Creative Constraints of Ice and Fire

One of the things about A Song of Ice and Fire that I was less than enthused about is the books’ fixation on constructing an intricately realized bizarro version of medieval England. Why so many Americans are fixated on a world that was largely gone by the time Columbus made it across the Atlantic, and whose influence a lot of our ancestors came here specifically to get some distance from, is kind of irritating.

But since Western fantasy fiction co-opts medieval Europe all the time, this isn’t really news. What apparently is news is that the books have a lot of violent sexism and misogyny, which led George R. R. Martin to tell Entertainment Weekly that the one choice necessitated the other. Naturally I was not enthused.

Martin actually made several different arguments to explain the sexism in the books, Some of the arguments are okay, a couple of them are really good, and a couple are really bad.

For instance, the claim that sexism had to be there because that’s what history was like—”the Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism”—is a pretty good example of the selective realism that too many authors use to defend questionable story choices. A Song of Ice and Fire is not set in the Middle Ages, and the story wouldn’t work if it did, because the Middle Ages didn’t have dragons and zombies and 800-foot-high ice walls. Any one of those things is more impossible to imagine actually existing than a non-patriarchal society.

Martin has a response to this argument, and it’s equally unconvincing:

Now there are people who will say to that, ‘Well, he’s not writing history, he’s writing fantasy—he put in dragons, he should have made an egalitarian society.’ Just because you put in dragons doesn’t mean you can put in anything you want. If pigs could fly, then that’s your book. But that doesn’t mean you also want people walking on their hands instead of their feet. If you’re going to do [a fantasy element], it’s best to only do one of them, or a few.

Leaving aside that he appears to be classifying egalitarianism as “[a fantasy element],” his argument doesn’t even make sense. For one thing, his story doesn’t just have dragons. It has clairvoyants who can predict the future or control animals with their minds. It has zombies and people who can raise the dead. It has shadow wraiths that assassinate people. It has seasons that last for years and don’t happen at regular intervals. That is considerably more than one fantasy element.

And there’s no grand unified theory of why one of them would necessitate all the others. Instead, they all fit together because they’re all the sort of things you’d pretty much expect to see in fantasy fiction and (more importantly) the books have a well-crafted story in which a lot of thought went into making it all work together. There’s no reason an author couldn’t put that kind of effort into depicting a non-misogynist society as well.

The real reason George R. R. Martin didn’t do that in A Song of Ice and Fire is because he didn’t want to. Which is a perfectly fine reason, because there really is a storytelling constraint at work, and he does get around to mentioning it eventually.

After coming dangerously close to arguing that his books can’t be sexist because women read them, he delivers the actual good argument.

I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that.

In other words, he can’t not write about sexism and sexual violence because sexism and sexual violence are part of the point of the books. Complaining about that is a bit like complaining that characters in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are racist.

I don’t think much of arguments that say a writer should embrace realism for its own sake, because the world is a big place and lots of things are real. Every author chooses which elements they include in their stories and which ones they leave out, and those choices have consequences whether they’re meant to or not. So if you’re working with sensitive or controversial material, what’s important is that you think critically about what you’re doing.

It also helps if you can explain what you’re doing without implying that your way is the only possible way to write a story. That both isn’t untrue and undercuts the actual value of the choices you’re making.

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