Keely's Reviews > A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
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Dec 05, 13

bookshelves: abandoned, fantasy, reviewed

There are plenty of fantasy authors who claim to be doing something different with the genre. Ironically, they often write the most predictable books of all, as evidenced by Goodkind and Paolini. Though I'm not sure why they protest so much--predictability is rarely a death sentence in genre fantasy.

The archetypal story of the hero, the villain, the great love, and a world to be saved never seems to get old--and there's nothing wrong with this story when it's told well. At the best, it's exciting, exotic, and builds to a fulfilling climax. At the worst, it's just a bloodless rehash, and the worse are more common by far.

Perhaps it was this wealth of predictable, cliche romances that drove Martin to aim for something 'different'. Unfortunately, being different isn't something you can choose to do, you have to come by it naturally. Sure, Moorcock wrote Elric to be the anti-Conan, but at some point, he had to stretch out and find a core for his series that was more than simply 'this is not Conan'--and he did.

In similar gesture, Martin rejects the moralistic romance of the genre, tearing the guts out of epic fantasy: the fantastical, the romantic ideals, the heroism, and with them, the moral purpose. Fine, so he took out the rollicking fun and the social message--what did he replace them with?

Like the post-Moore comics of the eighties and nineties, fantasy has borne witness to a backlash against the moral hero, and then a backlash against the grim antihero who succeeded him. After all, if all Martin wanted was grim and gritty antiheroes, he didn't have to reject the staples of fantasy, he could have gone to its roots: Howard, Leiber, or Poul Anderson.

Like many authors who try to develop realism, Martin forgets that 'Truth is stranger than Fiction'. The real world is full of strangeness: unbelievable events, coincidences, and odd characters. When authors remove these elements in an attempt to make their world seem realistic, they end up with a fiction duller than reality; after all, unexpected details are the heart of verisimilitude.

When Chekhov and Peake removed the easy thrill of romance from their stories, they replaced it with strange and exciting characters. They wrote things strange enough to seem true. Compared with these authors, Martin's world comes off as dull and gray. Instead of innovating new, radically different elements, he merely removes familiar staples, and any world defined by lack is going to end up feeling rather thin.

However despite trying inject the book with history and realism, he does not reject the melodramatic characterization of his fantasy forefathers, as evidenced by his brooding bastard antihero protagonist (with pet albino wolf). Apparently, his idea of 'grim realism' is similar to 'Draco in Leather Pants'. This causes a central conflict in the story's tone, rather like putting the cast of a soap opera into an existentialist German film.

He also puts in lots of sex and misogyny, and wall-to-wall rape, which isn't necessarily bad, if its handled well. I think books should have sex in them, and shouldn't shy away from any uncomfortable, unpleasant reality of life. The problem is when people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality start writing about it, which seems to be the problem of every mainstream fantasy author.

If an author writing some sex and lets the pen get away from him, his own lack of fulfillment starts leaking into the scene. It's not about the characters anymore, now it's just the author cybering with me about his favorite fetish. I don't want to buy a book just to get lost in someone's squicky fetish. If I cyber with a fat, bearded stranger, I expect to be paid for it.

I know a lot of fans probably get into it more than I do (like how plenty of WOW players enjoy making their female night elf hunters hump each other), but reading Goodkind, Jordan, and Martin--it can be like seeing a Playboy at your uncle's house where all the pages are wrinkled. That's not to say there isn't servicable pop fantasy sex out there--there is, and it's written by women.

Though I didn't save any choice examples from this book, I did come across an article which mentioned this quote, from a later book in the series:
"When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest . . ."

I can imagine the process, as Martin sits, hands hovering over the keyboard, trying to get inside his character's head:

"Okay, I'm a woman. How do I see and feel the world differently? My cultural role is defined by childbirth. In the process of marriage, I can be bought and sold by my own--Oh, hey! Look at that, I've got tits! Man, look at those things go. *whooshing mammary sound effects* Okay, time to write."

Yet we don't get any descriptions of variously-sized dongs swinging within the confines of absurdly-detailed clothing. We do get a set of giant manboobs--which, as an overweight, elderly man, I assume Martin has some personal experience with--but not until book five, and even then, it's not the dude being hyperaware of his own, secretly moving under his clothes--they're just there to gross out a dwarf. Not really a balanced depiction.

The books are also well known for featuring sudden, apparently pointless deaths, which some suggest is a sign of realism--but, of course, nothing is pointless in fiction, because the author must deliberately decide what to include. Sure, in real life, people will often suddenly die before finishing their life's work (authors of doorstop fantasy series do it all the time), but there's a reason we don't tend to tell stories of people who die unexpectedly in the middle of thing: they are usually boring and pointless. They build up for a while and eventually, lead nowhere.

Novelists often write in isolation, and so it's easy to forget the rule to which playwrights adhere: your story is always a fiction, and any time you ignore that fact and treat it as if it were real, you are working against your own writing. The writing that seems to be the most natural is never effortless, it is carefully and painstakingly constructed to feel natural.

People are often told in entry-level creative writing classes to 'listen to how real people talk, and write like that', which is terrible advice. A transcript of spoken conversation is often so full of repetition, half-thoughts, and non-specific words ('stuff', 'thing') as to be incomprehensible--especially without all of the cues of pattern, tone, and body language. Written communication works very differently, so making dialogue feel like speech is an artificial process. It's the same with sudden character deaths: treat them like a history, and your plot will become just as choppy and hard to follow.

But then, I'm not sure Martin's deaths are truly unpredictable. As in an action film, they are usually a plot convenience: kill off a villain, and you don't have to worry about wrapping up his personal arc. You don't have to defeat him psychologically--the finality of his death is the great equalizer. You don't have to do the hard work of demonstrating that the hero was morally right if he's the only option left.

Likewise, in Martin's book, death ties up loose threads--namely, plot threads. Often, this is the only ending we get to his plot arcs, which makes them rather predictable: any time a character could get enough influence to make things better, or more stable, he will die. Any character who poses a threat to the continuing chaos which drives the plot will first be built up, and then killed off.

I found this interview with Martin to be a particularly telling example of how he thinks of character deaths:
"I killed (view spoiler) because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing [someone] is going to rise up and avenge his [death]. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing (view spoiler) became the next thing I had to do.

He's not talking about the internal motivations of the characters, or the ideas the characters represent, he's talking about them as tools he can use to shock the audience. But then, the only reason we think these characters are important, the only reason we expect them to succeed is because of how Martin writes them.

He treats them as central, heroic character, spending time and energy on them, but it all ends up being a red herring so he can get rid of them for a cheap twist. It's like the mystery novels of the 70's and 80's where to surprise the audience, the author would add in ghosts or secret twins or a new character in the last chapter--it's only surprising because the author has torn up the structure of their own book, undermining the trust between author and reader.

Like all authors, Martin begins by producing plot arcs that grow and change, providing tension and goals for his characters. Normally, when such arcs come to a close, the author must use all the force of his skill to deal with themes and answer questions, providing a satisfying conclusion to a promising idea that his readers have watched grow.

Or you could just kill off the character central to the conflict and bury the plot arc with him. That way, you never have to worry about closure, you can just hook your readers by crafting a new arc from the chaos caused by the dissolution of the previous build. Start to make the reader believe that things might get better, to believe in a character, then wave your arms in distraction, yell and point, 'look at that terrible thing, over there!', and hope your audience becomes so caught up in worrying about this new problem that they forget that the old one was never actually resolved.

By chaining these false endings together, you can create a perpetual state of tension which never requires solution--this is how most soap operas work--plus, the author never has to do the hard work of finishing what they started. If an author is lucky, they die before reaching the Final Conclusion the readership is always clamoring for, and will never have to worry about meeting the collective expectation which all the long years of deferral have built up. It's easy to idolize Kurt Cobain, because you never had to see him bald and old and crazy like David Lee Roth.

Unlucky authors live to write the Final Book, which will break the spell of continual tension and expectation that kept their readers enthralled. Since the plot has not been tightening into a larger, intertwined conclusion (in fact, it's probably been spiraling out of control), the author must wrap things up conveniently and suddenly, leaving fans confused and upset. And, having thrown out the grand moral story of fantasy, Martin cannot even end on the dazzling trick of the vaguely-spiritual transgressive Death Event on which the great majority of fantasy books rely for a handy tacked-on climax (actually, he'll probably try it anyways, with dragons).

The drawback is that, even if a conclusion gets stuck on at the end, the story fundamentally leads nowhere--it winds back and forth without resolving psychological or tonal arcs. But then, doesn't that sound more like real life? Martin tore out the moralistic heart and magic of fantasy, and in doing so, rejected the notion of grandly realized conclusions. Perhaps we shouldn't compare him to other writers of romance, but to grandly realized Histories.

He asks us to believe in his intrigue, his grimness, and his amoral world of war, power, and death. In short, he is asking us to compare him not to the false Europe of Arthur, Robin Hood, and Orlando, but to the real Europe of plagues, power struggles, religious wars, witch hunts, and roving companies of soldiery forever ravaging the countryside.

Unfortunately, he doesn't compare very well to them, either. His intrigue is not as interesting as Cicero's, Machiavelli's, Enguerrand de Coucy's--or even Sallust's, who was practically writing fiction, anyways. Some might suggest it unfair to compare a piece of fiction to a true history, but those are the same histories that lent Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock their touches of verisimilitude. Martin might have taken a lesson from them and drawn inspiration from further afield: even Tolkien had his Eddas.

More than anything, this book felt like a serial melodrama. It is a story of the hardships of an ensemble cast who we are meant to watch over and sympathize with, being drawn chiefly by emotional appeals (the hope that things will 'get better' in this dark place, 'tragic' deaths), even though these appeals often conflict with the supposed realism, and in the end, there is no grander story to unify the whole. The 'grittiness' is just Martin replacing the standard fantasy theme of 'glory' with one of 'hardship', and despite flipping this switch, it's still just an emotional appeal. 'Heroes always win' is just as boring and predictable as 'heroes always lose'.

