Thursday, 8 August 2013

Winter still has not come - pt. II

I talk below about George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, including the fourth and fifth novels. Where possible spoilers will be in white text (highlight to reveal) or otherwise signposted.


So far I have said that the basic narrative structure is fatally inertial, and that M. desires is caught up in a struggle to avoid the epistemological and ontological crudeness of fantastical storytelling. Another reason that Martin is unable to get on with it is, I argue, the emotional identification he makes with his world that makes him too reluctant to distort it, radically turn it upside down, and essentially alienate himself from it, which is what he must do (because winter is coming). He finds some comfort in the all-encompassing immersiveness of his world, just as his readers do. In fact, he is an addictive writer, overly attached to the comfortable resounding of the familiar, to the known and inalienable world he has created.

Now of course, not everyone agrees with this. In fact, some would say Martin is a remarkable novelist for the opposite – his happiness to kill off his characters. So John Lanchester in his review of the novels in the London Review of Books:
These [Robb Stark, Eddard, Renly etc.] are not peripheral figures but richly imagined, textured, three-dimensional portraits of central characters: the kind many writers couldn’t bear to kill off. Nobody needs to give Martin any advice about how he needs to slaughter his darlings.
I won’t quibble with this, except to say that Lanchester surely goes overboard in praising the sophistication of the characterization – Robb and Catelyn Stark are among the weakest characters. But it must be telling that, on his own account, Martin had terrible difficulty writing the well-known ‘Red Wedding’ scene in which he kills off several major characters and delayed it as long as he possibly could. Telling too is [spoiler] his utterly flat, insipid, gratuitous, crowd-pleasing, sentimental resurrection of Cat Stark. If you’re going to have the balls to write something like the Red Wedding at least follow through on it. [end spoiler]

In fact I think what is really telling about M.’s style is its circuitousness, how it always loops back on itself to the familiar. His writing is shot through with repetition and stylistic crutches. Garrons ‘whicker’, arms make ‘clangor’, candles ‘gutter’, the faithful protest that they are ‘leal’ (Old Scots for ‘loyal’ apparently), those who prefer would ‘as lief’ (an unforgivable, flaccid archaism), ‘red’ stands for sanguinary many times over, ‘is like to’ stands in for ‘is likely to’, ‘sit’ likes to be used transitively for ‘sit (upon a horse, throne, etc.)’. Martin becomes too keen on how these resound, on their comforting evocativeness and easy archaism, their transportive, reliable, olde worlde ring. Any phrase that catches his eye is a phrase well worth massively over-using – ‘meat and mead’ (is this how waiters at Medieval Times speak?), ‘little and less’, ‘much and more’, ‘dark wings, dark words’, ‘as much use as nipples on a breastplate’, ‘words are wind’ (nowhere near as aphoristic, or weighty, or true as Martin seems to think). He is a compulsive, clinging writer, and perhaps an undisciplined one.

I noted above Martin’s tendency to use characters’ internal perspective to return cyclically to central conceits and attributes, rather than to push out and really explore character psychology (‘I may be the Onion Knight but I have my loyalty, and in that my dignity’, you get the picture). I am minded to diagnose this as another symptom of Martin’s love of narrative comfort, his hominess. Symptomatic too is his tendency to progress the narrative and generate surprise by looping back to revisit old stories to reveal some new truth about them ([spoilers] who killed John Aryn, who tried to kill Bran Stark in book 1, the truth about the killing of the Targaryen kids; conversely, the introduction of the Oldtown scenes at the beginning of AFFC is a disastrous attempt to branch out). [end spoiler]

