If you thought the artistic and commercial success of the three Lord of the Rings films, capped by the 11-award sweep on Oscar night for The Return of the King, would finally earn the fantasy genre some long overdue respect, take a gander at this New York Times review of HBO’s Game of Thrones mini-series and think again.
I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s underlying novel, or indeed any of the books in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, but I have read enough of Martin’s other works to understand that the man is no joke. I was still an avid Analog reader when his early SF stories, such as “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” helped serve notice that the John Campbell era was most definitely over, and I consider Fevre Dream a neglected Eighties classic — one of the most original and ingenious vampire novels ever written. I gather that the bulky A Song of Ice and Fire series is Martin’s bid to write a fantasy epic with the scale and ambition of J.R.R. Tolkien while avoiding slavish imitation (and even staking out higher literary ground). I have no doubt he’s the man for the job.
But, as Jeff Sypeck notes, Ginia Bellafante’s review is a sour-smelling landfill spilling over with the stalest, tritest cliches ever excreted about fantasy fans and authors. There’s nothing in the piece you haven’t read a thousand times already, from the gibes about boys with no dating prospects to the whining about having to keep track of so many names and characters. The craft of criticism is not well served by lazy hacks who disdain the effort of understanding a work on its own terms, and knock it for failing to rise to their limited expectations. A critic isn’t required to like a given work, but the critic is required to show at least some interest in what the work is trying to do. If Ginia Bellafante couldn’t be bothered with this task, she should have stepped aside and let a real critic show her how it’s done.
Bellafanate’s clueless wanking reminds us that one of the many blessings of the Internet has been the elimination of credentialism in arts reporting. The days when a Times copyhack could command respect simply by virtue of collecting a paycheck from the Gray Lady are over, and good goddamned riddance. Most newspapers have already dealt themselves out of the cultural criticism game by getting rid of book reviews — after all, why would an industry that depends on readers want to cultivate people who buy books? — and training their lenses on whatever dive Snooki has decided to pass out in. The most informed, passionate and worthwhile arts writing has been exiled to the Internet, and Bellafante’s piece shows why we should be happy about it. There was a time when someone like Edmund Wilson — a valuable and versatile intellectual, but also frequently a ridiculous snob — would take a few sniffs at Tolkien or Lovecraft before cocking a leg over them, and we were all expected to be grateful for the golden shower of attention from a Certified Big Time Critic. Well, in this wide-open arena, the credit goes to writers with wit, style, and knowledge, and none of those qualities apply to someone who writes something like this:
If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.
I hope this doesn’t shake you up too badly, Ginia, but this Wire fan understands that stories where the characters wield swords instead of Glocks can have just as much to say about human values and instincts. My literary world is big enough to put Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance alongside John O’Hara and John Steinbeck. When the Game of Thrones boxed set of DVDs comes out, I’ll give it a privileged place in the bookstore rental collection alongside The Wire, Treme, and The Singing Detective. An artist engaged with real human emotions and actions, regardless of the genre he works in, is always more interesting than a two-bit critic scoring cheap snark-points.
Embrace your irrelevance, Ginia. You’ve earned that, if nothing else.