It's been suggested that I didn't read enough of Martin to judge him, but if the first four hundred pages aren't good, I don't expect the next thousand will be different. If you combine the three Del Ray collections of Conan The Barbarian stories, you get 1,263 pages (including introductions, end notes, and variant scripts). If you take Martin's first two books in this series, you get 1,504 pages. Already, less than halfway through the series, he's written more than Howard's entire Conan output, and all I can do is ask myself: why does he need that extra length?

Some authors use it to their advantage, but for most, it's just sprawling, undifferentiated bloat. Melodrama can be a great way to mint money, as evidenced by the endless 'variations on a theme' of Soap Operas, Pro Wrestling, Lost, and mainstream superhero comics. Plenty of people enjoy it, but it's neither revolutionary nor realistic.

Some have tried to defend this book by saying "at least Martin isn't as bad as all the drivel that gets published in genre fantasy", but saying "he's better than dreck" is really not very high praise. Others have intimated that I must not like fantasy at all, pointing to my low-star reviews of Martin, Wolfe, Jordan, and Goodkind, but it is precisely because I am passionate about fantasy that I fall heavily on these authors.

A lover of fine wines winces the more when he is given a corked bottle of vinegar, a ballet enthusiast's love of dance would not leave him breathless at a high school competition, and likewise, having learned to appreciate Epics, Histories, the Matter of Europe, Fairy Tales, and their modern offspring, the fantasy genre, I find Martin woefully lacking.

There's plenty of grim fantasy and intrigue out there, from its roots in epic poetry to the Thousand and One Nights to the early fantasies of Eddison, Dunsany, Morris, Macdonald, Haggard, and Kipling. Then there are more modern authors: Poul Anderson, Moorecock, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake, China Mieville, Phillip Pullman, Howard, Lovecraft, and Leiber.

There seems to be a sense that Martin's work is somehow revolutionary, that it represents a 'new direction' for fantasy, but all I see is a reversion. Sure, he's different than Jordan, Goodkind, and their ilk, because they took equal parts Tolkien and Howard, the pseudo-medieval high-magic world from the first and the blood-and-guts heroism from the second. Martin, on the other hand, has more closely followed Tolkien's lead than any other modern high fantasy author--and I don't just mean in terms of Orientalist racism.

Tolkien wanted to make his story 'real'--not 'realistic', by using the various dramatic techniques of literature--but actually real, by trying to create all the detail of a pretend world behind the story. Over the span of the first twenty years, he released The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and other works, while in the twenty years after that, he became so obsessed with worldbuilding for its own sake that instead of writing stories, he filled his shed with a bunch of notes (which his son has been trying unsuccessfully to make a book from ever since).

It's the same thing Martin's trying to do: cover a bland story with a litany of details that don't contribute meaningfully to his characters, plot, or tone. So, if Martin is good because he is different, then it stands to reason that he's not very good, because he's not really very different. He may seem different if all someone has read is Tolkien and the authors who ape his style, but that's just one small corner of a very expansive genre. Anyone who thinks Tolkien is the 'father of fantasy' doesn't know enough about the genre to judge what 'originality' means.

So, if Martin neither an homage nor an original, I'm not sure what's left. In his attempt to set himself apart, he tore out the joyful heart of fantasy, but failed replace it with anything worthwhile. There is no revolutionary voice here, and there is nothing in Martin's book that has not been done better by other authors.

However, there is one thing Martin has done that no other author has been able to do: kill the longrunning High Fantasy series. According to some friends of mine in publishing (and some amusingly on-the-nose remarks by Caleb Carr in an NPR interview), Martin's inability to deliver a book on time, combined with his awful relationship with his publisher means that literary agents are no longer accepting manuscripts for high fantasy series. So it turns out that Martin is so bad at structuring that he actually pre-emptively ruined books by other authors. Perhaps it is true what they say about silver linings . . .

Though I declined to finish this book, I'll leave you with a caution compiled from various respectable friends of mine who did continue on:

"If you need some kind of closure, avoid this series. No arcs will ever be completed, nothing will ever really change. They keep saying 'Winter is Coming', but it's not. As the series goes on, there will be more and more characters and diverging plotlines to keep track of, many of them apparently completely unrelated to each other, even as it increasingly becomes just another cliche, fascist 'chosen one' monomyth, like every other fantasy series out there. If you enjoy a grim, really long soap opera with lots of deaths and constant unresolved tension, pick up the series--otherwise, maybe check out the show."

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Comments (showing 1259-1308)





message 1308: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "the lack of sex might disturb you"

Well, it is unrealistic to avoid such a fundamental part of human psychology, but I prefer 'no sex' to 'badly written sex'.

"Cat, you might want to stay clear from Gormenghast, unless you have a thing for plotless and grotesque stories."

It's true, it isn't for everyone. The plot, as well as the fantastical nature of the stories, is based on the characters, not on a series of external events. I find this rather refreshing after the repetitive, artificial 'Plot Coupon' structure that tends to dominate fantasy these days. It might be convenient, but it takes agency away from the characters.


message 1307: by Daniel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel A. Duran Frankly, if we wanted plotless narratives we can put down down our books and look in the mirror; our lives are plotless enough as they are. I see no good reason to look for that sort of thing in a book.

Incidentally, regardless of whether a book has a strong plot or not, the narrative will be artificial and characters will lack agency as everything is under the control of the author.


message 1306: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Hmm, I wonder by what definitions you are differentiating 'plot' from 'narrative'. On Wikipedia, the literary use of 'plot' is defined as a type of narrative, but just because a plot is a type of narrative doesn't mean a narrative is a type of plot.

One of the more common examples of the difference between the two is Forester's:

"The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot."

He indicates that causality enables a simple narrative of events to become a plot, but there are those who disagree, as well as those who would suggest that a plot relationship can be coincidental as well as causal. Hemingway's work suggests implied causation is enough, as evidenced by his apocryphal one-sentence short story:

"For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn."

But we need not resort to such quibbles to say that each Gormenghast book has a plot. In fact, each has several plots, recognizable by chains of causal events affecting characters, evoking both aesthetic and emotional reactions, utilizing exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution.

By the standard definitions, our everyday lives are also not without plot. We must also deal with causal chains of rising action, with conflicts coming to a climax, our futures determined by resolution.

I suppose it is possible for a person to live a life of disconnected moments which change nothing, stem from no conflict or desire, and are without apparent causal or coincidental meanings. Such a life seems both unlikely and miserable, and I hope it does not describe yours.

But it is true that, for most people, life does not have the same sort of plot we tend to get from Epic Fantasy. Few of us have a fate thrust upon us, a grandiose story full of enemies and twists, with the fate of many hanging in the balance.

But this is not the only sort of plot there is, but I'll take that point up again later.

"Incidentally, regardless of whether a book has a strong plot or not, the narrative will be artificial . . ."

It's true, though some are more artificial than others. When people talk about connecting with a character, being upset with the events of the plot, how a scene or sentiment is 'beautiful', they are speaking of the ways in which the story feels realistic.

People complain when characters act in unrealistic ways, when the world or the plot does not make sense, and when the emotional and psychological aspects of the book do not align with their understanding. Perhaps you don't feel a need for verisimilitude in stories, perhaps you'd be as happy reading about a conflicted man growing to adulthood as a

"Colorless green idea sleeping furiously,"

but for most people, some degree of realism is necessary, even from stories about dimension-hopping cat aliens.

" . . . characters will lack agency as everything is under the control of the author."

Since stories are meant to feel realistic, since they represent something about common human experience, agency is a very important part of character, and one which can be variably strong or weak.

The more decisions a character makes and the more conflicts he overcomes through his actions, the more agency that character has. Contrarily, a character who makes few decisions and who sees conflicts resolved without the necessity of his intervention has little agency.

Even fictional characters are shown making decisions which affect their world, and that is the definition of agency. Just as a character can be strong, cruel, cowardly, or intelligent, his fictional nature in no way impinges upon how active he is in the depiction of his life.

And just as characters can be written in more realistic or more artificial ways, so can plots. I mentioned 'Plot Coupons' before, and these are just one example of how artificial, external plotting removes some agency from characters.

When a character overcomes a conflict only because he happens to have the 'magic ring' or knows the demon's secret name, the resolution does not hinge on him, but on coincidental circumstances. Neither the problem nor the solution are unique to him. When a character is thrust into a story by fate and is only able to resolve conflicts because of external events, that character is not a very active agent.

Simplifying the plot in this way also negates the agency of other characters. For example, if the bad guy can only be defeated by a certain magical object, then it doesn't much matter what anyone else does. Troop movements and epic battles become pointless when all chances for success lie elsewhere. If a character's actions could not alter his fate, then that character has limited agency.

When authors have their characters solve problems by magic abilities or martial puissance, that also tends to reduce their agency. If a character can solve every problem by the mere application of force, then that character's actions and decisions become pointless.

Looking at the Iliad, we can see that, even though the characters spend a great deal of time fighting, the central conflict, action, climax, and resolution center on the personalities and decisions of those characters.

Anyone can write a story where two men come into conflict and resolve it by one killing the other. It does not require that the characters think or innovate, nor does it require that they have personalities, histories, or purposes.

In real life, even soldiers cannot kill all of their problems away, which is why I respect an author who creates a story with realistic, active characters who must deal with problems that cannot be overcome by a moment's exertion. It takes more work, but worthy tasks usually do.

I would argue that the plot of Gormenghast is one of active agency. The conflicts are drawn from the disparate personalities of the characters, and as each pursues his or her goals, they find themselves in conflict with others.

Many stories have a plot which is external to the characters, it is imposed upon them, and while their reactions to the situation might depend on their personalities, the plot itself is not the result of their actions or individual natures. We who read the book also react to the situations at hand as befits our individual natures, but such observation and reaction hardly makes us active within the plot.

In other cases, personalities are tailored to fit the plot, such as a villain who is evil and sadistic not because of any psychological reason, but because it serves the conflict. This method is just as external.

Contrarily, the plot of Gormenghast is internal. It is determined almost solely by the psychological motivations of the characters instead of external events being imposed upon them. They are not merely the recipients of the action, but create action.

This type of internal motivation is more like how most people's lives progress. We live according to who we are, not according to a grand series of events impersonally imposed upon us.