It is hardly novel to say that fantasy fiction is all about comfort and addictiveness. Michael Moorcock, in an article on the fantasy genre titled ‘Epic Pooh’ (sic – he is comparing Tolkien, tendentiously, to the writings of A. A. Milne), argued that the main feature of fantasy was the providing of a childish feeling of comfort (the article was recommended to me by particle physicist Jack Liddle – admittedly I’ve yet to read it, as I’m too frightened he might have already said everything I want to say: some immaturities die hard). Moreover I’m sure many of us begin from the prejudicial view that fantasy fiction offers escapist comfort, and that very often it provides an addictive form of release from real-world anxieties or alienation. I admit to having certain notions of the usual readers of fantasy fiction (male, withdrawn, socially ill-at-ease) – I don’t think these are entirely right, or even relevant, but, regardless of who enjoys it or how or why, it definitely seems true to me that fantasy worlds offer the comfort of an immersive, cocooning world. And it can be addictive – this is Lanchester’s review again:
The fans’ concern is that Martin just isn’t getting on with it. Martin is very active at going to conferences and on book tours and has other creative projects on the go, as well as an active website selling T-shirts, figurines and tat, and he blogs too, and many of his readers want him to stop doing all that and just get his head down to finish the books. That’s harsh, very harsh … and yet the fan part of me wants him to get on with it too. So this is the final anxiety about the world of Westeros.
One thing I don’t like about reading fantasy is the feeling it prompts in me of indecent haste, the desire to just get on with it, and work my way through to some sort of gratification. I tend to read fantasy in the same way as I eat a big bag of crisps: compulsively, as if dispatching a hunger, but with increasingly little gratification. In Martin’s favour, I’d argue that he’s as addicted as I am – so he’s not at a cynical remove pushing on his reader something he knows to be addictive and unhealthy. In fact he’s in the same boat – a victim too. On the other hand, however, it’s probably fair to say that, intellectually, his novels are well compared to a bag of crisps – i.e. not very nourishing.

Immersion vs. alienation

What I’m most interested in is Lanchester’s ‘anxiety’ – I think there are deeper-seated reasons why I feel an angsty compulsion to work my way through a fantasy novel. In fact, if I’m honest, I have a thesis made earlier that I intend to demonstrate below: namely that the reader of a fantasy novel is caught in a frustrating bind between, on the one hand, a drive to immerse him or herself in the fantasy world, and make it utterly familiar, and on the other the impossibility of really knowing a world so under-described, so lacking in content, so flimsily constructed from mere authorial assertion. Our drive to assimilate ourselves with the fantasy world and embrace it is prompted by, but also always thwarted by, its ever-tempting, ever-frustrating alienness.

This is something I have already touched on above: I said that the bigger, the more impressive and epic M.’s world-building becomes the more we are unable to embrace the world he builds because we see only one bit of it at a time. The grandeur of his vision (and I agree that his vision has grandeur) is never quite experienced directly – it is an always deferred pleasure. (There may be a post-structural point concerning this, but I would rather let others make it). I blamed this on M.’s using the wrong sort of narration, and still do, but it’s also true to say that ultimately here we ride up against the limits of what narrative can make us experience and know – i.e. because any narrative is delivered in a linear, temporal succession it cannot show us the wonder of, in Milton’s words, ‘all this world at once’. This is the sort of limitation I look at below.

First, I want to look at ‘immersiveness’ – the meta-fictional illusion that the characters and events of the narrative have place not in an artificial literary text but in a self-contained world with its own rich depth of accidentals and bits-and-bobs hanging off (history, lore, religion, geography, language, etc.). Even when we move our attention back from the foregrounded action, unlike in realist fiction, we still find ourselves framed by a fictive background, a larger pseudo-history of which the present story is only a fragment. We are therefore, or feel we are, at a further remove from reality, involved within concentric layers of fiction – and further, we are at home in this fictional world in pretty much the same way as we are at home in our real world, as the fictional world imitates the all-encompassing fullness of real life.

This is, I think, part of the ‘feel-good’ effect of fantasy, its emotional appeal to readers. It offers, in sum, the impossibility of alienation. Fantasy fiction constantly works to immerse the reader in a world which should be strange but is not – what is special about this world is not its monsters or wondrous things, but the reader’s ability to adopt its criteria of normality such that what is usually wondrous is, in this world, commonplace. We wonder at our non-wonder, if that isn’t too convoluted. When we wake up from a dream what surprises us is our previous sensation that the absurd events of the dream were as normal as reality. I do not, or do not just, gawp at the fact that Des Lynam was teaching me GCSE maths, or whatever was in my dream, but at the fact that I was so ensconced within my dream that it was normal – it was a normal, fixed feature of that dream world and I belonged to that world equally. Part of what impresses us when we read fantasy fiction is our cognitive gymnastics – we marvel at our own capacity for familiarization, our ability to swap realities and inhabit new ones. For those readers who struggle to make themselves feel at home in the real world (a significant proportion of any fantasy audience?) this is a vicarious pleasure, an escape from difficulty – look how easily we can make ourselves at home in an infinite number of notional worlds!

