Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Unified Theory of Game of Thrones

Yes, the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but having seen several reviews, both positive and negative, as well as the first episode itself, I'm starting to feel like there's an elephant in the room. My Twitter friend Noel Kirkpatrick hits upon it to some degree with his generally negative review, in describing Game of Thrones' issues with the big three of race, class, and gender, but it also touches upon the discussion of the series as a representative on the fantasy genre, and even bigger than that, what makes for successful, classic television and storytelling.

It can be summed up as this: what is the point of the story?

In fantasy literature, in general, the point is the plot. It is meant to describe an interesting, entertaining, set of events. There are very few popular fantasy novels where nothing happens. It's not necessarily earth-shattering (although it often is), but the main characters are important participants in some kind of important event.

In more well-respected storytelling, or high-brow, or snotty artsy-fartsy crap, depending on how you want to describe it, plot is much less important than theme. Great stories are supposed to reveal something about the nature of the world or humanity or America or suburbia or men or women or what-have-you. While major events could happen, having the characters as the main participants in them is a sign of genre fiction, and frowned upon to some degree. Fantasy, where that's the entire point, thus exists at arguably the lowest level of that hierarchy, as that goddamn New York Times review demonstrated.

Which brings us to television. Interestingly, television, despite almost all of its series being "genre" stories (with the possible exceptions of Mad Men and Treme), television, or "quality television," is quite strong thematically. When you look at the shows which are considered part of the canon, such as it is, they almost all have tremendous thematic relevance. The critical king of television, The Wire, is all about theme, most notably, the crushing weight of institutions. But it doesn't stop there. The Sopranos is about the corruption of humanity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about growing up and dealing with responsibility. Even the great comedies have strong thematic elements. Arrested Development is about living with family. Seinfeld and later Curb Your Enthusiasm are about societal norms. Even The Simpsons has strong thematic elements, like its tendency to make fun of mob mentality in small towns.

On the other hand, you have shows that are considered trashy fun, like Glee or True Blood currently, where they're best described, as The Simpsons once famously said, as "just a bunch of stuff that happens." Glee of course tries to tack on morality, but it's so inconsistent that it undercuts its own ideals from scene to scene, let alone episode to episode. There are also the CBS-style procedurals, which occasionally have insulting theme descriptions (fascistic, hegemonic, etc) attached to them, but don't try to do much more than blandly entertain.

Here is Game of Thrones' problem: it is a story that is all plot. It's a great plot, to be sure, and some of the events can and will shatter your expectations of how plots are supposed to work (in a sense, it's somewhat similar to Joss Whedon's stuff, but we'll get there when we get there). But it's being treated as if it's a prestige series, to be placed in the HBO pantheon alongside Deadwood and Rome if not quite The Wire. But it doesn't have a strong theme. The theme might be emergent, that is, it slowly develops over the course of the show, and it will likely be subjective, changing from person to person. But that's not what makes for "quality television." And this may be Game of Thrones' biggest problem moving forward.

Note: my essential breakdown of story components is as such: all stories need good characters. Setting is where the characters live. Plot is what happens to the characters. Theme is what the characters learn/are supposed to teach the audience. Game of Thrones the book certainly has strong characters, which doesn't necessarily show up in the pilot, so there's plenty of hope yet.

Second note: I am not covering Game of Thrones in any official, paid, or week-to-week capacity. I would like to. If you know of anyplace that would be interested in taking me on to do it, let me know!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fantasy, Gender, and Game of Thrones

While I should not have been surprised about the new HBO series Game of Thrones turning into a referendum on fantasy, it has somehow turned into a huge discussion on gender in geek culture, which is somewhat more surprising.

The initial reason for this is that the highest-profile negative review, from the New York Times, specifically genders enjoyment of fantasy, calling it "boy fiction." This review's foolishness is well-documented (I took a few shots at it in my last post myself) and has led to a thriving mini-genre of female geek blog posts - see here.

However, as usual with gender, this is a multi-layered affair. Many of the writers who have treated Game of Thrones with the most disdain, and whose links are being passed around and mocked, and presumably have had their comments sections taken over by irate fans of the novels, have been female themselves. Myles McNutt, my co-AV Club writer, has documented and discussed this here, while my editor Todd Vanderwerff went into the subject a little bit deeper in the comments, citing both the male numerical dominance of online TV criticism, and even more interestingly, a masculine definition of what makes for a quality TV show.

This is without even getting into the text itself, where a gender analysis of the books, show, and the show compared to the books could all be fruitful. One consistent criticism of the show from people who haven't outright dismissed it for its genre has been an excessive amount of distracting boobage, which is also an issue I and others had with HBO's Boardwalk Empire. More subtly, I've heard suggestions that some of the impressive female characters from the novel are hard-done-by early on the show, since they don't have the internal, point-of-view monologue on-screen.

