Monday, August 12, 2013

George R.R. Martin -- in perspective!

Okay, let me start off by qualifying my post by saying that I really love George R.R. Martin. The man is an unbelievable writer from whom I, as an aspiring fiction novelist, can learn much. On a personal level (at least from his abundance of interviews and Con appearances) he seems like one of the coolest people in the world, or at least the world of novelists.

Furthermore, his epic Fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF)  has brought tens of thousands of new readers into the genre, and has even given the genre a new surge of literary credibility, from literary critiques (you know, those critics who hate everything that isn't by, and for, literary professors). The popularity of HBO's adaptation to Martin's series has gone even further in reaching people who in times past have claimed to hate fantasy fiction. This is all great stuff. I'm not about to poo-poo any of this, however, ASOIF needs to be put into perspective. 

It seems to me that some of the series' most outspoken and vocal supporters (especially those who began with the TV series then moved to the books) are talking up the series into far grander and epic proportions than it actually is; not in the story world of Westeros, but within our world. Many of its fans speak as if ASOIF is the savior of fantasy fiction, or as many others seem to feel, the only fantasy series eve worth reading. We've all heard the rave reviews since the series hit the airwaves. 

It's groundbreaking!

 It's fresh and new! 

It's changed Fantasy fiction forever.

Martin's characters die shocking and gruesome deaths, and this has never happened in the "childish" fantasy of yesteryear.

It is "gritty" and "realistic" because all of the characters are "grey" and not "black and white." 

Look, I get that this is the series that you fell i love with. I get that this is the series that does it for you. And I get that, for many, many viewers, this is the first "adult" fantasy series they've ever read. But there are some points that I feel must be made. Not to talk down the series, but to simply put it into perspective.

First, and this should not even need to be said, but I'll say it anyway: Martin did not, in any way, invent the modern Fantasy genre. That credit goes to J.R.R. Tolkien. Yes, I know. Lots of people find Tolkien boring and long winded (which is an ironic accusation when it comes from ASOIF fans, given that ASOIF was supposed to be a Trilogy), but we need to be honest, without Tolkien there is no ASOIF. A side note to this is that Martin himself heralds Tolkien as the grandmaster of Fantasy and doesn't, in anyway, compare himself to Tolkien or think that he is better than Tolkien. So the uber-Martin fanboys really need to stop trashing Tolkien. Your hero doesn't, so why should you?

Second, Martin is not even the first post Tolkienian Fantasy author to make Fantasy a legitimate, New York Times best seller genre. The two men most responsible for that are first, Gary Gygax, the co-creator of the Dungeon's and Dragons role playing game which allowed Tolkien fans to expand their imaginations into brand new worlds, but still experience all of the cool Fantasy tropes. 

D&D then paved the way for Terry Brooks to actually break the Fantasy genre into the New York Times best seller's list multiple times with his Shannara books. Brooks is probably the guy that convinced publishers that Fantasy fiction could be lucrative, and after Brooks' success dozens of others followed with their own best selling works throughout the eighties. Most of these sold to "geeks" and D&D fans, but there were a LOT more "geeks" out there than people realized.

And then, in early 1990 something fresh and new happened that took the Fantasy genre by storm. Something that would forever change the scope and direction of Fantasy fiction. No, the fresh and new thing had nothing to do with Martin or his series. The new and fresh thing was a book titled The Eye of the World, written by the late Robert Jordan. If there is one book, post-Tolkien, that changed the face of Fantasy fiction, it is surely book 1 of the grand epic, known as The Wheel of Time.

 The Wheel of Time series did something that the previous Fantasy books had great difficulty doing -- convince "literary" critiques that Fantasy fiction was a "serious" genre. If you've never read the Wheel of Time series (and I admit, I've not read them all yet) you should at least be familiar with what these books did, and how they changed the scope of the genre forever. Without Tolkien there is no Wheel of Time. But without the breakthroughs and new directions Jordan took Fantasy in the Wheel of Time, there is no Game of Thrones. 

Ah, but as we all know (or, rather, are told by the uber-fanboys) Martin's books ARE the first "gritty" and realistic Fantasy series to have ever been written. I mean, we all know this is true, right? Well, sorry to break it to everyone but Tolkien was slaughtering everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, in The Silmarillion decades before The Red Wedding was a bloody splatter across everyone's TV screen. Of course, the death and despair in The Silmarillion is not graphically depicted, that's not the point I'm making. The point is Martin, really is kind of a lightweight in the tragedy department when comparing ASOIF to say, the tale of Turin Turambar. The difference is that ASOIF depicts the tragedy in much more graphic detail, and Martin does have a gift for making you care for a character, only to rip them from you in some horrific fashion. He's great at it. But let's be honest -- he's not the first to do it. He's simply the first that many newcomers to the genre have experienced. And that's great! But let's not be snobish about it.

And then there is all of the sex and violence that ASOIF is known for. Is that something that Martin introduced to the genre? Nope!  I know lots of my fellow Fantasy fans dislike Terry Goodkind, but Goodkind was dramatizing the gut spilling, teeth kicking, gory, fight scenes along with scenes of torture, rape, murder, and beheadings, several years before A Game of Thrones was published. I mean, in one of Goodkind's books, there is a guy who wears a cape made out of human scalps!!! 

And as for torture? Well, I think every Fantasy reader knows that no one does torture quite like Terry Goodkind! Yikes!

Don't misunderstand me. Martin is a great writer. I love the guy. I think the books are awesome (even though they aren't exactly my cup of tea, because they are so depressing). I admit, I like to have some consolation by the end of a book. ASOIF has no consolation. But again, he is not the first writer to do that. And quite frankly, I feel there are a lot of awesome writers out there who, in my opinion, are better storytellers than Martin. Maybe not better technical writers -- Martin is perhaps one of the best technical writers writing today. But there a number of other Fantasy authors who can spin a yarn, far better than Martin does. Of course, it is unfair to say that, given that his series isn't finished. But I say this because, for those of you who are new to the Fantasy genre, there is a big world out there for you to explore. 

I know you fell in love with Westeros and some of it's characters. And I know you love to hate other characters, then have that hate twisted into admiration. I get it. But Martin was not the first to do this, and he is not the only one doing it today. Everyone gets to have their favorite series and favorite author. I encourage it. And Martin has broadened the Fantasy genre in a way that hasn't been done in twenty years. This is all awesome! I love it. I love Martin. And I love what he's done for the genre. But he is not the only game in town. There is way more to Fantasy than ASOIF. There are other writers who are better storytellers, but not as polished as a writer. There are other writers who are better than Martin, technically, but not as a good of storytellers. And there is everything in between. 

Read them all!

Or at least, read a few more. You may discover Martin IS your favorite author and that you enjoy death, with no consolation, your cup of tea. Hey, that's okay. But at least try other writers and other flavors of the genre. Until you read what else is out there, you'll never truly know for sure -- now will you?

Too many Fantasy readers -- even newcomers to the genre -- immediately fall into the "my favorite book is the BEST!" Even when that is the ONLY book they've read. Give something else a try. I had to read A Game of Thrones TWICE before I realized I really liked it. So I speak from experience. Broaden your horizons. Broaden what you read. Who knows? A new flavor, a new book, and a new author just might grab you by surprise.

Remember, that is what Martin has done for so many people already. Maybe someone else will do the same for Martin's uber-fans!