Of course, the fact that Martin is so very ‘at home’ in this fictional world is, as I have said, one reason why the plot moves so sluggishly. And Martin is dead wrong in assuming that maximizing the immersive depth of his world is an aesthetic end in itself – not only does he all too often (especially in A Feast for Crows) expand the history and mythology of Westeros while the narrative flatlines or goes round in circles, he also fails to realize its detrimental, self-trivializing effect: a world in which everything is familiar and in-place conversely has little worth discovering or knowing or solving.

What do I mean by this? I mean that in creating a world full of incidental detail, he inevitably creates a fictional work that is too often occupied with incidental, pedestrian, trivial detail. There are some things (e.g. characters) that require particular types of creative statement – that this world contains a person called Jon Snow with a particular set of attributes is a marked and important feature, it is a foregrounded topic that is put forward for special interpretative attention. That the world he moves in also has certain historical facts that are true of it (there was a famous battle at the Trident, before the Andals there were the First Men, that so-and-so was the son of so-and-so, etc.) is proposed to the reader with a tone of presuppositional familiarity – for us to be immersed in this world we need to take such accidentals for granted, to accept them as the new normality in this world into which we have been transported. As a result it becomes all too easy to agree with the nonchalant tone of the historical excerpts (and they do go on) and to switch off. Why fill a novel with deliberate unremarkableness? It’s just a new form of the normal, and the novelty of this wears off very quickly – besides, isn’t normality generally a bit boring? In reducing or minimizing the over-themed, artificially loaded meaningfulness of literary experience, Martin succeeds in bringing us closer to real experience but only by imitating its blandness.

            This is a problem I often have with much fantasy and science-fiction. Because of an assumption of the integrity of the make-believe world, a faith that the events and people and things mentioned can all be rationalized away as having a place within the backdrop of the wider fictional world, interesting things like anomaly and cruces vanish. When sci-fi author Alfred Bester writes, in The Demolished Man, ‘Reich stormed out of his apartment and descended to the street where a Monarch Jumper picked him up and carried him in one graceful hop to the giant tower…’ we don’t have to bother ourselves with the unexplored entailments of the description (what actually happened? how did it work? how was the vehicle powered?) because of a faith in the completeness of the author’s underlying vision. Critical behaviour is pre-empted because explanation lies elsewhere: we can be sure of an all-encompassing intellectual superstructure, the framework of the make-believe world, which will negate and resolve all unfamiliarity and anomaly – like I say, we are offered the impossibility of alienation.

[I realize that my argument above must entail some notion of an institutional practice of reading fantasy fiction – a reader could, if he or she wanted, interrogate Bester’s ‘Monarch Jumper’ as keenly as they would Keats’s ‘still unravished bride of quietness’. I haven’t proved that fantasy fiction does something to make its reader behave in a certain way. It is, however, central to why I think much fantasy and sci-fi does not qualify as literature. I abandon this question for now.]

 While it is impossible to be alienated from a fantasy world, it is fair to ask what, conversely, we are acquainting ourselves with – especially given that, as with the Bester quotation, the statements that create fictional worlds often consist of inaccessible or non-existent content. On this see Philip K. Dick’s amusing short story ‘Waterspider’, in which scientists from the future, mistaking science-fiction novels of the past for real scientific manuals, travel back in time to question a sci-fi writer about how his inventions work. Obviously there is no underlying science – it’s all made up.

So I’ll rap up this gratuitously long post by looking at two further things: first, problems with characterization; second the problem of ‘mere facticity’.

Characterization and ‘mere facticity’

Problems with characterization. Martin is often praised, or at least noted, for creating a world that is very densely populated with characters. The novels’ dramatis personae runs into the hundreds, possibly thousands. The aim is presumably to create an effect of engulfing complexity – the reader must involve himself in and move within a vast network of characters. It deepens the sense of involution. Now there is no doubt that Martin creates some very memorable characters: Davos, Tyrion, Jaime, Varys, the Hound. But the vast galaxy of people he aspires to create is beyond his powers of deft, single-brushstroke characterization. The families around the Riverlands are particularly forgettable. Too many of them give the reader too little to identify with – they are unreified, fleshless names only. So a risk in this expansion of his fictional universe is that what should be a deepening and enriching is in fact no such thing – he is merely populating Westeros with evermore cardboard cutouts. This is a particular problem for an author who creates so much of his story world from scratch: for many characters he also has to expend time and effort describing the descriptions, giving attributes to the attributes, because the qualities he attributes to his characters (where they are from, their history, their family) are often attributes he has to create himself as constituents of his world. If a major part of Robert Baratheon’s character lies in his past glory on the battlefield, then Martin will duly have to invent the battles; if aspects of Varys’ character are typical of the Free Cities, then he has to invent the Free Cities and those attributes of theirs that Varys exemplifies, etc. (No wonder the novels are so damn long! And perhaps this is why you find those crap fantasy novels written by two people? Just a thought). The problem is, of course, that Martin can’t do this all the time, therefore many of his minor characters are highly two-dimensional.

