Disillusionment

Comment from Reader Frognot about my dismissive post on the end of the awful Game of Thrones TV movie:

Given your historical distaste for any kind of fantasy, Kim, I’m not sure why anyone would give much credence to your opinion of a fantasy TV series. That’d be like getting a folk-rock fan’s opinion of, well, non-folk rock. Which I’d perfectly valid for folk-rock fans and of little use for anyone else. I know you’re only presenting your own opinion, but by this standard, wouldn’t practically any movie that ended with the hero’s death be a bad movie if the bad guys survived? Braveheart had any number of flaws, but since it ended the same as the 1st of 8 seasons of GoT did, did that make it awful on that basis alone? It seems to me that whether or not your favorite character survives the first ~10 hours of GoT (7 more seasons adding up to a whole lot more time)? Hint: the worst of the bad guys got deaded, some of the better ones survived. If that’s different from realistic storytelling, I’m curious as to how?

And if you’re opposed to realistic storytelling (within the limitations of human experience plus the milieu the story is set in), then I truly don’t understand your visceral dislike for fantasy (and possibly SF, but those posts were long ago, well before you went dark due to Connie’s illness).

I understand people who dislike swords and sorcery (as you once did, IIRC) and prefer past-to-current murder mystery (as my wife does), SF (as a friend does), or historical fiction as others do (but that’s an oxymoron if there ever was one), but I have trouble imaging why you’d have ever watched any of GoT, and why you’d think your hero would survive the first 1/8?

Take a look at the War of the Roses, or the reign and aftermath of Henry VIII, or most any contentious period of human history. Just because it offends your sense of stories doesn’t mean it’s not a good story. The Peloponnesian War had the best of both sides die before it was over, often pointlessly. Even if modern audiences weren’t historically illiterate, that hardly means a long multi-season series covering it would be automatically bad. That’s just a romantic idea of how stories should go, which in many cases, is just a lie in a better costume.

I’m disappointed, all in all. At least disclose your dislike of (much) fantasy right off the bat, while disclosing your preference for a different kind of fantasy (Hays Code good always wins, evil never prospers). Though evil didn’t prosper by the end of GoT, and some who turned to evil redeemed themselves before the end. Oh well. Didn’t happen by the first 1/8 of the tale, therefore … awful. I’ll be the first to admit the writing slipped badly in seasons 7 & 8. It was hasty, cut short, and not well laid out. It was explicable with much discussion with the wife, but when 3 and then 4 episodes are slashed from the last 2 seasons (almost 1/3), it’s damned hard to tie all the loose ends up, let alone adequately explain some actions of characters. Whatever.

As heartfelt a comment deserves an answer all to itself.

Frognot,

I remember once being dragged to a Ronnie Millsap concert — dragged  because I’ve never really been a big country music fan — but despite my dislike of the music, I came away in total awe of Millsap as a pianist:  he was one of the greatest percussive pianists I’ve ever heard, and I’m not sure that I’ve heard his equal since.  My “ignorance” of the music couldn’t stop me appreciating the musician’s virtuosity — just as my dislike of the fantasy genre can’t stop me from calling out terrible writing when I see it.

My dislike for GoT had therefore little to do with the genre, and a lot to to with the storytelling itself.  (Contrast my distaste for GoT with my outright admiration of the Harry Potter fantasy movies, and you’ll see where I’m going with this.)

Comparing fiction with history is dangerous, because history is written in stone — King X died in the opening campaign, what he might  have achieved belongs to speculation, and that’s the end of it.  Braveheart  was a crap movie not because of its ending but because its ending was the only actual historical event in the movie which actually happened:  prima nocte  was never enforced by Edward I, William Wallace’s wife wasn’t murdered by the English, the battle of Stirling Bridge wasn’t fought on an open field but on, as the name suggests, around a bridge, Wallace never bonked the future Edward II’s wife… and I can list about half a dozen more examples of the movie’s ahistoricity.  Braveheart  wasn’t historical:  it just acted as though it was.  (Frankly, if Mel Gibson had ended up fighting a duel with Edward I and his wussy heir, killed them both and married Longshanks’s daughter-in-law, that would have been more like a decent action movie with a Hollywood ending.  I bet the studio brass would have signed off on it, too.)

Fiction, however, is a different thing altogether, not just for the author, but for the relationship with his audience.  And like it or not, fiction readers are looking for an acceptable outcome — much as the author may wish it otherwise.  (My own first novel, Vienna Days, was rejected by a host of publishers because it ends with the suicide of the principal character — despite my telegraphing of the likely outcome in the very first sentence  of the book.)

Readers want to form a relationship with a fictional work’s characters — like it or not — and when there is no reason to do so, they switch off.  Unsympathetic characters are the death of any fictional work;  dead ones equally so.