Perhaps this was what compelled you to compare it to real life, suggesting that we might as well look in a mirror if we desired such a story. I agree entirely: to read a book is to look into a mirror, and while some are murky and uneven, others are able to show us an image of ourselves that is shocking in its clarity and insight.


message 1305: by Daniel (last edited Apr 18, 2011 07:05PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel A. Duran I’ll be brief:

“I wonder by what definitions you are differentiating 'plot' from 'narrative'.”

Nowhere do I differentiate narrative from plot.

“But we need not resort to such quibbles to say that each Gormenghast book has a plot.”

It is clear that many events in Gormenghat aren’t connected to others.

“By the standard definitions, our everyday lives are also not without plot.”

It is obvious that not everything in our lives is connected to other events or have a greater purpose. Also many situations have a negligible connection with what will happen later; for example me playing chess earlier today.

“Perhaps you don't feel a need for verisimilitude in stories…”

Just to be clear, I never suggested or implied that I have no need for verisimilitude in stories.

“When a character overcomes a conflict only because he happens to have the 'magic ring' or knows the demon's secret name, the resolution does not hinge on him, but on coincidental circumstances.”

Oh come on, the resolution does not lie on the character? who do you think has to take the ring to its destination? Who do you think has to decide to say the demon’s name? the character!

“the bad guy can only be defeated by a certain magical object,* then it doesn't much matter what anyone else does,*”

Part marked in asterisks is false. Most stories with “plot coupons,” the characters have to do many things to get the magical object to its destination. This is so obvious I will not elaborate.
“When authors have their characters solve problems by magic abilities or martial puissance, that also tends to reduce their agency.”

On the contrary in most cases magical spells, rings, swords *facilitate* a character to do something he cannot do alone. Also do not forget that many of the external events you see in a story were set in motion by the acts of other characters to begin with.

“In other cases, personalities are tailored to fit the plot, such as a villain who is evil and sadistic not because of any psychological reason, but because it serves the conflict. This method is just as external.”

It might be the case that tailoring personalities to a plot or not giving psychological reasons to a villain constitute external methods, but, I fail to see why this is bad or even relevant.

“Contrarily, *the plot of Gormenghast is internal*. It is determined almost solely by the psychological motivations of the characters instead of external events being imposed upon them. They are not merely the recipients of the action, but create action.”

I thought you liked when characters exercised their volition in the external world: so long the narrative takes inside the head of a character in gormenghast there’s no way a character can change the world.

“We live according to who we are, not according to a grand series of events impersonally imposed upon us.”

The above must had been written late at night.

Sorry, but that’s completely rubbish. Events and other people do shape and influence our beliefs, habits and manner of living. This is too obvious to warrant further elaboration.

“Perhaps this was what compelled you to compare it to real life, suggesting that we might as well look in a mirror if we desired such a story.”

My point was simple;life has many loose ends, random coincidences, events that do not connect or have tenuous connections to other events. This what I mean by saying that our lives are “plotless.”


message 1304: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "Nowhere do I differentiate narrative from plot."

You could hardly have a 'plotless narrative' without differentiating the two terms.

"It is clear that many events in Gormenghat aren’t connected to others."

Any examples?

"Just to be clear, I never suggested or implied that I have no need for verisimilitude in stories."

Your earlier statement that

". . . the narrative will be artificial and characters will lack agency as everything is under the control of the author."

implies that verisimilitude is a useless goal for an author.

"Oh come on, the resolution does not lie on the character? who do think has to take the ring to its destination? Who do you think has to decide to say the demon’s name? the character!

Certainly, the character does these things, but these types of generic plot solutions are not specific to that character or their psychology. All that is required is that they are in the right place at the right time. Anyone could do what they did, in the same circumstance. If a solution is equivalent to pushing a button, it does not leave the character much agency.

Contrast a character who must convince someone of something through his words. He must act in a way specific to his skills and personality in order to achieve this, and no one else, in his place, would solve the problem in quite the same way.

Sure, the character must first get to the button in order to push it, but wouldn't it be more effective to actually make the chief conflict challenging rather than simply surrounding it with a series of arbitrary complications? How is that less 'pointless' than real life?

"In most stories with “plot coupons,” the characters have to do many things to get many the magical object to its destination."

True enough, though in my example, I was talking about situations where the actions of other characters become superfluous to the plot because the only solution is the redemption of the 'plot coupon'. In such situations, battles or politics can become pointless. If the Bad Guy can only be defeated by pushing the magic button, any other attempts become superfluous.

"On the contrary in most cases magical spells, rings, swords*facilitate* a character to do something he cannot do alone."

Precisely, these objects are mere plot facilitators. They allow a character to do something he would not normally be able to do in order to further the plot. The writer makes a conflict, the character pulls out his magic rock and 'poof', conflict gone.

The more problems are solved this way, the less the character matters. It's just a smaller version of the 'pushbutton plot'. The character and the conflict become interchangeable elements.

"It might be the case that tailoring personalities to a plot or not giving psychological reason s to a villain constitute external methods, but, I fail to see why this is bad or even relevant."

If artificial, external methods don't bother you, then I can see why you wouldn't mind 'plot coupons' or 'pushbutton solutions'. I would suggest these methods are undesirable because they are generic, repetitive shortcuts which detract from plot and character.

Conflicts and resolutions are the chief way for an author to show who their character is: their strengths, their morality, their psychology, their charm, all the things which make them who they are. If all of these conflicts are resolved in generic, convenient, repetitive, and coincidental ways, the author is losing his opportunity to make an interesting character or a well-structured plot.

"I thought you liked when characters exercised their volition in the external world: so long the narrative takes inside the head of a character in gormenghast there’s no way a character can change the world."

I said that the plot was determined by internal psychological motivations, not that it consisted of them. Most of Steerpike's actions are determined by his need for control, his desire to be able to act freely. Though these motivations are internal, they inspire him to take many physical actions to bring them about.

The plot does not play out internally because it is dependent on the interaction of characters and the conflicts between their personalities and motivations. It begins with their internal thoughts, which soon lead to active expression in the world.

It is an active plot, not a reactive one. The characters are not forced to react to some great doom prophecy or the encroachment of faceless enemies, instead they make choices and direct their own lives. That isn't to say that there are not some external events, like the flood in the second book, but these do not create the plot, they modify a conflict that already exists.

"Events and other people do shape and influence our beliefs, habits and manner of living.

They do, but as above, they tend to modify a story already ongoing instead of creating a new conflict from whole cloth. There are occasions where people or events come into our lives and change them completely, but these are rare, especially in the first world.

People caught in floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes can find themselves in a position where an external force has redefined their world, where their desires and motivations change overnight. But in time, that new reality becomes their world, and they grow to navigate it as the would any other, acting as their personality dictates.

People approach problems in different ways, and the solutions they develop for those problems depend upon their personality. If an author writes a book where all problems are approached with violence or magic, where all solutions resemble one another, then that author's character will remain shallow and predictable. Their plot is not an exploration, but a series of placeholder events.

"My point was simple;life has many loose ends, random coincidences, events that do not connect or have tenuous connections to other events. This what I mean by saying that our lives are “plotless.” "

Thanks for the clarification. I agree that our lives do have their slow moments and seemingly pointless events, but these can tell a great deal about us. A single chess game can change a life, it could produce one of those rare insights, or provide a lasting memory, it might come to be the defining moment in a relationship, or its coincidental bearing on another, tenuously connected event can render it significant.

Life, even in its still moments, its pointlessness, is not pointless to the person living it. The way we approach life makes us individual, gives us character. Our conflicts, climaxes, and resolutions are defined by how we lived through them. It is the same for characters in books.

But then, many people are satisfied with regular, uncomplicated lives, undefined and undistinguished, their desires and motivations subjugated and simplified. It would make sense for them to seek out similar figures in fiction, who do not act from within, do not define the moments in their lives by the fact that they are living them, but merely strive to 'get by'.

If life is pointless and plotless, then it doesn't matter how a character solves a problem, overcoming personal hardship will be no more interesting than a summary solution. For me, there is little heroic or admirable about such a character, who solves his problems not because of who he is, but because he happens to have the magic rock.


message 1303: by Daniel (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel A. Duran “You could hardly have a 'plotless narrative' without differentiating the two terms.”

To reiterate, I never made a distinction between narrative and plot.

“Any examples?”

It’s been years since I read Titus Groan and I don’t have a copy with me. I do remember endless descriptions of the setting were nothing happens. Yes, descriptions of a setting do not make a plot. I don’t see you complaining about that, though.

“Your earlier statement that

(". . . the narrative will be artificial and characters will lack agency as everything is under the control of the author."

implies that verisimilitude is a useless goal for an author.”)

Geez, I never implied anything like that. The quote means that all stories are artificial in that authors control everything. Do not look for deeper or “implicit” messages.

I hope the above will give you an idea as to why I decided to skip analyzing the rest of your post in detail. Life is too short to be untangling and pointing out errors, non-sequiturs and contradictions.

I take your main point is that (if there’s one, I can hardly tell) “plot coupons” make things too easy for a character and anyone can use them.

This might be true in some cases.

But I can imagine many counter-examples cases were they create complication or set sub-plots in motion. Also, many of these of these “plot coupons” require overcoming difficult challenges in order to acquire them and often work in such a way that not everybody can use them or use them the same way.


message 1302: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "To reiterate, I never made a distinction between narrative and plot."

Yes, which is the problem. If there is no distinction between 'plot' and 'narrative', then you couldn't have one without the other. There can be no 'plotless narrative' if they are not separately defined. You might as well talk about 'apparel-free clothing' or 'lightless photons'. In order to make an argument, you must define your terms.

"I do remember endless descriptions of the setting were nothing happens. Yes, descriptions of a setting do not make a plot.

It's true, the descriptions in the book are not used to further plot; they develop the setting, as you say. It's one way Peake does world-building, and it's hardly novel among creators of fantastical worlds

His descriptions can be lengthy, and tend to be complex and detailed, showing off his painter's eye and poet's ear, which I know a lot of people don't appreciate. However, the fact that the story has a complex setting does not negate its plot. That's like pointing out the existence of an entree as proof that a meal has no dessert.

