iron Council, Mieville questions the efficacy of protest, of fighting for change. Is it worth fighting for freedom, for political change if the protesters are getting their heads smashed in?
History, myth, etc. are inspiration in fantasy. But authors are writing with the concerns of the present in mind. Now, some of these concerns may be optimistic or pessimistic. Some writers may be playing intellectual games with their inspiration, but they still write with the present in the background.
The fantasy genre has been changing for some time now. New voices are entering the field bringing in new readers or supplying readers with protagonists little depicted in the past. Ambivalence and ambiguity have places of pride, and the former certainties of the past, of concrete good and absolute evil, are being challenged. In the end, some readers will find that the protagonists seem to resemble them a little more while others will feel at a loss without their sure hero.
I know, I know. I should have a post up on fantasy besides the medieval. But, I’m still not sure how I should approach it. Should I rattle off a list and give ideas or should I give one or two specific examples of non feudal fantasy? I should have it figured out by tomorrow or Saturday.
Anyway, on to a quick defense of George R.R. Martin. Over at Black Gate, Scott Taylor has a post up arguing that the perceived decline in quality of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons is attributable to Martin’s age. He is, according to Taylor, past his prime. He points to sports where most players start to decline after their early thirties as an analogy. To prove his point he lists eleven writers, their “best” work, and their periods of best writing.
As has been pointed out by Matthew David Surridge and Sarah Avery in the comments, there are a lot of problems with Taylor’s argument. Surridge is right to point out that most famous does not equal best and provides a longer list of writers who do not seem to have an “expiration date.” Avery points out a brilliant reason why Martin’s output on A Song of Ice and Fire is so long.
The reason, and I happen to agree with her, is that Martin has a huge amount of information to keep track of. While most readers may not catch mistakes, some readers will (and make a stink about it). Yes, Martin can hire assistants and utilize fan made reference works, but the onus is on him to get it right. There is also the issue of the Merrenese Knot. That and the abandoned time skip has likely caused much of the problems that Martin has faced in the past ten years.
Now, I won’t deny that A Song of Ice and Fire is out of control as a narrative and needs some serious pruning. The series has likely expanded far beyond what Martin had originally intended it to be, and it will be an interesting test of his skills as a writer to get everything back under control for the final two books. And maybe he’ll actually start killing more pov characters. I mean a wholesale slaughter.
Now, this post has brought to mind other recent posts by Black Gate bloggers that have bugged me (and not all of them by Theo). Sometimes, I wish the magazine would focus more on fiction on their website rather than review and criticism. If there is a huge back log of fiction submissions and the print magazine only comes out maybe twice a year, then maybe it would be wise to include more fiction online (rather than just excerpts and the single complete story from each issue). Many readers have pointed out a desire for more adventure fantasy, and Black Gate could reassert its position as the paramount magazine of this form of fantasy by publishing more stories and less criticism.
Okay, that’s it for today. Any way, look to tomorrow for a post on fantasy beyond the medieval.