To sum up the different gender arguments, in case you're looking for a senior project, thesis, or dissertation topic:

  • Treatment of gender in the A Game of Thrones novel
  • Treatment of gender in the Game of Thrones series
  • Comparing and contrasting gender in the book and the series
  • Gender of reviewers responding to the show
  • Gender of TV reviewers overall
  • Gendered discussion of "quality television"
  • Stereotypes about gender of Game of Thrones fans
  • Stereotypes about gender of fantasy fans in general
  • And, finally, the one that I haven't seen mentioned often: the gendered discussion of fantasy literature as a whole
You see, I've long had the impression that fantasy was gendered female, especially compared to its fraternal twin, science fiction. Science fiction is largely written by men, and the subgenre of "hard" science fiction focuses on rational concerns, extrapoliting current science out into time and space (and note the gendered terminology, hard=rational=masculine, soft=imaginative=feminine). Fantasy, on the other hand, is written by women as or more often than men, and is reliant on magic, an irrational flight of imagination. I even had a creative writing textbook once which said that science fiction was a good genre because it could say something about the world we lived in today, whereas fantasy was pure escapism and totally unserious.

My personal experience bears this out as well. In the 90s, I spent a lot of time on CompuServe's Science Fiction & Fantasy forums, and found that yes, the fantasy forum seemed to have a much better balance of male and female contributors, whereas the science fiction forum skewed much more male. Interestingly, I also talked about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in another subforum, and recall that being a primarily male forum.

To be fair: it is possible that, despite my possibly-accurate impression of the fantasy genre and its fans skewing female, A Game of Thrones is actually a more masculine-oriented novel, much as I found The Wheel of Time to be male. Perhaps there is something in the structure of the neverending fantasy series preferred by Jordan and Martin which fits in with masculine concepts, in the same way that Todd described "quality television" (usually serialized, dense, and overly serious) as seeming to have a masculine orientation. It could also be that by keeping magic largely on the sidelines, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, A Game of Thrones possesses a more historical, rational, and masculine appeal. On the other hand, one of the fantasy authors I would describe as the most "feminine" (despite his apparent male gender), Guy Gavriel Kay, also tends to write "fantistoricals." Or I'm theorizing excessively and this is all total nonsense.

Regardless, if I have a point here, it's that much like yesterday, it's hardly fair to attach qualities of gender to the Game of Thrones series in such a generalized, conclusive fashion. There are layers upon layers here, and as ever, I say it's more complicated than it may seem at first glance.

Friday, April 15, 2011


The HBO series Game of Thrones is still two days away from actually airing, but early reviews have touched off an apparently internet-wide discussion about the fantasy genre as a whole. Some early reviews have taken the form of pure snobbery - witness this witless line from the New York Times:

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
Others have taken a more engaged approach, if only out of curiosity, like reviewer Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times Magazine (motto: like our daily, but not as idiotic!):

All of which is very somber — and a little odd, when you think about it. Even with countless horrors on the way, wouldn’t there be at least one unshakable optimist in the bunch? Isn’t that how we, in the real world, get through life? Irrational optimism in the face of looming bleakness? Yet in this brand of fantasy (ed note: medieval fantasy, as opposed to superheroes or speculative fiction), grim-faced nihilism isn’t just a default philosophy; it’s a foundational religion.
Somehow this television series has become a referendum on literary fantasy as a whole, and what it means. I'll grant that this is understandable. I've even helped create this impression, having, in the past, described my excitement for Game of Thrones as being excited for the first-ever major television series in the fantasy genre - only Hercules and Xena have even vaguely attempted in recent years, and, well, I'm sure you'll agree that the comparison is slightly different. Yet the fact is that Game of Thrones and the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is not the entirety of the fantasy genre. It would probably be unfair to declare that any single book or series of books counts as that representative, but it's especially bad for Game of Thrones:

  • It's darker than most fantasy. Characters die. Life in pseudo-medieval Westeros is, as Hobbes declared, nasty, brutish, and short.
  • It's not magical. I first discovered the term "fantistorical" on the jacket of A Game of Thrones, actually. There is some magic, but it's mostly on the outskirts - ghoulish "Others" beyond a giant wall, or maybe dragons across the sea. The main story is all people.
  • It's political. The conflicts in the series are largely people in power trying to gain more, maneuvering in back rooms with occasional assassinations or coups. This is not Aragorn making a heroic speech as everyone charges with him into a mass of purely evil orcs and trolls.
  • It's a human conflict, both in the figurative sense of politics and grey areas (as opposed to ultimate evil or corrupt magic), and in literal terms. The characters are humans, not namby-pamby elves or conniving kobolds. It's not Dungeons & Dragons. Some reviews have mentioned that there are "dwarves" but this is misleading. The character in question is a little person, a human, not Gimli or Thorin.
  • Finally, it's really good. They're pulp novels, yes, and shouldn't be mistaken for high art, whatever that means. But they're remarkable at creating momentum, memorable characters and stunning plot developments.
Saying A Game of Thrones and the rest of the books of the series are representative of all fantasy literature is roughly akin to saying The Wire is representative of all television. There are differences, of course, GOT is popular within the medium where The Wire is a niche show, but both have such strong defenders in part because they do things differently than normal, and they do things better than normal. So judge Game of Thrones on its own merits. Judge fantasy in general based on a decent sample. But don't judge Game of Thrones, positively or negatively, because of fantasy as a whole. That's reductive, unfair, and almost certainly wrong.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I'll talk about the gender-based reaction to Game of Thrones and its reviews, since it keeps coming up, and you know, GENDER!!!