Which is what happened to me with GoT.  Without any bond with the characters (because they were all being killed off), I was left with only the fantasy aspect of the story;  and as you correctly pointed out, that isn’t my favorite genre (to put it mildly —   dragons and such are not my preferred plot device).  And my distaste for Martin’s writing was reinforced after the Red Wedding  episode, where the only remaining identifiable principal characters were slaughtered.  The shocked response of GoT  fans to Red Wedding  was well documented:  I was just amused, because what that meant was that the writers were going to have to start at Square One to rebuild the audience’s bond — only this time, there would be a well-founded skepticism because… well, why form a bond with a character when Martin’s going to kill him or her off at any time?  (As he did, time and time again — and I howled with laughter when I heard that the Jon Snow character had been resurrected after a brutal death — that was A Death Too Far for the audience, and the writers’ scramble to bring him back to life was risible.  (It ranked right up there with the equally-silly resurrection of Patrick Duffy’s dead character in Dallas.)

The audience’s bond with a character is critical, in fiction.  From a writing perspective, there is a reason why Star Trek  remained as popular as it was:  Spock wasn’t killed off in episode 24, and Kirk didn’t die halfway through the series either.  Nobody cared about the appalling death rate of the red-shirted crew members — somebody  had to die or else the stories would have contained no drama — but sacrificing nonentities runs no risk of alienating the audience.  Imagine what would have happened to Firefly‘s audience if Nathan Fillion had been snuffed out after the first season.  There would have been  no second season.  It’s also a good thing that J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books, or else Hermione and Ron Weasley would never have made it past The Half-Blood Prince.

Had Martin stuck to killing off Third Knight From The Left, Lord Nobody or Whore With The Big Tits (the GoT  red-shirt equivalent), the whole series would have been an epic, rather than a series of “start-again” plot arcs.

When an author doesn’t care about his audience, I think it’s a major fault.  (Annie Proulx, by the way, stands similarly condemned, as do a number of other modern writers.)  That contempt is very much a post-modern construct in literature, when the writers, bereft of plot, use the rejection of accepted form to make their writing different, in the name of “realistic” writing.  There’s nothing realistic about fiction, by definition.  But the forms and structures  of fiction are important — in fact, they’re essential.  Ignoring them is a sign of immaturity, and willful disregard is contemptuous and arrogant.  You have to be an extraordinary writer to pull it off — ever wonder why Finnegan’s Wake  has never been repeated? — and Martin isn’t an extraordinary writer, despite his volume of work.

And that, as I said, is my major beef with George R.R. Martin:  he’s contemptuous of his main characters and therefore of his audience.  That’s fine, it’s his work after all.  I just don’t have to put up with his shit storytelling.  And the genre has nothing to do with it, either.

I’m sorry you were disappointed.  But I write them as I see them.

10 comments

  1. The argument could be made both ways about the quality of GRRM’s writing. They were the last fantasy books I ever read. I bought the first two or three and it took me that long to realize that the guy wasn’t telling a story… he was selling books. Bad books – and he had duped me along for a couple. In that sense I suppose he was a good writer.

    To the dummies that stuck with did so mostly because they wanted to see who got whacked next. I suppose they weren’t dummies, but probably unsophisticated readers. Young people loved it. Most of them have never read a masterpiece and more than a few couldn’t discern one from dreck like GoT.

    I would give my left arm for a modern SF/F writer. One that isn’t a pervert or an a-hole who wants to tell a story rather than sell copy.

    1. You aren’t looking hard enough. There are lots of (mostly] indie SF and fantasy writers out there that are good. Sarah Hoyt, Jason Fuesting, Mitchell Hogan, lois Bujold, C. Chancy, Hans G. Schantz, Vernor Vinge (except for his last one, which seemed rushed and not up to snuff), Michael Z. Williamson, David Weber, etc.

  2. “Imagine what would have happened to Firefly‘s audience if Nathan Fillion had been snuffed out after the first season. There would have been no second season.”

    I see what you did there, and it’s not funny. (Well, OK, it’s a little funny.) Shee-niou Game of Thrones got 8 Go tsao de seasons, and Firefly gets cancelled after one! The studio execs are a bunch of Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng!

    On the subject of your book being rejected, haven’t any of those publishers ever heard of Anna Karenina?

    And, finally, I think the majority of GRRM’s fandom is due to the sunk cost fallacy. After buying all those books and watching all those seasons, they just can’t deal with the fact that all that time and money is gone. I will be shocked if he ever writes another book, because he’s a 70-year-old man who now has more money than he’s likely to spend. Why would he bother? Possibly ego, I guess. We’ll see. And I still won’t buy or watch any of his crap. Life’s too short.

