George RR Martin Defends Genre

I had to call attention to this quote from the interview on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist with George RR Martin, Garner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham, whose collaboration Hunter’s Run is about to come out. For those who are not familiar with George RR Martin, he is the author of the 7-book epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s currently working on book #5, and the whole thing was optioned by HBO to become a 7-season TV series. Now that’s worth getting cable for.

– Speculative fiction is all well and good. Yet is there any chance that, gifted writers that you are, you will use that talent for more “worthwhile” literary endeavors, such as writing about the triumph of the human spirit ร  la Terry Goodkind!?!

GRRM: I think Daniel and Gardner have missed the, ah, irony of your quoting Mr. Goodkind on this point, Pat. Goodkind’s disavowal of the fantasy label is nothing new, of course. I suspect it stems from the same desire to be taken seriously as a writer that has motivated similar denials from other authors in years past, talents as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, and Margaret Atwood. The same sort of denials are being put out right now as regards Cormac McCarthy (of course it’s not SF, it’s literature). None of us wants to be consigned to the playpen, or have our work dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration as literature because of the label on the spine. Myself, I think a story is a story is a story, and only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Genre labels are marketing devices, no more. It has been said that I have “changed genres” several times during my career, but from where I sit, I haven’t changed at all. I write the stories I want to write, and let the publishers and reviewers worry about what to call them. I plan on continuing to do that.

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42 thoughts on “George RR Martin Defends Genre”

  1. I tried Goodkind. And I didn’t find enough substance in the Goodkind I did read to make the lack of entertainment worthwhile. As I recall I finished the ‘Stone of Tears’, but added the author to my ‘avoid’ list. I can re-read Dickens. And Rand. I won’t be re-reading Goodkind, nor thinking of the work as ‘literature’ – that is, something to be respected above common writing and entertainment.

    George R R Martin is also an ‘avoid’ for me. He writes for a niche that doesn’t interest me.

    I wonder about Anne McCaffrey, and how she feels about the SF label? I just finished (my signed by the author) ‘Nerilka’s Story’ again. My first experience with McCaffrey was ‘The Ship Who Sang’, and many of the first Pern stories, through DragonSong and The White Dragon. I also read her ‘A Stitch in Snow’, and the three early novels including ‘The Mark of Merlin’ (about a dog and inherited traits) which were novels in the romance line. And she returned to a moderately successful career in science fiction writing and editing.

    I was a bit confused about GRRM’s comment of labeling SF being a marketing ploy. In one sense I suppose publishers think ‘we will call this SF’ to target an audience. On the other hand, the SF book shelf can help place the book where SF readers can more easily judge the book on it’s merits. Service or selling strategy? I think it depends more on whether the publisher and author respect the SF field or not. Some do not – they are out to make a buck, find that enough copies sell to buy bread and paper, and continue. Others seem to live and create breathing worlds, where adventure is applied to interesting situations, where we vicariously overcome new issues, where we vicariously solve tough puzzles. And where we make friends and find respect and honor in unexpected forms and places.

    I understand that for some people Fantasy/SF is about horror. The ‘Aliens’ movies certainly fed that notion. I was distressed to find a local video store shoved their horror and SF titles onto a combined shelf. Sort of (to my mind) sticking romantic comedies in with adult stuff. The SF that stands out for me is the story about people I can respect even though I never come to know them. ‘On Basilisk Station’ by David Weber. ‘Dragon Song’ by Anne McCaffrey. ‘Wild Magic’ by Tamora Pierce (fantasy). ‘Emergence’ by Palmer. ‘Unwillingly to Earth’ by Paula Ashwell – the story is a bit uneven, needs more editing, but several good stories buried in the novel. ‘Conflict of Honors’ by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, also ‘Balance of Trade’. Stories of bringing honor to a task, of growing in experience and respect. And I bought each off a ‘Science Fiction’ shelf.

    Lest you think I claim that because it is SF, ‘it must be good’, recall my favorite SF quote, I think in the 1950’s by Joseph Campbell, “90% of science fiction is drekh. But 90% of everything is drekh.” And also his ‘a good science fiction story is a good people story.”

