Thoughts on George R. R. Martin’s Recent Interview

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

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on George R. R. Martin’s Recent Interview

  1. I like your article, it’s very thought provoking. I don’t know if GRRM is using history books as an example to excuse his books per se, or he’s not saying that he’s read historical passages that read like a detailed historical account. (I don’t presume to speak for him… okay, maybe I am, I apologize…)

    Anyway, his books are really really detailed, you know what people are wearing, and heaven help you if you don’t know what they’re eating. Every feast is so well described, cook books have been created from the page descriptions. So violence in the books is also often described in a similar detail. (Actually, I think that’s unfair, we get a lot more sensory details on food. George does love food.)

    I think his response was to criticism on the types of violence that’s found in the books. There are a lot of bad things that happen, and he typically has historical examples he draws from.

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    1. Thanks for your response, Patrick. Since you have obviously read his books, you are certainly more entitled to speak for him than I am. 🙂

      I think, from the interview, it sounds like he is saying that because history books have atrocities like those in his books, he is justified in including them in his history of Westeros. On a surface level, I think the comparison is valid. However, I don’t feel he can use that argument to justify the details included in such episodes, since history books typically do not try to put the readers into the scenes they are relating.

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  2. I will make my disclaimer before I render my opinion: I have neither seen nor read Game of Thrones. After reading this article about the author’s predilection for violence and atrocity, I find myself asking this question: is not one of the great joys of reading to leave something to the imagination? I am thus forwarded to this second question: is an author cheating their readers when he spoon feeds them such graphic description that the only response possible is a visceral gut reaction? Why does the reader have to “experience” the horrific rather than understand that the horrific is possible? I have seen this in other books, as well as in the theater and film. Because one is forced to “experience” evil, I think, it tends to rob us of the ability to understand and abhor the results of evil. The distance of general description allows us to observe the wicked and condemn it without our becoming calloused. Humans can only experience so much trauma before the heart starts hardening itself for protection…and a hardened heart, as apparently reflected in the Game of Thrones, allows for no compassion.

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    1. I think you point out one area which Martin did not even begin to touch in his email response: that of desensitization. I noticed that he steered clear of any comment regarding how appropriate it is to include frequent versus infrequent atrocities and whether the frequency will affect readers (and now viewers). I think it is definitely a valid argument that, the more we encounter something, the more our “visceral gut reaction” will change as the atrocities become too commonplace for comment or reaction at all. I think we lose some of our horror to the event in question as we encounter it more.

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