  3. OK, I’m convinced. I start today on myfantasy novel, in which Mensa mamber Herman Schmertz invents a time machine and ventures to San Antonio in Feb 1836 with a half-dozen Dillon M134Ds, 250K of ball 7.62X51, 8 four-deuce tubes and 2K of rounds for them with 10 meter air burst fuzes, a full battalion of M1A2 Abrams, and accompanied by every 1994 through 2000 Playmate (barely) wearing a nurse’s uniform and Daenerys with her dragons (I figured that was more plausible than a bunch of A-10s and Blackhawks, although I think there may be a way to include some sort of ArcLight thing using B-29s, or maybe the alien space ships from Independence Day, assuming Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are available).

    On the way to being elected President for Life Davey Crockett fathers a dozen children with the Playboy nursing staff, 10 of whom become kings in various European countries (two go transgender and become queens), and strikes oil in southern Louisiana while digging a cat hole, turning the future Edwin Drake into an alcohol-addled drifter. The billions Crockett gets from that are spent on bilingual education programs for the children of the unfortunate Mexican soldiers at the Alamo as a humanitarian gesture.

    I’ll work on Episode II next week.

  4. The weakness of the GoT ending wasn’t really all that surprising. It is happening all the time now with major entertainment franchises and the studio execs just aren’t getting the message. They call it “subverting audience expectations” but that’s just a fancy way of saying they’re giving the audience the finger. The truth is Hollywood has long stopped caring about their audience. You are in the theater or streaming their movie to be preached at and always expected to genuflect at the altar of the myth of their amazing storytelling ability. Criticism is dismissed as political and writers, producers, and directors in Hollywood now have an impregnable bubble they live in. They now largely rely on their head canon over direct or indirect exposition to develop their characters. The Last Jedi is a prime example of this as Rain Johnson has, between bouts of NPC railing against fans, demonstrated on more than one occasion that his perception of the characters has relied heavily on his own head canon and that he assumed the audience shared his perspective.

    One need not do much more than give yourself a cursory understanding of storycraft to see just how awful modern storytelling has become. I commend David Stewart’s storycraft videos on YouTube as a decent introduction into basic storycraft.

    Ultimately, I’m left wondering if storytellers can even build worlds predicated on post-modern philosophy anymore.

  5. Kim, I suspect that I’ve been around the fantasy and RPG end of fiction more than you have, and no one with the slightest familiarity with George “Rape-Rape” Martin was surprised by this. He’s been a foremost practitioner of what Sarah Hoyt refers to as “grey goo” his whole career. His announced intent all along with GoT has been to show that “heroic fantasy has no place in modern life as an inspiration for better behavior”.

    1. I’d not been aware of that before, but it doesn’t surprise me much. There are good fantasy writers these days, but mostly not out of the major publishing houses, any more.

  6. Thank you for the kind reply, Kim. I do understand and even empathize with your views. Let it be known that I’ve never read a single word of George R. R. Martin. After Kevin Baker pronounced that book 3 or 4 (I can’t remember now) had become unreadably baroque in seemingly endless sub-plots, along with killing off too many sympathetic characters, I decided it wasn’t worth my time. My wife shortly afterwards reached the same conclusion, deciding that GRRM was in dire need of an editor who could tell him, “No! Slash and burn big chunks of this and rewrite!” It was only a few months ago we decided against our better judgement to watch the show. To our surprise, we enjoyed it. Knowing that there were 6 more completed seasons to go, the execution of a principal character didn’t ruin the show for us, it merely changed it to a survival epic followed by the open question of how will House Stark revenge itself? In the show that was well done, right up through the Red Wedding, as awful an event as that was (but hardly unknown in human history). After that, the show began to founder a bit as the producers admitted all they wanted to do was get up to that point. Then when they began improvising following the seeming assassination of Jon Snow (apparently his actual death was ambiguous in the books), the show took a never-ending downward slide (with some good high points, such as Daenarys’ killing of all the Dothraki Khals by fire, and emerging unscathed from the flames of the hall with all of her clothes burned off). But this meme sums it up pretty well. If real life meant giving up on something at the first serious reverse, we’d be in a hell of a state. Not all stories are happy or have a happy ending, even in the long term. Many are simply grim with episodes of joy. Witness the Iliad and its associated stories, or the whole Beowulf saga.

    The ending of the HBO series rather ducked, but not because favorite characters died (Daenarys was damaged goods from the get go), but because it was poorly written. Since GRRM hadn’t yet written that, he might improve on it, but based on the opinions of people I trust, I wouldn’t bet on it.

    Thank you for your honest opinions and kind response, not that I’d expect anything else from one of favorite bloggers since the early naughty’s, IIRC.

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