Throne Out The Baby With The Bathwater Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-07-07 14:00:00 No comments

I need to get something off my chest: I don't like Game of Thrones. Not as a book series, not as a TV series, not as a fandom.

The hard part is explaining why.

Attributing it all to prejudice, or bad taste, is easy. It's not that I walked into the first book of the series (this was about four years ago) muttering under my breath, "All right, George, do your worst." I didn't want to hate the book. But by the end of the first volume I was so turned off, so thoroughly rubbed the wrong way by the material and Martin's treatment of it that I not only could not make myself read the rest of it but actively distrusted my own opinion about it.

People have said, and I agree with them completely, that I should not judge the whole when I have only read the first installment. But I'm not saying no one else should read it / watch it / enjoy it. I'm saying my own ability to partake in what everyone else is sharing seems to have been put permanently out of order by my reaction to what I saw. And yes, it bothers me, for reasons I have never quite made peace with.

Let me start with the easy criticisms. I suspect one contributing (or detracting) element was my own distaste for thud-and-blunder post-Tolkien (and post-post-Tolkien) fantasy had already reached its zenith by the time I cracked the book. I saw what he was doing: he was using a fantasy setting to ring his own proprietary set of changes on the War of the Roses, and I didn't mind that by itself. I just wasn't an automatic fan of such material. But somehow the tone of the whole thing, the sense of Martin not only wanting to depict his setting as being irredeemably Hobbsean / Jacobean but also tacitly approving of that --that was what turned me off.

I don't object to a story taking place in a setting where sexism and random brutal violence are the order of the day, but there are ways to tell a story in that setting without feeling like we have to shoehorn in the obligatory sexism and random brutal violence every X pages so as to meet a quota because otherwise people will think we're somehow not being "realistic". Medieval Japan wasn't a great place for women and had more than its fair share of brutal civil wars, but even populist authors like Eiji Yoshikawa (and more avowedly literary ones like Yasushi Inoue) wrote about those periods and their attendant miseries without resorting to being lurid as a sop to "realism". They had sympathy and charity for their characters, and it showed on the page. Martin only seemed to care about his characters inasmuch as they were chess pieces that could be shoved around and then steeped in various humiliations. That puts his work at the level of a grimy soap opera, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, and I don't.

It also didn't help (warning! Aesthetic Snob Alert!) that Martin's writing was many, many grades down from what I remembered from stories like "The Way of Cross and Dragon" and books like The Armageddon Rag or even the first couple of installments in the WildCards series.¹ The second page of A Game of Thrones sports this howler: "A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things." Trees aren't living things? It's not hard to intuit what Martin meant to say, but this kind of near-miss language makes me cringe.² That and I've seen how Martin can do better, so to have such dismal writing sporting his name is a letdown. (Again I am reminded of Tibor Fischer saying how you go from not being published no matter how good you are, to being published no matter how bad you are.)

And yet I know all of the above was not the real reason what I read bothered me as much as it did.

Was it all projection on my part? Or false expectations? I suspect it was, but at the same time such an abreaction from me is not something I've witnessed in almost any other work I've ever encountered. Normally if I dislike something, I just dislike it and set it aside; it's not accompanied by a level of vehemence. But when I get a gut reaction of such severity, it's hard to think it's all just me -- that there's a kernel of the truth swimming around in my inner ocean of roiling emotion, and it's my job to fish that out and put it on display.

See, it bothers me to the point of physical pain to know that there is something other people enjoy enormously -- and these are not just random dorks pulled off the street, but people I respect, people I trust, people I'm close to -- and which I cannot for the life of me even begin to wrap either my head or my heart around. I do not understand the appeal of this lurid, joyless material, not on any level, and I hate not having that understanding. It doesn't just mean that now I have one less thing to share with people; it makes me feel defective in some way, like I have parts on order that other people were shipped with. There's a party going on to which I can't even invite myself.

I'd like to chalk it up to something as simple as jealousy, but again I didn't get that reaction when reading 99% of the other things I could theoretically be just as, if not more, jealous of -- and moreover, when I have experienced creative jealously, it's generally been a positive thing, something that's spurred me to do better. Some of that seems to have been at work here, at least: if there's one thing I don't want to contribute to the world, it's another Game of Thrones. One was, and is, plenty.

¹ Which did a great job of reinventing comic-book superhero fantasy in a pulp-SF wrapper -- right down to the hardening of the arteries that any DC or Marvel fan can have long, sad conversations with you about.

² At some point I fully expect to get a snarky letter from someone citing some awkward sentence in one of my own books as proof that I, sitting so cozily in my glass house, should not throw stones -- an argument scissored straight from the same idiot cloth as "you shouldn't criticize a movie if you can't make one yourself".

Tags: Eiji Yoshikawa George R. R. Martin J.R.R. Tolkien Yasushi Inoue criticism fantasy popular culture writing