Last week, Sady Doyle published a protracted rant against George RR Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series at TigerBeatdown.com. My initial reaction was that while her piece was certainly stylishly composed, the level of intellectual rigor informing it was lacking. Acacia Graddy-Gamel, commenting in an online discussion thread earlier this afternoon, put it this way: “the Doyle piece is everything I absolutely hate about feminist or postmodern critique in that it is just as insular, smug, narrow-minded and condescending as the hegemonic structures they’re railing against.” I don’t want to be that harsh, but I can understand her frustration.
I considered putting together a response on the Doyle article at the time, but I was buried with professional obligations. So I let it go. But then, this morning, I came across Alyssa Rosenberg‘s elegant critique of Doyle at ThinkProgress. Rosenberg, who also writes for The Atlantic and Loop21, characterizes the TigerBeatdown piece as “condescending and willfully misleading,” and she pulls no punches in explaining how Doyle has done a disservice to feminism’s mission of making the nerdosphere a more progressive place. Rosenberg is, on the whole, as measured and informed (and empathetic) as Doyle is childish and self-congratulatory, and I recommend that our readers spend a few minutes with both pieces so as to get a better handle on the debate.
I initially recoiled from the Doyle piece, and then walked away from it without comment, because I feel like I’ve been there before. Once upon a time, as a young MA student in English and Creative Writing, I found myself constantly shocked at the widespread inability by many of my colleagues to distinguish between author and narrator, something I was pretty good at by the time I graduated from high school. That may not adequately convey what I’m getting at, so let me put it this way: a lot of people seemed to believe that if you wrote about it, you were endorsing it. I encountered students of literature, who really ought to have known better before being allowed to graduate from a four-year college, who read Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and concluded that the author was a misogynist. The speaker in the poem – clearly a dramatis personae - was a psychopath, but Browning’s ability to crawl inside the mind of a murderer didn’t mark him as an artist with a keen insight into how dysfunctionality rationalized itself, it marked him as … a guy who fantasized about killing women?
At the time I blamed “reader-based” education, which seemed to say that if you read over something and don’t get it, it’s the writer’s fault. The post-structuralisms that this kind of foolishness derive from actually argue that the author doesn’t exist, so what the reader decides to do with a text is all that matters. I, of course, came from the opposite direction. Dr. Jim Booth had made very clear to me that if I didn’t get it, I needed to read it again and again until I did get it, and if I still didn’t get it I should ask someone smarter than me to explain it, because writers like Shakespeare and Donne and Milton (whom I still loathe, by the way) and Austen and Bronte knew what the hell they were doing. The discipline of this “writer-based” method has always served me well, especially when I have been surrounded by classmates whose laziness and deconstructionist sense of entitlement has presented me with a significant advantage.
But I digress. And if I’m not doing this perspective justice, forgive me, because it was so far out of touch with reality I had no idea what to make of it. Still don’t.
In any case, I never fully understood how, as a writer, I was supposed to go about crafting literature that showed how horrible something was without, you know, showing how horrible it was. And I rejected out of hand the notion that there were things that I couldn’t write about (because, as was pointed out to me on a daily basis, I was a white male, and hence was far more associated with the problem than the solution).
Doyle is correct in pointing out that Martin’s fantasy world is one where women don’t always fare well. Women are often treated as little more than chattel and there’s raping from one end of the narrative to the other. Her conclusion? Martin is “creepy.” He’s apparently projecting a milieu that he … approves of? Yearns for? My take is more along these lines: yeah, in the medieval world women were little more than chattel and there was raping from one end of Christendom to the other. If you depict a medieval world that is otherwise, you’re not really concerned with portraying the fact of things, are you?
However, there’s actually a lot more going on in Martin than “an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval” nerd paradise. We can talk about whether such tales are “fundamentally conservative” in the abstract, I suppose, but Rosenberg is relentless is dismantling the notion that Martin is any such thing.