  2. I think Martin’s larger point about marketing is that publishers see SF (and all genre fiction) as profitable but not serious, even though books like The Road or The Handmaid’s Tale or Never Let Me Go are works of genre. Stick them in the fantasy/SF section and they’d never be considered for a major award, like the Pulitzer. And once an author gets labeled into a niche, it’s very hard to break out and do something else, or be taken seriously by the literary establishment.

    Ruth Rendell is a great case in point. She’s one of the UK’s finest living authors, but because she’s labeled a crime writer she would never get considered for something like the Booker.

    Martin is saying that this is silly–a good story is a good story no matter what section you bought it in. The Road would’ve been just as good if Cormac McCarthy were known for his space opera and not for “literary fiction,” whatever that really is.

  3. While I enjoy Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire I disagree with his assessment that the publishing houses are to blame for the segregation among fiction today. I do concur that it is a marketing strategy, but I also believe the marketing is reflective of the “genre” being written, not the other way around. Fantasy is fantasy because it fits into a mold or framework certain writers wish to employ.

    That being said, the genre of a novel should not keep a well written novel out of the much deserved accolades similar to that of The Road. But that is the crux of the problem, Martin is not telling us anything new, challenging, or breathtaking; his novels are pleasure novels, written well, good character development, but not new.

    But the problem with Martin’s work in Ice and Fire is that it is “typecast.” Yes, he has done something different than say J.K. Rowling, or even Robert Jordan (showing characters demonized in the first book turn out to have their own motives for doing what they did in subsequent books, willingness to kill off main characters, vis-ร -vis Ned Stark, etc.), but that does not make his work “different” from Rowling or Jordan.

    We still have a novel that is not literature. A story is a story is a story, but the type of story is important for more than just marketing purposes. There has been an explosion of writers and books published in the twentieth century with the trend continuing in the twenty-first with unprecedented access to self-publishing software and businesses that allow new authors to bypass the major publishing corporations. This has helped, and will continue to promote, segregation the fictional world into genres for the simplest reason of attempting to organize all of this new information.

    This is not a bad thing in my opinion because certain novels are much better than others, certain genres better. Shakespeare will always trump Martin, Cervantes over Rowling, Pynchon over Jordan, Gaddis over Grisham.
    The people who find entertainment out of the genre writers should not be alarmed that they are not reading literature in the mold of the Western Canon, it is alright, however, they should not attempt to push it into the Western Canon, it does not belong there, it is a remake of greater stories. The canonical books will outlive Martin and perhaps that snobbery is what he is fighting against, but it is an uphill battle, the literati do not want to allow access to someone who is remaking the great books into lesser gems, and why should they? Why should we as readers allow it? Reading for pleasure is great, but reading for insight into ourselves is better, the characters presented from Achilles to Hamlet, Dido to Elizabeth Bennet allow us access to a wider range of humanity and what it means to be human than Eddard Stark or Rand alโ€™Thor will, as they are simply lesser copies of greater characters.

  4. Let me just start by saying I am truly *honored* that I’m receiving such high quality comments. Thank you so much for contributing to this conversation, all of you.

    Here’s what I like about what you’re saying–I think that genre is a hiding place for a lot of mediocrity. We may disagree whether or not Martin is an example of that mediocrity, but that’s irrelevant to the larger point that I agree with.

    However, I disagree that genre necessitates the kind of reduction you’re alluding to. I’ll refer again to Ruth Rendell, a crime writer, whose stories are most definitely new, not derivative, and I’d argue more groundbreaking and moving and valuable than some of her contemporaries who are writing “serious” works.

    Additionally, many of the great authors you’re speaking of most certainly employed (or invented) genres. Shakespeare’s romantic comedies come to mind.

    Finally, I disagree that certain genres are better than others. There is nothing inherent within a form that makes it more or less able to contain profound meaning. A writer has something to say and chooses the best form with which to say it. Whether or not the work has merit depends upon the writer’s ideas, not the manner in which those ideas are structured.

    I could also make a sub-argument that Pyncheon is just as much of a genre writer as George RR Martin, only his genre is currently a la mode among the literati. There’s just as much crap being written in the postmodern form as in the epic fantasy form.

