George R.R. Martin‘s latest book, A Dance with Dragons,  comes out this summer.

I won’t be reading it.

I choose to look away because I choose not to be part of this particular dialogue between author and reader. Time and again, not just in this cycle but in his other books, Martin presents readers with nasty people, nasty plots, and nasty actions. “Look,” he tells us, holding us by the scruff of the neck and forcing us to not blink. “Look at how nasty the world is. Participate in the brutality I’ve laid before you.”

Oh, readers rave about how real Martin is, how truthful, how powerful. No elfy-welfy stories here, we say. No golden child quests, no white hats and black hats, no good vs. evil. Look how real it all is. It’s hard not to buy into it too, especially with the brutality we’re presented with today. Gang rape of a child in rural Texas? That just happened. Kill squads of soldiers in Afghanistan, who murder civilians and gruesomely pose with them? Ditto. And genocide by machete in Rwanda in the 1990s? Not so long ago, was it.

And yet.

I reject the right of Martin to tell those stories and have that worldview, and only that worldview. He does not have the right to co-opt the world’s inhumanity as the only story to tell. He grew up white, middle-class, American, and therefore sheltered from most of the world’s brutality. (We may not like to think that, but it’s true. The vast majority of Americans grew up safe from the killing fields and we should respect that, not exploit it commercially.) He isn’t any different than any of his readers and he doesn’t have any more of a handle on the truth of evil than anyone else. Less, in fact, than someone who grew up in the worst inner city slum surrounded by hopelessness, crime, ignorance, and impoverishment of spirit.

Martin is being a misery tour guide, but he doesn’t have a map for that city any more than anyone else. No matter how powerfully he writes, it is ultimately exploitative.

I choose not to be complicit.


Audrey Lockwood · March 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm

How far does that idea extend, for you, to other subjects? Obviously, unless we’re writing autobiographies, we can’t be intimately familiar with every single thing we have our characters go through. I’m struggling with this question myself because the book I’m planning to write next deals with a particular issue that has never been very relevant to my life, and that’s a big risk.

For my part I’ve grown less and less charmed with Martin just because after seeing so many characters die off, I’ve gotten to the point where I have little motivation to get emotionally attached to them. I will probably still read the book at some point, but it isn’t on my “must read” list.

Patrice Sarath · March 30, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I am not saying we should shy away from uncomfortable topics or violent themes, even if we’ve never experienced them. What I object to in Martin’s writing is the “rub your nose in it” aspect that I pick up from his work. Not just the current cycle, either — I’ve read quite a few of his books. Armageddon Rag is a particular example of this.

Yeah, I know what you mean about not being able to muster up the emotional connection anymore.

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel · March 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm

I don’t read George’s books anymore, either.

But I would never state that George has no right to examine the darkest thread of humanity’s loom, because I don’t know the inside of his mind, or the past behind his eyes. Some of the most innocuous people, from what should have been “safe, middle class” upbringings, lived through some terrible things.

He can be a master of characterization. I feel his characters have become cardboard, because there is really no other fate for them but torture and death. His range has narrowed to one or two stripes of the rainbow — and a black rainbow, at that.

So I am with you on not becoming emotionally involved in his work anymore. And I would no longer recommend it to people. But I’ll remain silent on what writers can write convincingly.

Patrice Sarath · March 31, 2011 at 7:22 am

“I feel his characters have become cardboard, because there is really no other fate for them but torture and death”

That’s a very good point and maybe closer to what I was trying to get at. And I should say, there are other very dark writers I also have given up on, Mary Gentle being another one of them. I do feel that there is a certain aspect in their writing of “See, reader, how awful the world is and I have the truth about it” that just makes me turn away. I’m not trying to say that middle-class Westerners can only talk about ponies and rainbows and HEAs, but the Martin approach I can’t support.

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel · March 31, 2011 at 10:23 am

Yes, there are a few others I just can’t even pick up anymore. And a couple books I bought to support the work of a friend, but still haven’t read. My own world has been rather dark for the past couple of years. So I find myself into at least “hopeful” endings. I don’t expect HEA, or every character’s line tied up in a bow, but I’m not losing sight of the fact that we are supposed to be entertaining. I have non-fiction to read for when I want something REALLY dark.

Patrice Sarath · March 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I’ve been too dark for some readers too — they wanted HEA, but I wasn’t writing a traditional romance and that wasn’t the way the book went. But I wonder, did I break faith with them by pretending to write a romance? (that might have been more how the book came across than by my intention — the cover was “romance-y”). One reader who left a review on Amazon was quite upset because of how realistic the war camp in Gordath Wood was portrayed, with dysentery and other sickness, etc. (That part came from research and from my dad’s stories of being stationed in North Africa during WWII.)

So am I being hypocritical? I like to think not, but I don’t want to fall into the fairly common response, which is, “my motives are pure but his are not.”

Sandra Kayser · April 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I think that some darkness in a story is realistic, but delving in it too much, as reader or writer, is damaging to the psyche. There is so much true horror in the world that I really don’t understand why people read it for pleasure. I know it has to do with biochemistry–some people can be fascinated by the intricate details in a leaf and are easily overstimulated, other people need strong stimuli like roller coasters, ski-diving and action movies.

Patrice Sarath · April 5, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I was watching the preview of the HBO adaptation, thinking that it would be a step removed from the book’s worldview. I don’t know why I assumed that. Anyway, HBO may have made some changes, but they kept the tone of the book note-perfect so it just strengthened my position that this work is not for me. I can acknowledge that it’s a tour de force, but man. No.

The funny thing is, one of my favorite series is The Change series by SM Stirling. Stirling doesn’t pull any punches either, and yet, it’s somehow more hopeful than A Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why, because there’s some seriously bloody scenes.

Taste is weird.

» Persistence and art | Author Patrice Sarath · April 26, 2011 at 7:22 pm

[…] the way, John is creating the 2012 calendar for the Song of Ice and Fire. And despite my feelings about the cycle, I’m still probably going to get the calendar, just because I’ve seen a sample and it […]

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