Ok, I succumbed. When Marge Piercy noted that the Game of Thrones is actually a novel, not junk, it was like I was freed to go out and consume George R. R. Martin's novels. I trust her judgment; after all she is a successful novelist I admire, and winner of the Arthur C. Clark Prize. I succumbed.
I have read the first, The Game of Thrones. And, I am part way into the second volume, The Clash of Kings. Piercy's argument was that, unlike much fantasy and related writing, these novels are filled with people who are neither simple nor simplistic portrayals of good or evil, but instead every single character is complex and ethically fraught. Not only is she right, but so far these are ripping good yarns told by chapters focused on particular chapters, aligned to eventually enable the reader to see the tale from various angles and in various complex ways.
So: no plot spoilers here. (Besides, I suspect there are few left who have not read these -- or seen the television show.) So: why this topic on this blog? Is it just because I am reading and that is what Shimerians do?
No. There is more.
Here are some of the reasons, posed as questions:
1. What is the relation of popular culture to the notion of great books? Must something be old to be a "great" book? (Obviously, some say, otherwise how would you know if it is of enduring historical interest? Obviously not, some say, when the ideas or expression meets some "universal" or quasi-universal meaning of importance.) We know that some of what Hutchins' et al. included in their encyclopedic collection of great books does not seem to have stood the test of time. And, we know that some great works began in popular culture (not least many operas, novels, and . . . ). Here, course we strike up against the critiques of notions of pop or mass or low culture as opposed to (or not) high culture or elite or elitist culture. And, of course, this brings us rapidly to questions of the value of text over orality or over practices or . . . So: what is the relation of popular culture to great books?
2. In what ways might the notion that Piercy raised -- of representations of people (or at least characters) as multidimensional (rather than either good or bad, etcetera) itself be a marker of "great" literature? Are there parallels or dissimilarities between this kind of portrayal and what we might concur are great works raising great questions?
3. Does audience matter? Does it matter if works raise great questions to wide audiences? Here, the question of the relative importance of access to great ideas and debates is at issue. If a person can read and enjoy and grow from these novels, is she or he a lesser person if she or he dozes over [inset your favorite "great book" here -- mine remains Durkheim's Elementary Forms]?
4. I always say I have three points, and sometimes have 5 and occasionally (but rarely) two or one. I suppose I might ask such questions as whether the rather obvious impact of more classic literature on Martin's prose matters or whether the swashbuckling aspects make him irrelevant here or whether the feeling of a covert (or overt) sexism is relevant or whether the sex and violence (not to mention sibling incest) reminds us of some classics or. . . I could even stretch a point and note that his B.A. comes from a Chicago(land) school. (Yep, it is true. I particularly like this part of his website that features Chicago.) And, he has directed chess tournaments. (This will not surprise anyone who has read his novels.)
But: I am procrastinating and must get back to the novel. Really, I must. And now I can justify myself by asking: Is George R. R. Martin a Shimerian?