  5. I’d also agree that “genre” does not necessarily lead to that kind of reduction. The Brontes in their time were considered genre writers. Georges Simenon was long dismissed until publishers like the New York Review of Books are republishing his work for North American audiences in recognition that being a mystery writer is no meagre label. And it goes. Comparing authors like Rowling and Jordan to compare with Gaddis and Pynchon seems disingenuous — of course if you’re going to go for the most mediocre fantasy writers and compare them to the most acclaimed literary fiction writers the former is going to come up short. I don’t read that much fantasy but I’d look at John Ford (who often gets shelved in the general fic section anyway) and VanderMeer before I went for *Rowling*. ๐Ÿ˜›

  6. Oh, and as far as I’m concerned a lot of the “magic realism” authors are writing fantasy. Same goes for many of A.S. Byatt’s short story collections.

  7. Let me think. Dickens. Tolkein. Tolkein, especially, is identified with a genre – fantasy – and is well on the way to being considered great literature. Which happened many years before the movies came out.

    I think Christopher and the literati are mistaken, if they think all ‘great literature’ is shelved under ‘literature’ or ‘general fiction’. Something about ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ suggests you have to read the story to find if it really is fun fluff or really is worth praising for insights and enrichment of the spirit.

  8. True, Shakespeare did invent a lot of the “genres” now used. I should clarify that I read a lot of fantasy and do believe Martin is at the top of the field, however, currently reading Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why has sparked a sense of realignment in what I should read and why.

    I also realize that Bloom is under attack for many reasons, but I enjoy his style, his arguments, and to be frank, his sense of purpose in the fact that he feels genuine reading is winking out across the United States.

    But before I get sidetracked I will admit that perhaps I went a bit far with my comparisons, but I did so to make a point, some literature is better than genre fiction. Some people are not going to like this, and to be honest, I thought Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 was funny while I struggled to get through the first one hundred pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. I enjoyed Wallace’s Infinite Jest while shrugging my shoulders at On the Road. Literature, genre fiction, they are what we the reader make them, and at the end, we go with what makes us feel. For some, genre fiction makes them feel something, for me, the trek through the Western Canon makes me feel something. In the end I concur with Bloom, reading is a solitary practice, one that is solely between us and the author’s work and no one else.

  9. In follow-up, I disagree that the school of magical realism is fantasy. Magical realism is taking something in our world and using a sense of wonder as a form of metaphor to explain experience. Take One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez’s use of metaphor through his magical realism is showing us the Buendia family’s emotional experiences.

    Fantasy is creation of alternate worlds with a point of the fantastic. I do not find metaphor as easily in Martin’s work as in Marquez’s. To be sure you can easily read and interpret whatever you as reader want to in a work, however that may be fishing, such as feminists looking for reasons to object to Austen’s characters. Fantasy is a “brick and mortar” sense of wonder, it is set in realistic standards with a twist of the fantastic, usually through magic.

    I also wish to clarify what many might be thinking, that I prize the Western Canon above all else, I do not. To be sure other cultures have their canons, when I speak of the Western Canon I speak only for those works that have founded the tradition of our culture’s underpinnings, which are not subject to strictly fictional works.

  10. I’m all for omnivorous reading. I enjoy reading the classics as much as I enjoy reading epic fantasy. Like you said, it’s all about what makes you feel–and I have no patience for mediocrity or self-indulgence no matter where I find it. You’ll see an eclectic mix in my Favorite Authors sidebar as well as amongst my posts.

  11. Pingback: More on Genre
  12. Oh, darn. Now I’m going to have to like George R.R. Martin, even though I tried A Game of Thrones and didn’t enjoy it (although I’ll be reading it for a Fantasy course this year; maybe I’ll come to like it.) I hate it when authors whose books I don’t like turn out to have intelligent opinions!

    I’ve never read Terry Goodkind, but it comes as an enormous shock to hear that his books are more worthwhile literary endeavours than the works of…well, anyone, really. Maybe I’ll try one—although I can’t say that the description of his books as being about “the triumph of the human spirit” produces any particular enthusiasm in me.

  13. Hmm. I’m confused by your definition of “magical realism”: taking something in the world and using a “sense of wonder” to explain that experience? What do you mean by “sense of wonder

    I’m afraid I don’t buy that definition of fantasy at all. I’m reading a SF/F anthology right now where the author’s character is definitely living in this world, but the “magical” element, I suppose, is the incorporation of a mythological creature, the selkie, to explicate and elaborate on an real world experience.