Contrast John le Carré, who in his Smiley novels is much more successful in creating a large but still varied and fleshed-out fictional population (I’ve often wondered if this partly alluded to by the title of the third novel in the series, Smiley’s People). Towards the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy we have this:

[Ricki] made a car rendezvous with the Hong Kong resident not far from his hotel, the Golden Gate on Kowloon.
Here Guillam leaned over to Smiley and murmured:
“Tufty Thesinger, buffoon. Ex-major, King’s African Rifles. Percy Alleline’s appointment.”

This is all we know of Tufty so far, but by virtue of various associations it is quite a lot: he served in the colonies, military type from the 1940s and 1950, is now a ‘Honkers’ ex-pat, is senior (possibly blimpish), has picked up a nickname typical of either public school or the army. We know, therefore, exactly what type of buffoon he is. Le Carré is able to paint this thumbnail portrait so deftly and so quickly because – and this is rather obvious – he doesn’t have to invent the associative resources and types he uses in building up character portraits because they already exist in the world. In many instances, Martin does not have this option; moreover, how much better do we feel we know a hastily invented character if the attributes by which they can be identified are similarly hasty and thinly assertoric?

            The result, therefore, is ever-increasing immersion in a fictional population that we cannot get to know as readers, because there is so little to its people. In many cases (though certainly not all) Martin cannot help us get to know them better because the extent of his inventiveness is necessarily curtailed by limits of time and space (though you’d sometimes wonder if he knows that). It is not feasible to create an entire population – because ultimately it forces you to invent the actual stuff of knowledge (this is the jist of my final argument below). The result is more alienating than immersive. Why didn’t Martin’s editors point out to him that fantasy fiction is especially inimical to his large-scale world-peopling ambitions?

So one of the problems faced by the creators of fantasy worlds is a mereological one – they cannot simply invent things and people but must also in many cases invent the attributes and components that constitute the things and people (and conversely the higher-level components that they themselves constitute) and that thereby make them knowable and identifiable. Let us take a hypothetical author who, as far as possible, wanted to create a make-believe world entirely from scratch, using none of the resources of the real world. If she asserted that this world contained beings about which she wanted to tell us, she would then have to invent the kinds of actions these beings carry out, the type of characteristics they have, the social-type units they form a part of, their anatomies, and ultimately through a process of recursion, the components of the anatomies, and the components of those components, and so on until the atomic level. This is clearly unfeasible, beyond reasonable limits of time and effort; actual fantasy writers don’t have to do this, because they borrow (and are generically licensed to borrow) basic foundational premises from the real world – this is why, as said, Martin doesn’t need to say that Westeros is populated by humanoids who are linguistic entities, but does need to say that it is populated by dragons, giants, and zombies. (Incidentally, remember what was noted before: M.’s treatment of the supernatural is one example of his success in creating a layered, rich fictional world. Monsters are portrayed alongside the inevitable different states of belief that would form part and parcel of the fact of the existence of monsters).

In those instances where the author does go beyond the resources of the real world, he is free to curtail the endless mereological recursion by simple diktat of relevance – the people of this world are made of organs, which are made of cells, and the cells are made of some other foundational matter which I rule to be irrelevant to my story-telling purpose. The problem is that the curtailed components are not really knowable, they are abstract placeholder facts about a notional something. Let’s say Martin had grown a little lazy and decided to portray Robert Baratheon as a warrior king who had made his name fighting in ‘certain battles in the past’ – this clearly has less informative content than the Robert who fought in the Rebellion defeating Rhaegar at the Trident, with a blow of his warhammer etc. But what about those instances where the fantasy author is forced into giving a curtailed vision, consisting of facts about, because the construction of an entire constituted fictional world is implausible? Take the example of made-up swearing. In Bester’s Demolished Man again, characters use swear words unique to the futuristic world imagined by Bester: “‘Frab that,’ Reich snapped” (I can’t quite remember how it is made clear in the story that ‘frab’ is offensive to others – i.e. = ‘fuck’, similarly ‘slok’ = ‘shit’ – but it becomes apparent one way or another). Now in one way we might be impressed at how deep, rich, and well-furnished Bester’s imaginary world is, but the depth is illusory and inert – all Bester is really saying is ‘it is a fact that Reich swore’.

