The Love of Problematic Literature

Periodically, someone pops up to tell us we shouldn’t like literature in which Bad Things happen. The most recent iteration of this is a critique of the sexism and misogyny of the world and characters in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the critique. A writer friend recently had to fix a bad copyedit that consisted, in large part, of making the (non-historical, non-Earth) world of his book more sexist because “that’s how high fantasy works.” I understand that these things can be done thoughtlessly and pointlessly and in ways that contribute to the idea that “that’s how the world works.” But that doesn’t mean that the presence of these elements mean that the work is thoughtless, pointless, or harmful to its readers.

Nor does it mean that the fans of that work, even if they disagree with you vehemently about the worth of the work, are drinking in the sexist Kool-Aid. We interact with what we read in complicated ways, even when we’re deep in fandom. One of my favorite fantasy books sets the plot in motion by placing an almost supernatural value on beauty–which leads to a brutal incestuous rape. When I reread it, I often skip that part. I’m not up for putting myself through it, and while it’s a necessary part of the story, I’m interested in what happens afterward.

Alyssa Rosenberg has that kind of complicated relationship with the Song of Fire and Ice, and she explains it, and what it means to read fantasy, beautifully:

And it seems particularly bizarre to assume that people read A Song of Ice and Fire because they want to live in the world depicted in it. 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. Sady may find medieval warfare boring, which is her prerogative, but that does not mean that medieval warfare is inherently boring (the constant treatment of preferences as facts is one of the things I find most offputting about this mode of criticism), and the scale of it means that critics like Spencer Ackerman have been able to extract applicable lessons and metaphors about strategic thinking from it that are accessible to everyday readers. I tend to find the banking subplots both interesting and usefully, grimly analogous to our present situation. I read these novels with a profound thankfulness that I don’t live in this time period, but with a feeling of being energized by the characters’ triumphs. If I had an actual office, I’d have a replica of Needle over my desk, not because I want to live through Arya Stark’s privations, but because her strength in them reminds me of the smallness of my own obstacles, the tiny magnitude of risk I face in confronting them, and that spurs me on. People want to be part of the Brotherhood Without Banners not because they are really psyched to be peasants trying to survive in a country where the nobility is actively hostile to their flourishing, but because groups based on affinity for fiction can be really rewarding!

I recommend reading the whole thing.

The Love of Problematic Literature

2 thoughts on “The Love of Problematic Literature

  1. 1

    I am struck anew by the animosity in some quarters toward A Song of Ice and Fire. For example, this year's winner of the Nebula was Connie Willis's Blackout. Connie Willis's writing is genteel; George R.R. Martin's is not. Yet Blackout and its "sequel", All Clear, are more offensive to me than A Song of Ice and Fire ever was. Blackout and All Clear are unabashed idealizations of the World War II era and mystical Christian proselytization to boot. (If I wanted to use the word "privilege", I'd use it to describe Connie Willis's airy perspective.) Magic aside, Song of Ice and Fire is a gritty, realistic depiction of politics in a parallel universe's version of medieval Europe and Asia Minor. You read Song of Ice and Fire thinking, "Damn. I'd never survive that shit. I'm so glad I don't live in the Middle Ages."(Seriously, what is up with today's prominent fantasy writers? The author of Zoo City was on NPR smugly decrying "the artificial war between atheists and creationists" and embracing the Golden Mean Fallacy. Never mind the fact that "artificial war between atheists and creationists" is a criminally inelegant clause.)I don't think any of the literature I love is non-problematic. Not all of the problems are justifiable. Sometimes, this gets exhausting. "I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the critique" is correct. But it is just . . . weird to decide that all Ice and Fire fans are hateful because they're burning to live in a medieval patriarchy where women are treated like shit. Most of them probably don't; maybe some of them do. I'd need more than an individual's Ice and Fire fandom to determine whether he or she was drinking the sexist Kool-Aid.

  2. 2

    Pretty much everyone agrees that not all easy reads (in the sense of "doesn't stress me out") are good reads. For some reason the converse isn't so readily accepted.There are stories that I love because they're the literary equivalent of comfort food: you just like to go there, partly because they don't demand much from you. But I don't kid myself that the best literature doesn't demand much from me; on the contrary.(Some of?) The best books I've read are hard — they stretch you, they aren't in the least comfortable, they can be downright exhausting. Well, ain't that just like life?To pick an example of an author who will almost certainly never receive a Hugo, but might score a Nebula: C. S. Friedman. I have to work myself up to reading her books — but I absolutely can't forget them.

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