    Other fantasy writers simply set their stories in actual past periods and have the magic happen literally, the way it would in any Greek epic. Guy Gavriel Kay did this in Last Light of the Sun. Diana Wynne Jones does this all the time. She also has books wholly set in contemporary time that have characters interacting with beings from the fantastical realm.

    I’ve never read Marquez but I’ve read Murakami and Steve Stern, both considered “magical realists” and that’s pretty much what they do in their stories (more Stern than Murakami). Stern pulls heavily from Jewish myth, and Murakami’s novels have had Japanese forest spirits and alternate worlds.

    If it’s a matter of a story working on more than a literal fantastical level, just about all of Kay’s books, (Tigana and Last Light of the Sun especially) explore themes of history and memory and how humans construct our national identity through magical events.

    I’ve never read Martin and typically don’t read epic fantasies in general, which is perhaps why I simply can’t subscribe to such a reductive definition of fantasy.

  14. Not all genres employ metaphor. It’s not always appropriate, so to use that as a criterion for claiming a genre’s superiority, you’re going to fail.

    Take our dear Ms. Austen, working squarely in a realist, literal mode. Do her works suffer because she focuses on the everyday?

    You can’t hold Martin to task because his epic fantasy doesn’t employ metaphor. It’s a genre focused on placing the real within the imaginary, like an inversion of magical realism. You might as well take Tolkein to task for inventing hobbits.

  15. I was not implying that if a novel lacks metaphor it is not as great as the novel that does, or that it is not worth reading.

    However, I am arguing, and will continue to argue, that not all books are created equal. Fantasy is more than just “magic” and alternative created worlds, but even so, I do not understand why most of the comments feel this need to defend it against works outside the fantasy genre? Why the need? Why must it be just as good as The Iliad? Why is there this need to have validity by the literati? If you like a book, like the book for what it is, not what it is not.

    As for magical realism, a sense of wonder employed by Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I highly recommend) is hard to pin down for explanation, perhaps someone else who has read it can help me out.

    I am a book elitist and proud to be one, this does not mean that I shun fantasy or genre fiction, but I also understand that it is solely entertainment and serves, for me, no other purpose than to entertain. Quoting my muse, Harold Bloom on Shakespeare, โ€œThe creator of Sir John Falstaff, of Hamlet, and for Rosalind also makes me wish I could be more myself. But that, as I argue throughout this book, is why we should read, and why we should read only the best of what has been written.โ€ (How to Read and Why, pg 38)

    Some will argue that can be achieved by works in genre fiction, I do not share this philosophy.

  16. Obviously I don’t think that fantasy or other genre fiction is necessarily “just entertainment.” We disagree there, but I agree with the spirit of what you are saying about wanting excellence from literature. Down with mediocrity!

    Thank you so much for contributing to what has turned into a great conversation.

    Do check out Christopher’s response over on his blog, everybody!

    And feel free to keep talking over here…

  17. Oh, I don’t believe that all books are created equal, nor was I the first to compare genre authors to anyone outside their field. I simply don’t feel that restrictive labels, of any kind, especially for literature, are worthwhile, especially when they don’t reflect my reading experience. I also don’t hold one genre above the other, automatically: 90% of everything is crap.

  18. ‘90% of everything is drekh’ is supposed to imply there is 10% of worthwhile material anywhere, and that there is no ‘golden’ shelf where only good books are shelved.

    The other thing to consider here is that there are different standards to judge a book by – market appeal, ability to move or entertain the reader, whether the work promotes growth of the spirit, inspires follow-on action from rebellion to dedication to cause to pursuit of a particular interest or career.

    Even if the standard is to fit into 290 pages, few books score really well from all aspects. And a number of ‘trash’ books have their uses. A book to amuse and relax a scholar might be arrogant or otherwise offensive to someone with little literary background. A book that delights a philosophy professor might be a delight for a young reader, but maybe not (‘C D B’, Steig).

    I suppose there are those that look at a body of books, and determine ‘90% of these are crap’ for one reason. A different 90% are crap for another reason. And so on. And disregard anything ever labeled crap.

