Recently, George R. R. Martin, the author of books on which the “Game of Thrones” series is based, fielded some questions via email regarding why he included sexual violence in his works. He stated that his philosophy of writing was one of “show, not tell” and “[whatever] might be happening in my books, I try to put the reader into the middle of it, rather than summarizing the action. That requires vivid sensory detail. I don’t want distance, I want to put you there.” He added that “Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read,” and that the “atrocities in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book.”
While I have not read the books in question and thus am not capable of analyzing his scenes, the interview raised some very interesting questions in my mind with regards to a writer’s philosophy. First, I agree that, generally, showing something is much more interesting to read than just being told what happens all the time. What makes a scene memorable are often the details: the description as Bilbo Baggins leaves Gollum behind and races to find a way out of the orc-caverns of the Misty Mountains, for example, or the details in George MacDonald’s “Phantastes” as his main character explores fairy land. Without the details, we would lose a great deal of insight into these character’s experiences.
However, good authors also “zoom out” from time to time, distancing us from the action. J. R. R. Tolkien does this in “The Hobbit” when the Battle of the Five Armies takes place, allowing us to receive the details as a summary and not a first-hand, experiential account. This is, of course, a children’s book, but he also does this in “The Lord of the Rings” series.
We receive no details of orc-blood flying as limbs are chopped off or the gruesome complexities of any of the characters’ deaths. When he describes the battle towards the end of “The Return of the King,” it is done with poetic distance (the following sentence is but one of many possible examples): “The onslaught of Mordor broke like a wave on the beleaguered hills, voices roaring like a tide amid the wreck and crash of arms.” Even when someone like Boromir or Haldir dies, we are not put “into the middle of it,” feeling their agony or anguish as they die. Vivid sensory details aren’t given, yet these are considered excellent books, dealing with the very same genre as Martin, showing a similar theme: how men are capable of great good or evil.
A second line of thought I had was pertaining to his idea that “good history” books would include atrocities. I think good history books, written for an adult audience, certainly do inform you that such actions took place, but most tell and do not show. History books that put the reader in the middle of it would be works of historical fiction, save for excerpts from diaries and other first-person accounts; frequently, such books do mention what happens but without “vivid sensory details.” Thus, it made me wonder, if Martin is using history books to excuse his books content, which kinds of history books he is comparing them to, and whether he thinks we need vivid sensory details about atrocities to understand one his themes, which he stated was “that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”
Are we incapable of relating with people whose pain we do not experience, whose horror we have not witnessed, or can we empathize from a distance, feeling sorrow even if we are only told of what has occurred to them?
© 2014 Andrea Lundgren