"I hope the above will give you an idea as to why I decided to skip analyzing the rest of your post in detail. Life is too short to be untangling and pointing out errors, non-sequiturs and contradictions."

It's kind of you to say so, but I don't find it takes much time. Though your expression of this philosophy does help to explain their preponderance: when man prefers the hammock to the trowel, the garden is soon overgrown.

"I take your main point is that (if there’s one, I can hardly tell) “plot coupons” make things too easy for a character and anyone can use them."

Those are part of the problem, but the fact that anyone can use them is a symptom of a larger problem: they create artificial conflicts and resolutions which serve the author, not the character or story.

It's like Pac Man. You wander around the maze eating little dots. Meanwhile, ghosts chase you. If you eat fruit, you can eat the ghosts. Never do we come to know why we are in this maze, why little dots are, why ghosts are bad, why fruit allows us to eat ghosts, or why eating ghosts sends them back to the middle.

These are all goals and conflicts which have no good explanation. They do not build the plot, character, or setting, they merely serve as stand-ins for a generic conflict. Defeating the evil wizard with the magic sword isn't really any better than defeating the evil ghost with the magic fruit.

There needs to be more story there. Some just use this basic conflict to further a series of character-specific plot events, as in Hitchcock's MacGuffin, but if every conflict and resolution are equally undefined, then the author is just going through the motions. He is eschewing opportunities to explore his characters and world in order to pursue a generic formula.

" . . . many of these of these “plot coupons” require overcoming difficult challenges in order to acquire them and often work in such a way that not everybody can use them or use them the same way."

So the solution to writing arbitrary conflicts and resolutions is to make them more convoluted?

"No, you see, Pac-Man must eat the fruit of Gabreez in order to defeat the Ghosts of Lost Perdition because of the ancient compact of the dead Titans of Thrull, and only he can eat them because you find out at the end that his father is actually the god Mnommos, Lord of All that Truncates. But before he can use the fruit to his advantage, he must first collect a hundred coins and demonstrate a minimum of thirty pages of troop movement."

I'm really not sure that improves it. Why not just write a plot that takes the characters and world in consideration to begin with instead of shoehorning them in after the fact?


message 1301: by Daniel (last edited Apr 22, 2011 11:22AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel A. Duran “Yes, which is the problem. If there is no distinction between 'plot' and 'narrative', then you couldn't have one without the other.”

Since we’ve not argued anything that requires a definition for plot and narrative, and since I have never had any problem with your usage of the terms, may I suggest that the so called-problem lies in your head?

To make you happy; plot is a series of seemingly connected events, and narrative is a series of events. My definitions are conventional. I am not making up definitions (like “artificial-external events”) whose meaning seemingly change from post to post or are so vague as to apply to almost
anything.

As for not having one without the other, you can have a narrative without plot.

“However, the fact that the story has a *complex setting* does not negate its plot. That's like pointing out the existence of an entree as proof that a meal has no dessert.”

Non-sequitur, I spoke of *descriptions.*

“It's kind of you to say so, but I don't find it takes much time. Though your expression of this philosophy does help to explain their preponderance: when man prefers the hammock to the trowel, the garden is soon overgrown.”

Since your last post was too messy and incoherent to make much sense of it and since I refused to embark in the hopeless task of giving a line by line critique of it, according to you…I Am lazy.

How cute.

Apparently you think of me as your baby sitter and that it is my duty to clean after you and tend YOUR garden.

“Those are part of the problem, but the fact that anyone can use them is a symptom of a larger problem: they create artificial conflicts and resolutions which serve the author, not the character or story.”

Define “artificial” conflicts and resolutions as opposed to “natural” conflicts and resolutions. I am certain that when you do so concisely, I’ll be able to pin down the premises and unexamined assumptions in which they rest.

Everything you've said so far sounds suspiciously unsound (it seems you're making false dichotomy), I am willing to bet you’ve built your castle on quicksand.

“It's like Pac Man. You wander around the maze eating little dots. Meanwhile, ghosts chase you. If you eat fruit, you can eat the ghosts. Never do we come to know why we are in this maze, why little dots are, why ghosts are bad, why fruit allows us to eat ghosts, or why eating ghosts sends them back to the middle.

*These are all goals and conflicts which have no good explanation.*”

Are you claiming that stories must explain everything? That no mystery should be allowed in a story?

“So the solution to writing arbitrary conflicts and resolutions is to make them more convoluted?”

I am pretty sure you’re using the term “convoluted” equivocally, but, since you haven’t given me a definition for “arbitrary” or “external-artificial conflicts” I’ll answer this question later.


"No, you see, Pac-Man must eat the fruit of Gabreez in order to defeat the Ghosts of Lost Perdition because of the ancient compact of the dead Titans of Thrull, and only he can eat them because you find out at the end that his father is actually the god Mnommos, Lord of All that Truncates. But before he can use the fruit to his advantage, he must first collect a hundred coins and demonstrate a minimum of thirty pages of troop movement."

As your nanny it is my duty to tell you that you must pull your head out of your rear.

There are many stories that use your “external-arbitrary-artificial-synthetic-manufactured-and-made- in-the-spot-loaded-expressions” that are successful and well written. There’s Alice in wonder land, LOTR, and his dark materials, for example. Needless to say, I am not impressed by your contrived scenario as a general disproof of anything.

“I'm really not sure that improves it. Why not just write a plot that takes the characters and world in consideration to begin with instead of shoehorning them in after the fact?”

Shoehorning after the fact? Since when did this enter the conversation? Is that new argument or has it been part of your definitions all along? You better give us a definition of your “artificial-events,” and pronto.


message 1300: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "My definitions are conventional."

There are no such things as conventional definitions. Get together ten writers and ask them to define 'plot' and 'narrative' and you'll get a number of different answers. My earlier exploration of their definitions was just to make sure that we were talking about the same things. It's a conventional technique at the beginning of a debate to define terms, allowing the other participants to offer contradictions or fine-tuning.

"As for not having one without the other, you can have a narrative without plot."

There are a number of writers and literary critics who would disagree with you on this point, and though I don't, the lack of consensus suggests taking definitions for granted is hardly useful.

But if you're using 'conventional definitions', then your claim that Gormenghast is 'plotless' is simply false. It is a story with characters, conflicts, resolutions, building tension, climax, and denouement.

"Non-sequitur, I spoke of *descriptions.*"

Actually, you spoke of 'descriptions of a setting', so it would hardly be a non-sequitur for me to point out that an author can describe his setting in detail and still have a plot.

In fact, in Peake's case, the setting is often complimentary to the plot, as in a gothic novel, he uses setting to explore ideas and images which figure in the characters and events of his story. Though many modern fantasies have vast, complex settings, few of them take advantage of this symbolic relationship between plot and setting.

"Define “artificial” conflicts and resolutions as opposed to “natural” conflicts and resolutions."

Certainly, nothing wrong with getting down to brass tacks with a good definition of terms. Perhaps it will help if I operate by example.

An author creates a conflict around which his story operates. The building of that conflict creates tension and expectation. The resolution of that conflict relieves that tension and provides an ending to the story.

Let's say our protagonist must get over a perilous gap, convince an unfriendly person to help him, and prevent his great enemy from destroying him.

There are a number of ways to resolve conflicts, and the one which requires the least skill is coincidence. Here are some coincidental solutions: a tree happens to fall across the gap, the unfriendly person turns out to be a relative who wants to help, and the enemy dies unexpectedly. The character does not have to do anything in order to overcome conflict.

The next easiest is the 'pushbutton' solution I spoke about, before. Imagine our character has a box in his pocket with a button on it; whenever he arrives at a problem, he pushes it. It makes a bridge appear over the gap, it hypnotizes the unfriendly man, and it slays his enemy.

Now the character must act to solve problems, but his actions are minor and unrelated to the problems he faces. The character takes an action that should not solve his problem, but the author solves it, anyways.

Both coincidence and pushbutton solutions are 'artificial'. They solve problems only because the author says they do. They are a convenience for an author who cannot think up another way to solve the conflicts he has made, and they are unrealistic. They do not produce verisimilitude.

An example could be taken from Tarzan, where the protagonist learns how to read and speak English from picture books, and with no previous experience in the language. This is clearly nonsensical, but since the author wants his wildman to be able to talk, he does it anyways. It is an artificial imposition on the story for the sake of convenience.

I might also point out that you were the one who first brought the term 'artificial' into the discussion:

". . . the narrative will be artificial and characters will lack agency as everything is under the control of the author."

And you can see that I am using it in the same way: to refer to events which the author has imposed upon the text. Certainly, the author creates everything in the book, but most authors try to make realistic stories that make sense to the reader.

So, what is not 'artificial' in a story is what is realistic, those elements which build verisimilitude. A realistic solution would be one which seems reasonable to the reader and which makes sense for the character to perform.

So, for our example, our character might fetch a wooden ladder to cross the gap, he might put forth an impassioned speech to the man to convince him, and he might deduce holes in his enemies plans and take advantage of them.

These actions demonstrate my use of 'internal plotting', where the character's actions are determined by the character's psychology and by the boundaries of the author's world.

Contrarily, in external plotting, the author assigns actions and events according to what is convenient. In such stories, character will simply do things as required of the plot. In one scene, the character will be a brilliant tactician able to see his enemy's every move because the author wants to show how cool he is, and in the next scene, he will be a stupid bumbler so that he does not resolve the whole plot at once.

So, a character written internally, from the inside-out, is limited by his vices, habits, knowledge, and skills. He acts according to those features and approaches problems in his own idiomatic way. Often, his conflicts will be internal struggles that he must overcome in order to deal with external events.

A character written externally, from the outside-in, is limited by what serves the plot. He is skilled, stupid, angry, or strong when it facilitates the plot. Such characters are often contradictory and fickle, and rarely have internal struggles. They are more likely to focus purely on external events which the author throws at them.

Artificial resolutions are also external. Constant coincidences are unrealistic, but authors use them because they are a convenient expedient. Pushbutton solutions are also unrealistic, they are a convenient stand-in for when the author cannot think of a more realistic resolution.