    The other perspective might say, 10% are good for this reason, 10% for another, and so on. Then sample from anything ever labeled good.

    Me, I suppose I tend to think more in terms of ‘I like this book, what else has the author written?’, or ‘what else in this genre looks interesting?’ And conversely, ‘I am tired of what this author writes now. I will skip anything written after (for instance) ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. I seldom think of a book as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, more often ‘I like this one’ or not.

  19. I’ve waited too long to join this discussion… there are too many things I want to address!

    Genre: 90% of everything is drek… and 100 years from now certain works of today will have stood the test of time and shed any genre label in favor of the label “Classics,” and the rest will be rotting in landfills. (Funny that someone should mention the Iliad… I’ve seen that in chronologies of fantasy.)

    The most basic definition of fantasy is fiction about things that can’t really happen, such as magic. Some of the genres discussed above are species of the fantasy genus, if you will. Magic realism, for instance. Science fiction can be considered a subset of fantasy in which the genre elements can’t happen YET.

    Of course, I’m taking a literary point of view, not a marketing point of view. To write & sell spec-fic, the question you have to ask yourself is, Do I still have a story if I take the speculative element out? GRRM doesn’t, because he’s got a whole alternate world going. Salman Rushdie has a science fiction bit toward the end of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but it’s not what the whole thing is about; he could have eliminated that without losing much (other than the whole Orpheus resonance, but never mind).

    Sense of wonder: I was summoned over here when that came up, I’m not sure why. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I disagree with the notion that sense of wonder is what distinguishes magic realism as a genre. But the confusion may come from the fact that magic realists are better at evoking sense of wonder than most other fantasy writers these days.

    I’m not an expert on magic realism, but I’ve come up with a rule of thumb for defining it (and I’d love feedback on this). I think it’s a story where an element of magic or the supernatural sidles in almost unremarked-upon by the characters, not as the focus of the story or even a huge part of the story, just as a catalyst or some other crucial role.

    It actually dismays me a bit to see a genre that sprang out of the love of sense of wonder, namely fantasy, almost utterly forget that’s what gives it life.

    Oh, and Guy Gavriel Kay: “set [his] stories in actual past periods”?? Er, not so much.

  20. Me either, but I’ve read some other magic realism, a short story in particular that was recommended as an exemplar of the genre. Alas, I don’t remember author or title! Hmmm…

  21. Sensawunda:

    In part, I concur with your definition of magical realism. In, my opinion, the greatest work of the twentieth century, One Hundred Years of Solitude we have magical realism happen exactly as you have defined it. I do not wish to spoil this novel for anyone so I will not list specific examples, I am also saddened that so many have not read this powerful book (Oprah must be sad).

    As for Kay, he writes in another world that is similar to ours, reference The Lions of Al-Rassan. It is a fantasy world that is Spain but not Spain.

  22. Sensawunda, I like that definition of magic realism actually. It works for me, based on the books I’ve read, more or less.

    Re: Kay, His “Last Light of the Sun” was set in a recognisable time period with familiar events (permeation of Christian belief over pagan) with certain elements changed of course. And his latest, “Ysabel” has a contemporary setting.

    Ok, now I’m going over to read Christopher’s posts. Moving house is so distracting.

  23. Thanks, Imani! It isn’t super easy to define. But the good thing is, I just ordered 100 Years of Solitude… I remembered I had an Amazon certificate that expired today! Also got books 2 & 3 of a Roger MacBride Allen time-travel trilogy… read book 1 about 7 years ago and didn’t realize it was “To Be Continued” til I got to the end. I hate when that happens!!!!! (The Chronicles of Solace, book 1 is The Depths of Time) There was sensawunda in that book.

    Sorry about my final remark. It appears to me that Kay wanted to set his novels in the cultures of medieval Europe and the Near East without being unduly bound by historic events. It’s actually what a lot of fantasy writers do, but they usually try to make their worlds more different. The advantage (and irony) of Kay’s approach is that it actually allows him access to a much richer cultural tapestry… because he doesn’t have to make it ALL out of whole cloth. And it’s clear he’s done tons of research.

    I haven’t gotten to “Ysabel”…

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