On Martin, and writing and criticism

There’s been a bit of an internet discussion, sometimes quite heated, and some of it incredibly silly, about George R.R. Martin’s world as portrayed in his series that starts with Game of Thrones. You can read the main posts and comments  here and here if you feel so inclined.

But I am not getting into the discussion except to say a few general things that astonish me. In fact, I’m a bit taken aback that they need to be explained.

Firstly, don’t be a reader who confuses the story with the author in odd ways. For such readers, I have some news:  a writer who portrays a misogynist world in his story, is not necessarily a misogynist. In fact, s/he may be quite the contrary. Such a writer may be trying to say quite uncomplimentary things about misogynists, or about the society that allows them to have power.

The selection of the setting for a story says nothing whatsoever about the writer’s beliefs in his or her own life. Really. If I set a book in France, I’m not necessarily Francophile. If I write a story that is set entirely within an army at war, it doesn’t mean I am pro-military. Or pro-war. If I set a book in a matriarchal society, it doesn’t necessarily mean I think a matriarchal society is a good thing.

Secondly, do not confuse a reader’s desire to read certain types of books with their desire to visit the setting — or to hanker after a past that is no more, or to think it was a better world, or to live on the other side of the world. I am jaw-droppingly astonished that anyone has to actually SAY that.

If a reader likes reading war stories — do you REALLY think that says they want to be dropped into a war setting? Let alone one with swords and no modern medics? Do I hanker after medieval Europe because I like reading fantasies set in that world? I’d run a mile rather than be dumped in the middle of the real Wars of the Roses, even if I had a stack of magic at my disposal!

Nor do I want to work in a morgue/police station/hospital/space ship because I watch TV programmes about pathologists/detectives/doctors/spacemen, ok?

Thirdly, this icky question of rape. Believe me, I understand if you don’t want to read a book which has rape inside the pages, let alone several rapes. But please, don’t tell a writer what s/he should and should not write about. Rape and sexual assault is part of — probably — every society on the planet right NOW*. To write a book about war, or about medieval times, and leave sexual assault out of the scenario, and you might just be viewing a story through rosy glasses… My Stormlord Rising was criticised because it portrayed quite a bit of sexual assault (most of it during war and invasion) against both men and women. If you don’t want to read about it, put the book down. Don’t blame the author for being realistic.

Fourthly, don’t assume a medieval society has the same mores as your own, and is only different because they use swords and horses instead of bombs and cars. Some folk were saying Martin was writing about rape and paedophilia. By our standards, yes, he did. But – and it’s a big but – transpose a 13-year old bride to another society, forced to oblige her husband whether she likes it or not, and it is neither paedophilia nor rape. In fact, there are societies right here in the present day (even in Malaysia) where people think of this as normal. Sorry to disallusion those critics who want to think they have a handle on what’s morally right and wrong. It’s not so easy. And be careful about you own sins before you jump down my throat on this one.

Yes, to us, the handing over of a 13-year-old girl to a mature man as his bride is horrific. But for most of history, including YOUR own, children were adults long before we nowadays think of them as adults today. A boy of eleven or even younger was expected to work the same length of day as his father, doing the same sort of physical work, and he didn’t get paid for it, moreover.

A boy milked cows for a neighbour, starting at 5 a.m., before he walked the long distance to school. He was eleven and the year was 1901. At 12 he left school altogether (he had no choice in the matter, even though the legal age to leave was 14 in Australia at the time) and he started farmwork in earnest, all day, every day of the week, every week of the year. No holidays. Cows and harvests and farmers don’t take holidays. That was the 20th century — and he was my dad.

Back to medieval times. A woman became marriageable the moment she had her menses. And once married, there was no question of EVER legally refusing her husband his conjugal rights. Of course, one hopes most men are a lot nicer than that, even back in 1135, but legally? He had the right. And this is still so in many societies today. You can close your eyes to it, if you like, but don’t tell a writer s/he’s being crappy to write those sort of things into his/her story. They are real.

Fifthly, don’t think that if a writer portrays a dark skinned people as having a different culture from that of white Westerners, they are portraying them as barbaric. In actual fact, the commentator is identifying themselves as an arrogant Westerner who believes that any culture — other than their own, of course — is barbaric.