But this brings up the question: how can magical, fantastical stories be realistic? The most simple way is to ensure that magic is not used as a cure-all. Instead of using it to allow characters to overcome conflicts, use it to create conflicts, or to modify the world in a way which does not materially solve problems for characters. Authors like Lord Dunsany have used this technique to create excellent fantasies where magic is a dangerous, fickle thing and never an expedient.

Some authors go the other way, and try to create a structure around their magic which limits it in predictable ways, making it into a tool for characters to use instead of a substitute for their actions. The important thing is that the characters' decisions, actions, and personalities are not overshadowed by their tools, as it's easy for authors to fall into the convenient short-cuts of pushbutton plotting.

Some authors use 'pain' or 'concentration' as a way to limit magical abilities or items, but this is also a slippery slope. It is easy for an author to use magic to summarily solve all problems and then have the characters feel weak, tired, or pained as a mere afterthought. In order for this limitation to work, it must make resolutions more difficult, overall, not easier.

Some authors also take the tack you mentioned, before: adding more complications onto the main conflict. The author first creates a conflict, from which comes the tension and build of the story. If he then makes a simple, pushbutton solution for that conflict, he not only removes that tension, but creates a scenario where his characters will succeed quickly and easily. He must now devise a way to make the simple solution hard.

So, the author then adds other conflicts. In order to get the magic button, they must first travel to a certain place, read a prophecy, see a witch, make a leap and a puff, eat a kiwi, &c. Instead of creating a realistic, internal solution for his original conflict, he instead piles on a number of external, artificial problems in order to pad the length of the book and make it seem like something is happening.

This is what I meant by 'convoluted', so it should be easy to see that my use of the term was hardly equivocal. Instead of structuring around the main conflict, the author leads the characters up the primrose path and back.

The author hopes that, by distracting us with the wild waving of one hand, we will not notice that the other hand is performing a simple trick. More problematic is that many authors then solve this series of lesser problems with more pushbuttons and coincidences, making the whole mess into a rather pointless runaround.

This is what I meant by 'shoehorning them in, after the fact'. Instead of creating a good solution for his main conflict to start with, the author fills the story with a lot of asides and then summarily knocks off the big resolution. Likewise, it could be applied to characters who, instead of proceeding according to their desires and motivations, are made to act out of simple convenience. Instead of basing the book upon the characters and conflicts, the author forces them to fit a preconceived structure.

It wouldn't make a game of chess any more interesting if the players had to make a sandwich and change shirts every time they wanted to move a piece, it would just make it unnecessarily convoluted.

But stories can be written as a series of related conflicts that build to an ending, and many good ones do just this, but each smaller solution must contribute materially to the final resolution. An example would be Appian's 'Alexander the Great', where Alexander must muster troops, feed them, keep up their morale, overcome dissent, and fight a series of battles. Each outcome modifies the next conflict, and all of them, as a whole, affect the overall arc of the story.

Likewise, Alexander deals with these problems in ways that are consistent, demonstrating his psychological makeup, his skills, his vices, and his failings. Due to this internal structure, he comes off as a consistent, realistic character and an active agent in the story.

"There are many stories that use your “external-arbitrary-artificial-synthetic-manufactured-and-made- in-the-spot-loaded-expressions” that are successful and well written. There’s Alice in wonder land, LOTR, and his dark materials"

Yes, there are authors who can overcome the problems of these techniques, though more fall to them than exceed them. However, I didn't find Tolkien or Pullman were really able to overcome them, though they put up valiant efforts. Contrarily, in 'Alice in Wonderland', the magic is rarely a solution, and the more she uses it, the worse her situation tends to get.

"Apparently you think of me as your baby sitter and that it is my duty to clean after you and tend YOUR garden."

I can take care of my own, no worries. I was just expressing that, in light of your aversion to ferreting out errors and contradictions, it's less surprising that you would be angry with me for using terms like 'artificial' and 'setting' in response to you, even though you used them first.

I didn't mean to suggest that you were too lazy to tend your mental garden, merely that, life being short, it would be understandable if you preferred to spend your time on other things, and I would hardly begrudge you for following your natural inclination to avoid any situation which would require you to be on the look out for errors, contradictions, or non-sequiturs in the future.


message 1299: by Daniel (last edited May 01, 2011 06:25AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel A. Duran Apologies for the unusually long delays between posts, life is getting in the way more than usual lately.

“There are no such things as conventional definitions.”

The Yale companion and the oxford dictionary to literary terms says otherwise. I am slightly surprised that you’ve never heard of something called literary conventions before.

“Get together ten writers and ask them to define 'plot' and 'narrative' and you'll get a number of different answers.”

Are you saying that disagreement among individuals show there are no conventions? Ha, Joe Blow and Jane Doe often disagree about terms like science, naturalism and evolution. I take it that shows science has no conventions, is that right?

“It's a conventional technique at the beginning of a debate to define terms, allowing the other participants to offer contradictions or fine-tuning.”

Excuse me? There are conventions for debates but not for terms? What gives?

“There are a number of writers and literary critics who would disagree with you on this point, and though I don't, the lack of consensus suggests taking definitions for granted is hardly useful.”

I am not “taking definitions for granted” since I defined plot and narrative right before I told you that you can have a narrative without plot!

“But if you're using 'conventional definitions', then your claim that Gormenghast is 'plotless' is simply I false. It is a story with characters, conflicts, resolutions, building tension, climax, and denouement.”

I concede there’s a plot in buried Titus Groan, but like I said before: the book is filled with endless and tedious descriptions (Peake needed an editor, badly) were no action takes place.

“Actually, you spoke of 'descriptions of a setting', so it would hardly be a non-sequitur for me to point out that an author can describe his setting in detail and still have a plot.”

You did not speak about an author *describing* his setting in detail and having a plot in your previous post. Do not make up stuff you never said. You spoke of having *complex* settings and I spoke of *descriptions* of a setting.

Having complex settings is not the same as the description of a setting.

You can have a simple setting (say, a prison cell) and describe every buzzing fly, and crack on the wall in exhausting detail. You can have a complex setting (say, middle earth) and barely describe the environment.

“Certainly, nothing wrong with getting down to brass tacks with a good definition of terms.”

Just read your definitions; nowhere do you address your tangent about Pac-man and unexplained settings and how it fits with what you have said so far.

“I might also point out that you were the one who first brought the term 'artificial' into the discussion.”

I was the first? read message 161, Keely.

“An author creates a conflict around which his story operates. The building of that conflict creates tension and expectation. The resolution of that conflict relieves that tension and provides an ending to the story.

Let's say our protagonist must get over a perilous gap, convince an unfriendly person to help him, and prevent his great enemy from destroying him.

There are a number of ways to resolve conflicts, and the one which requires the least skill is coincidence. Here are some coincidental solutions: a tree happens to fall across the gap, the unfriendly person turns out to be a relative who wants to help, and the enemy dies unexpectedly. The character does not have to do anything in order to overcome conflict.

The next easiest is the 'pushbutton' solution I spoke about, before. Imagine our character has a box in his pocket with a button on it; whenever he arrives at a problem, he pushes it. It makes a bridge appear over the gap, it hypnotizes the unfriendly man, and it slays his enemy.

Now the character must act to solve problems, but his actions are minor and unrelated to the problems he faces. The character takes an action that should not solve his problem, but the author solves it, anyways.

Both coincidence and pushbutton solutions are 'artificial'. They solve problems only because the author says they do. They are a convenience for an author who cannot think up another way to solve the conflicts he has made, and they are unrealistic. They do not produce verisimilitude.

An example could be taken from Tarzan, where the protagonist learns how to read and speak English from picture books, and with no previous experience in the language. This is clearly nonsensical, but since the author wants his wildman to be able to talk, he does it anyways. It is an artificial imposition on the story for the sake of convenience.

I might also point out that you were the one who first brought the term 'artificial' into the discussion:

". . . the narrative will be artificial and characters will lack agency as everything is under the control of the author."

And you can see that I am using it in the same way: to refer to events which the author has imposed upon the text. Certainly, the author creates everything in the book, but most authors try to make realistic stories that make sense to the reader.

So, what is not 'artificial' in a story is what is realistic, those elements which build verisimilitude. A realistic solution would be one which seems reasonable to the reader and which makes sense for the character to perform.

So, for our example, our character might fetch a wooden ladder to cross the gap, he might put forth an impassioned speech to the man to convince him, and he might deduce holes in his enemies plans and take advantage of them.

These actions demonstrate my use of 'internal plotting', where the character's actions are determined by the character's psychology and by the boundaries of the author's world.

Contrarily, in external plotting, the author assigns actions and events according to what is convenient. In such stories, character will simply do things as required of the plot. In one scene, the character will be a brilliant tactician able to see his enemy's every move because the author wants to show how cool he is, and in the next scene, he will be a stupid bumbler so that he does not resolve the whole plot at once.

So, a character written internally, from the inside-out, is limited by his vices, habits, knowledge, and skills. He acts according to those features and approaches problems in his own idiomatic way. Often, his conflicts will be internal struggles that he must overcome in order to deal with external events.

A character written externally, from the outside-in, is limited by what serves the plot. He is skilled, stupid, angry, or strong when it facilitates the plot. Such characters are often contradictory and fickle, and rarely have internal struggles. They are more likely to focus purely on external events which the author throws at them.

Artificial resolutions are also external. Constant coincidences are unrealistic, but authors use them because they are a convenient expedient. Pushbutton solutions are also unrealistic, they are a convenient stand-in for when the author cannot think of a more realistic resolution.”





Sigh.

Let me take a deep breath and see if I read you correctly. Is your lengthy, exhaustive and exhausting explanation about pushing buttons your tortuous way of saying ‘deus ex machina’ ? ;-)

“So, the author then adds other conflicts. In order to get the magic button, they must first travel to a certain place, read a prophecy, see a witch, make a leap and a puff, eat a kiwi, &c. Instead of creating a realistic, internal solution for his original conflict, he instead piles on a number of external, artificial problems in order to pad the length of the book and make it seem like something is happening.

