Tuesday, November 22, 2011

reader response criticism

Cheryl Morgan says she found an article which "gets to the heart of what is so good about the Song of Ice and Fire series." Oh, good, I thought, maybe someone can explain it to me. I read only the first book and found my desire to go on gradually leaking away over its 800 pages. The problem was mostly one of literary style and approach. GRRM had a style quite adequate for the atmospheric SF he was writing in the 70s, when he was one of the most promising young authors. But I was disturbed by a growing blocky crudity in the descriptive passages and plotting even of his highly imaginative dark fantasy novels of the 80s, though I nevertheless liked them very much, and it's only gotten worse since then. I can't get over the way he relies on adjectives to convey flavor, and heavily leans on detailed physical description of movement and actions to indirectly reveal character, all of it in a dull, workmanlike tone. It's a legitimate way of writing, and others do it as well. It just feels low-rent to me, and it bears no resemblance to any prose that I cherish.

And that's beside the deadly amorality, tending to immorality, that has often been noted. Any time a character even begins to aspire towards honor, let alone nobility, he's ruthlessly knocked down, sometimes literally. Nothing is stable, nothing can be relied upon, there's no viewpoint from which a reader can stand and watch the action. I can't put myself in the story; there's no way I could imagine wanting to play this game. (Noblemen who didn't want to immerse themselves in the hothouse of Louis XIV's Versailles just stayed on their country estates. They missed advancement, but they didn't pay the price either.) Of course I admire the breath and detail of Martin's world-creating, but that's not in any way relevant as to whether the book is any good, as we're always being admonished by those who believe Tolkien has nothing else to offer.

So here's the article that Cheryl recommends. What does it have to say for its topic?

With ADwD, Martin is back to top form, and he brings some of his best characters back into the spotlight — Jon Snow, Danaerys, and the incredible Tyrion Lannister.
If he's back to top form, does that mean he was off it in the previous book or two? The author doesn't say, but if not, then the whole phrase is merely publisher's blither. Note also the way the characters are referred to as if you've already heard of them, not the way to seduce potential new readers. I consider this kind of writing cousin to smarmy salesfolk calling you by your first name, as if you're already friends. As for the abbreviation ADwD, at least LotR was vaguely pronounceable.

Martin's Westeros is not a world of heroes, of hope and redemption; it's a world full of people stabbing one another.
A passing nod to the obvious questions, like "Why can't we have some of both?" and "Do I really want to be the sort of person who prefers reading about the latter?", and then just note that such a prioritization is the opposite of Tolkien's - even the Silmarillion, which is full of stabbings, is also full of heroes and hope - and thereby disqualifies the author from being "the inheritor of Tolkien's epic fantasy legacy" which he is elsewhere called.

If Martin were to retell the Mahabharata, a crippled, maddened, monstrous Nakul would have been the only Pandava survivor of the Great War; Arjuna wouldn't have made it to adulthood.
Further elaboration on the above. Why should I want this? It doesn't strike me as in any way a superior story.

Martin stands alone largely because of the sheer scale of his work ... His greatest success, though, lies ... in the extreme degree of involvement his work inspires in his fans ... hundreds of people have worked together to not only create a comprehensive wiki of the Ice and Fire world, but also huge discussions on every aspect of the world.
Oh, so it is relevant to whether the book is any good. Actually, I agree that it is; but don't waste your time using that argument on someone who doesn't already accept the premise.

Martin's success [has] been achieved through years of incredibly hard work
No doubt it has, but as an explanation of what makes the books good, which is what I was sent to this article to find out, this is insufficient. An A for effort is not a final grade.

But this frenzy is something the author should feel genuinely proud of; this is an excitement generated ... by superb storytelling skill and more than a decade of hard work.
Leaving aside the puffery of the final phrases, this is actually a good point and a gentle rebuff to Gaiman's "GRRM is not your bitch" line (which the article cites in this context): if he hadn't engrossed his readers so in a long-term incompleted story, they wouldn't be clamoring so for its conclusion. Remember that Tolkien too got a lot of anxious letters when the publication of vol. 3 of The Lord of the Rings was held up for half a year after its original date (and if you recall how vol. 2 ends, you'll understand why).
The question I face, though, is: all these other people got caught up in the story and care about what happens next. Why, then, didn't I get caught up; why don't I care?

So the next time someone tells you that there's no chance of something both smart and complicated succeeding in this dumbed-down world, hit him on the head with a George R.R. Martin boxed set. And when you go to jail for murder, spend the time constructively by reading the series again.
And, along with that earlier line about the pleasures of reading about "a world full of people stabbing one another," I guess we have the article's answer of why the series appeals to its readers and not to me: it's a work aimed at an audience of incipient and vicarious thugs. I don't think it really is so aimed, but if this article really does get "to the heart of what is so good about the Song of Ice and Fire series," then that's what it's trying to tell me that the heart of it is: a heart with a knife sticking out of it. Ugh.

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