I’ve got news for that kind of reader too. Every culture is barbaric. In the wonderful enlightened West, we hound gay kids to suicide, murder transwomen, sell our teenagers drugs that will kill them, and drop bombs on civilians and call it collateral damage, refuse medical treatment to the poor because they can’t afford to pay.

So dark-skinned “barbarian” metes out some horrible punishment to another he perceives as a threat. No lawyer, no trial, no regular sentence, no chance of appeal. And in the West we stick them in Guantanamo. No lawyer, no trial, no regular sentence, no chance of appeal.

Many of George R.R. Martin’s main characters are white-skinned and sort of Western in a Middle Ages sort of way. They are also — by our present Western standards — brutal, undemocratic, living in a world lacking any legal recourse for the wronged (especially if they are poor or don’t have a sword).

In Martin’s world, the dark-skinned are … brutal, undemocratic, living in a world lacking any legal recourse for the wronged.  So tell me, just which were the barbarians again?

My point?
If you don’t like a book, any book, then criticise the writing or simply say, it’s not my kind of story. Don’t attack it by attacking the author because s/he must be like the characters. Don’t attack it because the world doesn’t match up to the one you think it ought to be (unless it’s supposed to be a historical novel). If you think a book promotes sexism/racism/monarchism/homophobia or whatever then be careful of how you illustrate your case.

Otherwise you end up saying more about yourself, than about the book and the writer you wanted to condemn.

*I think decent men have a hard time understanding how prevalent it is. I’ve never been raped, but I have been physically assaulted in a sexual way, twice, by complete strangers. Once when I was fifteen, once after I was married. Both times I immediately launched an attack on the attacker, they skedadled and nothing much really happened. (The second time, I clobbered the guy with a heavy pair of Zeiss binoculars … threaten a birder when they are biridng, and that’s what happens!)


On Martin, and writing and criticism — 11 Comments

  1. You are absolutely right! It astonishes me that people don't know all this – maybe it's because they have no idea about history.

    Your second point was also made by W S Gilbert in 'The Mikado': 'There's the idiot who praises, in enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this and every country but his own.' ('I've got a little list.')

    Stimulating post! Thank you! May I share this on Facebook?

    Best wishes – Maggie x

  2. Sure, Maggie.

    And I am a history graduate, so maybe I have a better grounding than many in that aspect. But I think what really makes things clear to me is having lived within different cultures…

  3. Well said, Glenda. I am continually amazed at how readers see an imagined story as somehow revealing the life and/or beliefs of the writer. I once wrote a short story about winning the lottery and was approached by a fellow writer – who should have known better – and asked about when it happened. All I could think was 'I wish'.

  4. Great post Glenda.

    It baffles me when a reader attacks an author if the story or a character doesn't comply with their wishes and expectations.

    I have read GRRM's books and aside from the elements of magic, I thought that the story and characters were close the life and times of those in medieval England.

  5. Kathleen — just as well I don't know them all, then, or I'd end up needed to be a contestant on the Biggest Loser…

    Peter, Helen, there is an enormous amount of disinformation about publishing/writers/books etc etc. The correct info is all out there too, scads of it, but some folk who need it don't look it up because they think they already know the answers.

    Your story, Helen, illustrates the danger of unwise extrapolation that is so prevalent: "Rowlings is mega rich, therefore ordinary writers must make a lot." "Writer X says she writes stories based on her own experiences, therefore all writers do that too."

    And there's always the problem in any field that people only hear about the outliers — the mega successes, the mega rich, the mega famous, the mega strange, the unusually young/old/beautiful/wicked…

  6. Ah, but such interesting sociopaths!

    It is also a series very much about people who have power. And judging by my reading of real history (princes in the tower, anyone?), people with power are a pretty nasty lot. If they aren't, they don't last long.

    In times where constitutions and written legal systems didn't exist, having power meant that you enforced by brutal means, especially if you lived in times where there were threats to your existence: invasion, pretenders to the throne, a growing population and diminishing resources, etc.

  7. So true!!!
    you choose the books you read so why criticise the Authors?
    Enjoy reading while you can…it is one of the greatest joys in the world

    I loved the Game of Thrones series. I have just read the first 2 books in the Watergivers series and cannot wait to read the 3rd book.

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