This is what I meant by 'convoluted', so it should be easy to see that my use of the term was hardly equivocal. Instead of structuring around the main conflict, the author leads the characters up the primrose path and back.”

Sigh, another long explanation for something with a short name: fetch quest…I think I’ll need a beer by the end of this post.

“This is what I meant by 'shoehorning them in, after the fact'. Instead of creating a good solution for his main conflict to start with, the author fills the story with a lot of asides and then summarily knocks off the big resolution. Likewise, it could be applied to characters who, instead of proceeding according to their desires and motivations, are made to act out of simple convenience. Instead of basing the book upon the characters and conflicts, the author forces them to fit a preconceived structure.”

Shoehorning after the fact…AKA deus ex machina and coincidences, am I correct?

“It wouldn't make a game of chess any more interesting if the players had to make a sandwich and change shirts every time they wanted to move a piece, it would just make it unnecessarily convoluted.”

I beg to differ, if the one changing the clothes and making sandwiches between turns happens to be Angelina Jolie, the game would be far more interesting. ;-)
But, more seriously though, what the hell does your analogy have anything to do with shoehorning after the fact?

“I can take care of my own, no worries. I was just expressing that, in light of your aversion to ferreting out errors and contradictions,…”

My “aversion” to ferreting out errors and contradictions? I see that you’re back to your old habit of mind-reading the subjective and private feelings and emotions of other people.

Apparently you did not read the part that said *your last post was too messy and incoherent to make much sense of it.*

" it's less surprising that you would be angry with me for using terms like 'artificial' and 'setting' in response to you, even though you used them first."

DO NOT MAKE UP STUFF OR LIE. Read comment 161. Who’s the first person talking about artificial things? You.

Also, I am puzzled as to why I would be angry at the term "setting." clarification, please.

“I would hardly begrudge you for following your natural inclination to avoid any situation which would require you to be on the look out for errors, contradictions, or non-sequiturs in the future.”

My “natural inclination” of avoiding ferreting out errors, contradictions, and non-sequiturs…I think that made my day.


message 1298: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "Apologies for the unusually long delays between posts, life is getting in the way more than usual lately."

No worries, happens to everyone.

"Are you saying that disagreement among individuals show there are no conventions?"

No, I am saying that since such disagreements are common, even among people working from the same conventional, dictionary definition, it invites misunderstanding to assume that everyone is using terms in precisely the same way. Certainly, there are dictionary definitions, but creating these definitions takes professionals years and many still disagree about the particulars.

If even professionals have these problems, it would be folly for me to assume that all my uses of terms will be immediately comprehensible, even if I am using conventional definitions. Dictionaries are guidelines which do not capture all the nuance and context of any particular usage of specific words. So, there are attempts to define words conventionally, but such abstractions will find their limits tested in real-world discussions.

"Excuse me? There are conventions for debates but not for terms? What gives?"

They do have conventions, at least in structured debates like legal cases or competitive debating, but like any conventions, their applicability may be limited by use in everyday life. The fact that it is necessary for skilled debaters to define terms indicates the limitations of assuming conventional definitions.

"I am not “taking definitions for granted” since I defined plot and narrative right before I told you that you can have a narrative without plot!"

The first time you indicated there could be narrative without plot was back in post 162, and there are no definitions of either term there, so you were taking definitions for granted at that point, you have since defined your terms, so that is no longer a problem.

Let's look at some conventional definitions of both terms, from Merriam-Webster:

Narrative: the representation in art of a story
Plot: the main story (of a literary work)

By these definitions, the narrative is the representation of the plot, which would indicate that, without a plot, it would not be a narrative. So, by this use of 'conventional definitions', the 'plotless narrative' you suggest is not possible. I'm not saying that I think it is impossible, merely that the use of conventional definitions is no proof against misunderstanding, nor does it take the place of a solid definition of terms by the person introducing such terms.

"I concede there’s a plot in buried Titus Groan, but like I said before: the book is filled with endless and tedious descriptions (Peake needed an editor, badly) were no action takes place."

Then you should have said that you found the work was over-described, not that it was a 'plotless narrative'. Though, as I mentioned before, Peake's descriptions are in the Gothic vein, adding to the characterization, plot, and exploration of ideas, so that even when his characters are not taking action, Peake is setting up future actions.

"You did not speak about an author *describing* his setting in detail and having a plot in your previous post."

Don't authors describe all the things that take place in their works? Isn't that part and parcel to the act of writing? An author demonstrates his setting to us by describing it, either in character exposition or narration. But my point that having (or describing) a setting does not negate plot is already conceded.

"You can have a simple setting (say, a prison cell) and describe every buzzing fly, and crack on the wall in exhausting detail. You can have a complex setting (say, middle earth) and barely describe the environment."

Certainly true, but describing a place in great detail is also a kind of complexity. My intent was to imply that Peake also has the sort of complexity implied by 'depth' but to leave it ambiguous enough that it might also reference your assertion that its complexity was a pointless convolution.

"Just read your definitions; nowhere do you address your tangent about Pac-man and unexplained settings and how it fits with what you have said so far."

After my description of Pac Man's world, I say this:

"These are all goals and conflicts which have no good explanation. They do not build the plot, character, or setting, they merely serve as stand-ins for a generic conflict. Defeating the evil wizard with the magic sword isn't really any better than defeating the evil ghost with the magic fruit."

I am using the nonsensical conflicts and solutions in Pac Man as examples of how authors use similarly arbitrary conflicts and solutions in their books, as I discuss in this passage:

"In order to get the magic button, they must first travel to a certain place, read a prophecy, see a witch, make a leap and a puff, eat a kiwi, &c. Instead of creating a realistic, internal solution for his original conflict, [the author] instead piles on a number of external, artificial problems in order to pad the length of the book and make it seem like something is happening."

"I was the first? read message 161, Keely."

I stand corrected.

"Is your lengthy, exhaustive and exhausting explanation about pushing buttons your tortuous way of saying ‘deus ex machina’ ?"

You asked me for a definition of my terms, not a simplified gloss. After you indicated that you could not follow how I was using terms from post-to-post, I thought I had better slow down and describe things more fully, with more examples, in hopes of some mutual understanding.

But no, I don't mean 'deus ex machina'. That is an example of an external, artificial plot event put into the text by an author, but it does not cover everything I talked about. For instance, having characters suddenly act contrary to their natures in order to serve the plot is not an example of 'deus ex machina', but it would be both artificial and external.

"Sigh, another long explanation for something with a short name: fetch quest . . ."

Though a 'Fetch Quest' does fit in with my definition of needlessly convoluted plotting, again, it is only one example of a larger class of convenient plotting. This was all in response to your point that

"Most stories with “plot coupons,” the characters have to do many things to get the magical object to its destination."

I don't see how adding a bunch of other things to an artificial central plot makes it any better.

"But, more seriously though, what the hell does your analogy have anything to do with shoehorning after the fact?"

It symbolizes a situation where the author is adding artificial tasks and limitations to the central plot as if they were necessary, even though he will resolve the plot later in an unrelated way.

"My “aversion” to ferreting out errors and contradictions? I see that you’re back to your old habit of mind-reading the subjective and private feelings and emotions of other people."

No mind reading necessary, you said:

"Life is too short to be untangling and pointing out errors, non-sequiturs and contradictions."

You expressed that there are other things you would rather do, that you were averse to the behavior, life being 'too short'.

"Also, I am puzzled as to why I would be angry at the term "setting." clarification, please."

Alright, let's go through it:

Daniel: "Descriptions of a setting do not make a plot."
Keely: "The fact that the story has a complex setting does not negate its plot."
Daniel: "Non-sequitur, I spoke of 'descriptions'."
Keely: "Actually, you spoke of 'descriptions of a setting', so it would hardly be a non-sequitur for me to point out that an author can describe his setting in detail and still have a plot."
Daniel: "Do not make up stuff you never said. You spoke of having *complex* settings and I spoke of *descriptions* of a setting."
Keely: "How can a book have a setting without the author describing it, and aren't detailed descriptions complex?"

And that about brings us up to date.

"My “natural inclination” of avoiding ferreting out errors, contradictions, and non-sequiturs…I think that made my day."

In my experience, it would account for most of them.


message 1297: by Chris (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chris I like the review but not with the rating :(


message 1296: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Thanks for the honesty. Lots of people enjoy this book, and I can see why: big, sprawling world, pseudo-historical elements, and a longrunning, unpredictable melodrama with a lot of characters. But I've seen those elements done much better by other authors, and there were a lot of flaws that drug the whole thing down for me.

It's been a while since I read it and I stopped reading without finishing it, so maybe if I were reading it now, freshly, it might get more stars, but so far, I haven't heard anything to make me think it merits a second look.


message 1295: by Moksha (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moksha So I've been reading this review and some of the responses to it and normally I would just walk away from a review I completely disagree with but I like Game of Thrones so much that I feel compelled to comment.

Now, I'd like to begin by saying that my 'experience with fantasy' comes from various avenues: LOTR, Greek Mythology, Indian Mythology (think Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc.), Harry Potter, Tamora Pierce novels, and other similar material. When I read a book, I judge it by how attached I become to it and if I find the reading smart. The first comparison I drew while reading Game of Thrones was to Ken Follet's 'Pillars of the Earth,' another book I immensely enjoyed. I loved how Game of Thrones takes different points of view and different characters and explores all the misunderstandings and plot twists between them. I was literally unable to put this book down. Now, I've read LOTR, and even though I absolutely love Tolkein's work, I was able to put down the book at night and continue in the morning. With Game of Thrones, it was like an addiction...I would say 'ten more pages' and the next thing I knew, I was watching the sunrise chapters later. When I was younger, I used to read the Harry Potter books like that and so it took me back to that fulfillment that I got from a gripping novel. I would classify Tolkein as literature and Game of Thrones as pure entertainment. That's not to say I don't think GRRM's writing isn't brilliant, because I think he has an amazing command of flow and language, but I think he evokes a much more emotional response from his readers than Tolkein does. Tolkein tends to evoke a response of respect over his writing style and admiration over his technique, while GRRM gets a more visceral reaction. And I think that's an amazing technique all on its own.