It strikes me as oddly myopic to read a novel where literally every character makes grave strategic miscalculations as arguing that women’s bad decisions are caused by their lady bits. What’s interesting about A Song of Ice and Fire is that it depicts a world where norms and rules of engagement are shifting, rendering outcomes unpredictable for men and women alike. There is no man who seems like a more gifted rule or powerful strategic thinker than any given woman in Westeros or Essos, except perhaps Doran Martell and Varys, neither of whose plans have come to fruition yet, so it’s a bit too soon to tell. But it is telling that Sady entirely omits from her analysis Ygritte, Jon Snow’s lover, who keeps him alive when he’s failing to integrate with the wildlings; Melisandre, who is the most powerful religious figure in the novels and the only advisor who manages to keep her ruler on a trajectory that’s both strategic and moral; the Sand Snakes, powerful, aggressive Dornish women who are setting out to set various parts of Doran’s plan in action; Asha Greyjoy, by far the most strategically intelligent person in the Iron Islands; and Meera Reed, who manages to keep Bran, Hodor, and her brother alive on their quest to find the three-eyed crow; that she ignores that Brienne of Tarth is the highest living exemplar of chivalric ideals.
I have only gotten through the first book of the series so far, so Rosenberg’s depth of analysis far exceeds my own, but what she says strikes me as being accurate. Martin is taking on a genre that has been flogged to death ever since Tolkien, and having read a great deal of fantasy myself, I greatly appreciated the ways in which Martin has set out to reform the game a bit. His commitment to character development is unlike anything I have seen in fantasy in a very long time, if ever, and if you can count on anything, it’s that as soon as he introduces a type, he will shortly get to work expanding, deconstructing, betraying and blowing up your expectations.
Perhaps it’s no accident that the other thing I have been reading lately is Terry Pratchett’s hilarious and deadly insightful Discworld series, which raises irreverence for the conventions of a genre to an art form. He and Martin strike me as coming at the same set of questions from different directions, but the composite effect is twofold. First, they cast a bright light on the limitations of what so much popular fantasy has become (were Doyle’s outrage leveled at the genre in general, I’d be a lot more onboard with her). And second, they illustrate, as Rosenberg notes about Martin, the value inherent in casting certain kinds of issues against a backdrop where we can more readily focus on the possibilities in the dynamic.
The medieval era is a useful setting, because the conflicts are smaller enough than our contemporary ones that it’s possible to imagine that a single character can have an impact on the outcome, but big enough to feel that said impact is meaningful.
I don’t know George Martin, and as a newcomer to his writing I can’t pretend to even be an authority on his texts. But one book in, he strikes me as anything but a sexist or a misogynist or some kind of übernerd imprisoned in a Frank Frazetta-illustrated psychic prison. On the contrary, he comes off as a writer who’s aware of the gender role limitations women face in society. Why else would he devote such energy to the role of women in Westeros, and why would he invest so much energy in characters like Arya? Why would he set us up with such a fierce compare and contrast case as Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark, letting us ponder the agency with which they each assault the circumstances that a brutal patriarchy have woven around their lives? William Gibson (another male nerd writer with a keen interest in the role of women in our culture) observed that science fiction is never about the future, it’s about the present. By the same token, fantasy is never about there, it’s about here.
The same seems true of Pratchett, who presents us not only with strong women confronting a man’s world, but also women who, while perhaps not instinctively powerful alpha types, are nonetheless striving for a measure of authenticity in their lives that transcends cultural prescriptions. He also has no fear of going a step further and embedding some of these women in contexts complicated by class limitations, as well (I’m still trying to sort through Glenda, one of the protagonists in Unseen Academicals, but she’s a strong working-class woman who seems to be trying to understand how to be strong in an authentic, rather than clichéd fashion).
I’m glad that there are aggressive thinkers in our culture who are willing to invest in things like improving the nerdosphere. But I’m also uneasy when critiques are uninformed and lazy. Sexism is bad. Irresponsible allegations of sexism do more to hurt the progressive cause, though, because they provide ammunition for the reactionary noise machine, which likes nothing more than to portray feminists as shrill, out-of-touch radicals. You’ve heard Rush Limbaugh, so you know what I’m talking about here.
Thanks to Alyssa Rosenberg for approaching this debate with a hefty measure of intelligence and perspective. Doyle may have been one step back, but Rosenberg has taken us two steps forward, which means it’s been a pretty good day.