Let’s compare it with a line randomly chosen from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: ‘“Shut the fuck up!” Begbie sneers.’ It is both a constative (‘it was a fact that in this story Begbie said ‘shut the fuck up”’) but also an act of swearing and, to some, of offending. ‘“Frab that,” Reich snapped” is a constative of a fact (that Reich swore) but ‘frab’ does not exemplify this fact – it just means ‘he swore (in a way that was offensive in this world)’. But the fact of offensiveness isn’t itself offensive – no one could object to the sentence ‘Begbie swore’. Now we could imagine to ourselves, we could make believe, that ‘frab’ is offensive, but not in such a way that we could know or experience a feeling of offendedness – it would just be a rather flat, abstract acknowledgement of the fact of an act of offensiveness having been committed in this world. It would be mere facticity. And even if, by some feat of imagination, we thought ourselves into a world which we inhabited so deeply that ‘frab’ was ‘fuck’ is to real-world English speakers, we’d have to ask what the pay-off would be for such a massive expense of cognitive effort. It would be ersatz swearing, when the real thing can be experienced without such strenuous efforts.

This is where mereology comes in. For a word to be an act of offending or swearing (and not just an inert ‘fact of swearing’) requires as a further component a society that makes it so, by its belief that that word is offensive. And this is beyond the world-building capacity of a novelist (isn’t it?). Sometimes, of course, writers depict something in their stories by creating it gestalt, rather than simply asserting the fact of its existence: in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, for instance, we get to know the novels written by the protagonist Garp because Irving writes whole chapters of them and incorporates them in the novel. Or in the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the episode of Seinfeld that the characters are working on is, eventually, featured in the final episode as an excerpt from a fully scripted, acted, and produced episode of Seinfeld. But there are limits on what a fiction-maker can make so, and magic up. In the Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’, for example, (it’s the one with Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls and what-not) Doyle is keen to impress upon the reader that Holmes and Moriarty are locked in a desperate intellectual struggle between masterminds, both trying to manipulate circumstances through ingenious contrivance so as to trap their enemy and doom him. The problem is, Doyle is unable to say what these machinations consist of, to say how exactly the two are playing this grand game of chess across the whole continent of Europe, presumably because not being a genius like Holmes or Moriarty he is unable to depict the workings of genius.

Now I’m being a bit harsh to Bester, as his novel is unusual in trying to exemplify what certain features of typical sci-fi worlds would be like (most ambitiously trying to replicate the experience of telepathic exchange). I’m also moving away from Martin, who doesn’t quite invent his own swearing, aside from particular oaths (‘Others take him!’, ‘what in the seven hells’, etc.). I’d say the same goes for them, though they are not as strong a case as Bester’s ‘frab’. What is relevant to Martin, however, is that far too much of his novels (and especially A Feast for Crows) is occupied with weak facticity – the long family histories and the extensive lore of Westeros, for instance, both consist essentially of statements that could be paraphrased ‘in the fictional world of Westeros it was a fact that…’ and contain no further epistemological value or content than that mere facticity. It is all too often gratuitous, with no additional allegorical or thematic or truth-telling purpose. Even worse, too much of it has too little substance for the reader to identify with it in any significant way.


I could probably say anything at this point, given how small the probability that anyone is still reading (if you are – thank you, and congratulations?). What I hope to have proved, or at least argued plausibly, is that fantasy produces in its reader a feeling something like Freud’s description of religious experience in Civilization and its Discontents:

“We cannot fall out of this world.” It is a feeling, then, of being indissolubly bound up with and belonging to the whole of the world outside oneself.

That first bit, ‘we cannot fall out of this world,’ is a quote from an obscure German text I’ve not heard of. I suppose really what I should be looking at, and what has underlay much of what I have said, is the psychology of fantasy fiction: the repetition compulsion, and desire for the amniotic immersion. The second half of my argument is similarly psychologically charged: that the need for immersion is perhaps prompted, certainly sustained, by a sense of hunger, anxiety, and dissatisfaction caused by the inevitable meagreness of a world created by authorial diktat. We are always left wanting more, spurred on to see a world made impossibly whole.

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