I mentioned this already but I LOVE the characters in Game of Thrones. I was concerned about their lives and when a main character died, I was devastated. I understand reviewers who don't give this book five stars like I do (I think it comes down to personal preference and emotional connection at that point), but I honestly think this book definitely deserves more than one star because it takes the basic emotions and evokes them within the reader. I didn't read this book for the violence and sex either (and I'm not some boy playing fantasy sex elves...tongue in cheek though that may have been). I read this book for the story between the people in it, and how an event from one perspective becomes completely different from another perspective. It shows human fallibility through misunderstanding really well.

I know this post was largely rambling and a bit incoherent (you'll have to excuse me as my brain is still recovering from finals week), but I just needed to defend a book I love and an author I admire.


message 1294: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Thank you for your comment, it accords with what I have heard from some other Martin fans, and I can, to some degree, understand its appeal.

Yet the things you praise it for are, to my mind, the hallmarks of the melodrama: engrossing, fast-paced, hinging on twists and character outcomes. These are the same features which make soap operas, pro wrestling, and Lost successful.

I'm not saying a sophisticated author couldn't use the structure of the melodrama to advantage, but it is often the sign of a weak author, an inconsistent plot, and the replacement of good character psychology with emotional appeals. For me to respect an author, he would have to take this form and elevate it, which I did not see Martin do.

Instead, I found that the lingering immaturity of the violence and sexuality in the books lowered my estimation. I understand that not everyone comes to fantasy to fulfill such urges, but I found Martin's use of such elements detracted from his story.

If you like Martin as pure entertainment with twists and emotional appeals, I can understand that. I tend to find such long, meandering melodramatic stories to be mindless and unoriginal, but sometimes that's what we're looking for. I would give that sort of story two stars, it would be 'okay'; in Martin's case, I took off a star for length, ungainly prose, and prurience.

I had the same problem with the Harry Potter books (minus the prurience). I would also consider them to be bland melodrama, but elevated here and there by an interesting character sketch. My problems with Tolkien are a bit different, though his symbolic morality also works as an emotional appeal, if in a less personal way.

Thanks again for your comment and congratulations on surviving finals.


message 1293: by Moksha (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moksha I guess this is where I disagree with you. I tend to rate books based on intended audience. For example, I gave the Harry Potter books five stars because they are inherently children's books and as a child when I was reading them, they were absolutely perfect. Going back now, I can definitely see some technical issues and such, but it still hasn't detracted from the heart of the story and the enjoyment it gave to the intended audience. Similarly, I rate Game of Thrones highly because it fulfills what its intended audience is looking for, that is, dramatic plot twists, vivid characters, political drama/intrigue, and a world where you never quite know what's going to happen next. I think GRRM does a wonderful job of being unpredictable (which is where I would disagree with you about it being soap opera-ish because those are definitely predictable). Game of Thrones doesn't follow the hero's journey arc seen in most epic fantasy novels today...it keeps you on your toes and guessing. When you talk about ancient Greek mythology as example of 'good fantasy,' I see you describing 'classic' as 'good.' When it comes to rating 'classics' I have a different system...I base it on a completely different scale. I don't think GRRM wrote a 'classic.' I think he wrote an 'epic,' and for the intended audience, it is perfect. You can't expect to pick up a children's book, for example, and have it explore mature adult themes and have graphic descriptions of violence and sex. Similarly, you can't critique Martin's work based on the criteria gleaned from ancient Greek literature. In fact, literature and novels are inherently different among themselves.

To your comment on how Martin uses violence and sexuality immaturely in the books...I tend to disagree. I think it's good enough to not be too graphic and off-putting, and yet there is no covering it up that it's there and a regular part of the world. It's not the center of the novel by any means but it adds a necessary element of intrigue and acts as a weapon for the female characters (who are very much stuck in a man's world).

As for the length of the book...fans of Martin hardly notice because the story is so addicting :)


message 1292: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely ". . . I gave the Harry Potter books five stars because they are inherently children's books . . ."

I know a lot of people would agree with you, but I don't like the idea of feeding simplistic, dumbed-down books to children. I find that, if you challenge children, they will often surprise you with how much they understand.

There are quite a few works which children enjoy which don't lose their luster as you get older, like 'Alice in Wonderland' or the Looney Toons. I've found that all the greatest children's books can be enjoyed later in life, so I see no need to judge them on a different scale.

Likewise, there's nothing about a fun, unpredictable adventure that prevents it from being well-written or original, which would be necessary elements of a five-star rating, for me.

"I would disagree with you about it being soap opera-ish because those are definitely predictable"

I imagine a lot of Soap Opera fans would disagree with you, especially since such shows rely on cliffhangers, reveals, and twists to keep people tuning in from week to week. Certainly they use the same sorts of surprise events over and over: unexpected deaths, betrayals, and liaisons; but then, so does Martin, and so do a lot of great authors.

"When you talk about ancient Greek mythology as example of 'good fantasy,' I see you describing 'classic' as 'good.' When it comes to rating 'classics' I have a different system...I base it on a completely different scale."

Actually, I'd say there are some 'classics' that are decidedly not that good. For me, the only thing that separates a classic from a modern book is time. Everything was new once, and to read a work is to see it with new eyes.

There are many Greek works which are strikingly modern and sophisticated, but I don't recall comparing them to Martin or declaring them 'good fantasy'. I did compare him to other fantastical writers from the Victorian to the Modern period, as well as to other Epics, a genre which has been continually rewritten and reinvented from the earliest recorded stories to the present day.

I compare him to those authors because he is trying to do the same things they were: create an otherworldly adventure full of intrigue and verisimilitude over a grand scale of war and politics. In my experience, he does not distinguish himself from amongst the pack.

"You can't expect to pick up a children's book, for example, and have it explore mature adult themes and have graphic descriptions of violence and sex."

It's true, and a story doesn't need those to be good. There are very few things a story absolutely has to have in order to be good, but to rise above mediocrity it must have something: masterful writing, deep character psychology, an original vision, precise plotting, or some other element which elevates it. I did not find anything in Martin that elevated it above the mediocre.

"In fact, literature and novels are inherently different among themselves."

I'm not sure what you're saying here; are novels not literature? Even if that were so, I'm not sure how it applies to Martin, since he's writing an epic, not a novel.

"I think it's good enough to not be too graphic and off-putting, and yet there is no covering it up that it's there and a regular part of the world."

I don't have a problem with sex or violence, in general, I just found that Martin's use of them often seemed indulgent and extraneous. In your words, it wasn't 'the center of the novel by any means', which is part of the problem. He's adding elements which are extraneous to the characters and plot, which is the first sign that these are not the natural outgrowths of realistic writing, but affectations.

It felt like he was mistaking the symptom for the cause, attempting to make his book more mature by adding the trappings of maturity. A simplistic example would be a teenager who smokes and swears because he sees mature people do it and seeks to be mature, yet his adoption of the superficial traits of maturity only makes it obvious how immature he is, at the core.

I'm not saying Martin is that immature, in fact most fantasy authors are much worse, but it seems to be the same process on a different, more subtle level.

"As for the length of the book...fans of Martin hardly notice because the story is so addicting :)"

Quite so, but then, what fan wouldn't say the same of their favorite work? I'm not saying you shouldn't like Martin, but liking him isn't much of a defense. If you stripped out the 'addictive page turning', the 'engrossing characters', the 'unpredictability'; that is, if you stripped out your personal emotional reaction, what would be left to praise Martin for?

As you say, this may just be a difference in rating styles. There are lots of fun, surprising, easy reads that I thoroughly enjoyed which I would only rate three stars ('I liked it') because they have flaws, are a bit clumsy, and simply can't measure up to some of the brilliant, jaw-dropping, life-changing books out there.

Again, I'm not talking about 'Great Literary Classics' here; no book can survive on reputation alone. Some classics are dull. Some fun, popular, lowbrow works have become classics (such as Shakespeare, Aristophenes, and Cervantes). If a book is good, it shouldn't be hard to explain why; and if a book is amazing, that should be even easier to explain, whether it's a time-tested classic or an obscure novelty.


message 1291: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "those are great literary experiences, and what I wish I saw more of in kids' books."

I'm right with you, and I'd extend it beyond books. I've seen a video of a mathematician teaching binary to middle schoolers, just to show that children can grasp things we would consider complex with great alacrity. It also reminds me of this article about a parent who teaches his small children to argue using Aristotle.

But it's also something you can see firsthand. I remember my friend Yevgeny telling me how he picked up the Iliad as a child on a whim and really enjoyed it, much to the confusion of his parents. Or my girlfriend, who read Lord of the Rings when she was six.

So yeah, I've come to expect more from children, from people in general, and from books. I've found that when you look for more, you get more in return. Some would complain that this philosophy makes one judgmental and difficult to please, which is fair, so we must always try to temper such discretion with an open, searching, willing mind.


message 1290: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Certainly true, though much of that is the result of social promotion. The possession of a high school diploma has become de rigueur, and as such, lost much of its meaning. We can no longer require stringent standards, because there are too many who would be unable to meet them, and not enough teachers capable of upholding them.

The same thing is happening in college, which is no longer the mark of higher education, but merely a glorified vocational school. My girlfriend lives the life illustrated in this article of a professor whose class is full of the naive and illiterate. It is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of papers she receives are what I would expect from an eighth grader, or worse.

