After last week’s Game of Thrones episode with its infamous Red Wedding scene, watchers of the show wait on the edge of their seats to find out what could possibly happen next and readers are wondering where in the heart-pounding series of events in A Storm of Swords, the show creators will decide to end this season.
In an Entertainment Weekly interview, author George R. R. Martin replied to questions about how he coped with writing such a bloody, tragic scene, and how he dealt with the initial reader reaction:
People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.
First of all, one of the things I admire about Martin in this interview is how nonjudgmental he is of escapist fiction. He’s not saying that readers who want a soothing story are wrong or stupid or lazy readers; he’s just saying they’re not the readers for his books.
In that quote, Martin is implying that his series isn’t really escapism, at least not the way he defines it. But Game of Thrones is escapism, it’s just escapism for people who enjoy escaping into a world of heart-pounding drama and pornographic levels of gore. Not all forms of escapism are about comfortable sedation in a pain-free world. But just adding more gore and senseless tragedy doesn’t necessarily make a story more realistic.
On a certain level, isn’t all fiction escapism? For the period of time you’re reading it, you escape your own life and surroundings for the world of the novel, whether that fictional world is softer or harsher than your own. In that sense, Martin’s world isn’t more “realistic” than a medieval fantasy with a happy ending. It’s just different.
I’m not making this argument because I have anything against Martin; in fact I admire his imagination a great deal and enjoy his series very much, and I also respect his open-mindedness about people’s need for escapism in literature. But instead of framing the way we talk about literature as what is more escapist versus what’s more “realistic,” why not just talk about why he chose that particular way to tell that individual story? Martin gets at it with his mention of the darkness and light of life — that’s a good theme to work with and a compelling way to discuss what he does with his stories. Does it matter that that’s more or less “realistic” than something else?
For example, the average American’s life isn’t filled with incidents such as weddings in which half the guests are slaughtered. Maybe the shocking brutality of that scene contains a truth about the tenuousness of life, the way death is sometimes totally senseless, the way that our trust in standard social conventions could be overturned at any moment if someone is just unscrupulous enough. Those things might make his scene more true, but not more “realistic.”
Why is this distinction so important? Because there’s truth in the sappy, comfortable escapist novels that he mentions, too. A kinder, softer fantasy story — like Lloyd Alexander’s adventure for young readers, The Arkadians, to go really soft and fuzzy — can still contain truths about human flaws, growth, and the challenges we face. And a happy ending doesn’t necessarily signal a totally unrealistic story — sometimes the guy does get the girl, after all, and a world in which everyone is irredeemably miserable is just as unrealistic as a story in which everyone is ecstatically happy. Piling on the gore doesn’t mean a story is more real or more true. It just means it’s more gory.