The saddest part is that this is not usually the deficiency of the students, who can be bright and enthusiastic, but of the failure of the educational system to challenge them in any way. The result of a dumbed-down education can produce nothing but dumbed-down adults.


message 1289: by Joel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel i think part of the problem is not the "dumbing down" of education, but the commercialization and promotion of it as something everyone not only has a "right" to, but a need for. the fact of the matter is that there are many, many jobs that don't require a four-year degree, but still demand one. does the bank teller really need to spend $60K getting her degree? no. but good luck getting hired if she doesn't.

that's not to say that you can't be a perfectly intelligent, well-rounded bank teller. but it does mean that some people who wouldn't otherwise be suited to advanced education (surely we are allowed to say that without insulting anyone? that some people are smarter than others, that some have mental gifts the way others have physical gifts?) are forced into it by societal circumstance.

this is especially evident in liberal arts fields that ask very, very little of anyone looking to pass, and not much more of one looking to graduate "with honors" (if my experience is any indication). right now my girlfriend is in a master's program with people who very clearly have only a poor grasp on language and grammar, yet they are being rewarded for their inadequate-yet-"graduate level" coursework.

it might be a stretch, but i'd pull this back to the topic by saying that for these reasons, i'd argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with something like harry potter just because it doesn't have layers to peel away and depths to plumb. it is still a great example of what it is, which is accessible, unchallenging material that still manages to be coherent, thoughtful, engrossing, and at least somewhat ambitious. it may present simple messages in a fairly straightforward manner, but it still communicates them quite well.


message 1288: by Chris (last edited May 10, 2011 12:47PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chris Keely,

I read the first three or four in this series, and then stopped. I think the points you raised about the first novel in your wonderful review were part of the reason why. In particular, I think you are very correct about the idea of different.

Good review.


message 1287: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Joel said: "i think part of the problem is not the "dumbing down" of education, but the commercialization and promotion of it as something everyone not only has a "right" to, but a need for."

I'd suggest that the dumbing-down of education is the result of the democratization of degrees. A bachelor's degree is now the equivalent of a vocational degree, but instead of just teaching people jobs, the old trappings of the arts and sciences remain, even when the student has no background in them and no desire to become versed in them.

In order to pass these students and succeed as a vocational institution, the college must alter these courses so they can be understood by uninterested laymen, which is what I mean by 'dumbing down'. And yes, I think there are people who are not 'college material', but I think the larger problem is that the majority of people sent to college are not sufficiently prepared by their earlier schooling.

Joel said: "i'd argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with something like harry potter just because it doesn't have layers to peel away and depths to plumb."

It's true, a work does not have to be complex or thickly allusive in order to be good. However, I would argue that many such books are pointlessly complex, that their plots meander, their characters behave conveniently, and their ideas are oversimplified. It takes a great deal of skill to create an elegant, simple, direct work, and this level of skill is beyond many authors, including Rowling.

Her books are often pointlessly complicated and convoluted, simply because she is not a master of plot or structure. This doesn't mean people can't enjoy her works, or that children can't read them, but these are faults for any author, whatever audience they intend to write for, and I would reserve my praise for books that are truly straightforward and well-crafted.

Chris Said: "I read the first three or four in this series, and then stopped. I think the points you raised about the first novel in your wonderful review were part of the reason why."

I'm glad you sympathized with the review; thanks for your comment.


message 1286: by Joel (last edited May 10, 2011 01:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel Keely wrote: "I'd suggest that the dumbing-down of education is the result of the democratization of degrees. A bachelor's degree is now the equivalent of a vocational degree, but instead of just teaching people jobs, the old trappings of the arts and sciences remain, even when the student has no background in them and no desire to become versed in them.

In order to pass these students and succeed as a vocational institution, the college must alter these courses so they can be understood by uninterested laymen, which is what I mean by 'dumbing down'."


i don't think that's much of a distinction. clearly people aren't going to pay for degrees they can't earn. what you call "democratization" i'd call "commercialization." more than the idea that everyone has a "right" to a higher education, i think the drive is from a less lofty ideal, i.e. the transformation of education into a product that must be marketed and purchased (and the higher the cost, the higher the perceived value).

in countries where education is cheap and state-funded, getting in is a challenge -- no one wants to throw good money away on bad prospects. in the u.s., you pay your own way, and the product has been tailored to fit the widest customer base. yay capitalism!


message 1285: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "i don't think that's much of a distinction."

Then I guess you shouldn't have made it?

"what you call "democratization" i'd call "commercialization." "

Oh, don't worry, I'm using it in the the Platonic sense of the corrupt and confused handing of important matters to the foolish masses, not in the romanticized American way.

"i think the drive is from a less lofty idea, i.e. the transformation of education into a product that must be marketed and purchased"

I would argue that it came about the other way. Degrees were originally important for the holding of certain jobs, and due to industrialization and the movement away from agriculture and toward the structure of cities, there grew to be more degree-jobs over time. Eventually, this reached the modern point where a degree is often necessary for a living wage.

This dependence on the educational system created higher demand, which in turn created higher prices for the product, the diploma. Then, speculators noticed the increase in price and jumped onto education as a profitable bubble.

This speculation expanded to include bottom-feeding business colleges, accreditation purchasers like the University of Phoenix, and credit institutions like Sallie Mae. These speculators were able to use leverage to consistently ratchet up the prices, creating virtual wealth out of debt which, in the end, amounts to a lifetime tax on something which people need.

These institutions then banded together to form a lobby and helped to pass legislation to further their profits, such as preventing college loans from being negated by a declaration of bankruptcy. So I would say this was a case of speculators taking advantage of a profitable system that already existed and was expanding due to demand, which is how most speculation bubbles start.

So, the product was not tailored to fit the customer, it has been increasingly tailored to inconvenience the customer and to fit the creditor, since, like real estate, the customer can hardly do without it.

Certainly, there is a degree to which the creditors have tried to make it available to more customers, so that low-level business colleges are economically similar to the infamous 'Subprime Mortgage': allowing poorer people to commit their capital to the idea of an investment, even if most of them will end up in greater debt because of it and with no means of alleviation. But yes, this is certainly an outgrowth of free-range capitalism.


message 1284: by Joel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel Keely wrote: ""i don't think that's much of a distinction."

Then I guess you shouldn't have made it?"


what? you quoted something i'd written, then said "i'd call it X" and then i said i didn't think that was much of a distinction.


message 1283: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely You said that the problem was not 'dumbing down' but 'capitalization', I suggested the latter was the cause and the former the problem, then you stated that there was not much a distinction between the two.


message 1282: by Moksha (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moksha Why does one have to disregard an emotional reaction in the rating of a novel?

Also, I agree with the idea that children can read more advanced novels than people give them credit for. However, I also think there is a difference in the level of enjoyment. I read LOTR and The Golden Compass series as a child and I liked The Golden Compass series much better. It was only later that I grew to love LOTR. The same thing happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, which happens to be one of my favorite novels now. Similarly, I read Harry Potter as a child and absolutely loved it...and I still do, the same way I still love The Golden Compass series. And I think this is because of the emotional reaction both books evoked in me and how I was able to identify with both the characters. It's much easier to fall in love with Harry as a child than it is to fall in love with Frodo.

I would compare Game of Thrones to The Hobbit. Fast-paced, interesting, and it draws you into the world. It has a heart and that's what makes me love it. I wouldn't disregard that in my rating of this book because that's what makes it what it is. That's like going to a fashion show and telling the models to strip before rating the clothes...it makes no sense!


message 1281: by Keely (last edited May 12, 2011 04:26PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "Why does one have to disregard an emotional reaction in the rating of a novel?"

Because our emotional reactions often mislead us. They can be the result of a flawed understanding, or of cognitive bias. We can become attached to things, or feel aversion to things without understanding why.

It can be an eye-opening experience to step back from these immediate reactions and ask not "do I like this?" but "why do I like this?" Here's a common Goodreads exchange:

Person 1: This book had repetitive prose, strawman arguments, convoluted plotting, and a conveniently tacked-on ending.
Person 2: You're wrong, I liked it.


That would only count as a refutation if Person 2 assumed they were incapable of liking a flawed book, which is a rather arrogant, short-sighted assumption. People are not entitled to their opinions, they have to earn them. If someone told me all dogs should be jailed, I wouldn't blithely think "they're entitled to that opinion", I would want to know why they thought that position was defensible.

A person should be able to step back from their immediate reaction and use critical thought to determine whether or not it is justified. Doctors and detectives may get hunches, but they still have to go back and test them; they can't just jail people or schedule surgery.

Likewise, it's our responsibility to defend our positions. I see you have the impulse to do this, but your arguments seem to just be restatements of the fact that you like the book.

You say the characters are vivid, but this doesn't mean much unless you can argue for how the author achieves this vividity. You say the book is intriguing and interesting, but these are just ways of saying you like it. You say that, as a fan, you don't notice the length, which just means that you are willing to excuse the authors flaws because you like the book.

It's not that you're not allowed to like the book, but liking it isn't a defense. Let's look at it again through your fashion metaphor:

"That's like going to a fashion show and telling the models to strip before rating the clothes...it makes no sense!"

No, it wouldn't make sense, because the models don't rate the clothing, designers and critics do.

If you ask one why he likes a dress, he'll go into concrete details: the weight and fall of the fabric, the color and pattern choices, the tailoring, the silhouette, and the historical influences and references. Instead of relying on his first reaction, he can go through and explicate, piece-by-piece, the qualities of this particular item.

Literature is also about construction, about influence and reference, about the choices the author makes for the overall form of the work as well as the fundamental details.

Stepping back from initial reactions lets us learn about ourselves, and about the world. If I were content to follow the initial dislike I had for some books, I would have shut myself off from them without consideration.

Instead, I had to delve into why I disliked it, to perform due diligence, and sometimes, it was just because I didn't understand what the book was doing, or because it was too unfamiliar a style, or because it disagreed with me.

Likewise, there have been books I liked which, on further inspection, I found to be flawed and disappointing. It can be very difficult to reject books that feel familiar, that agree with us, that support us, but we can learn a lot about our own mistakes and hasty assumptions by really looking at them.

The concrete details we find when asking why we felt a certain way also allow us to find common ground with others, even people who disagree with us. When one person says "I like this" and the other says "I don't", there's really nowhere to go from there. You can't create discussion based purely on preference.

However, if one person says "the characters were just mouthpieces for the author's fascist leanings", the other person can respond with concrete observations, such as "If you look at the last chapter, you can see that the characters actually don't gain anything from their philosophies, which I read as a satire of fascist blowhards", and the conversation can continue.

So there are a few reasons to leave emotional reaction behind: to test the self by trying to come to the same conclusion through critical observation, to root out one's own misconceptions or habits, to justify opinions to others through rational argument, to foster personal understanding of such reactions, and to provide a common ground for discussion.


message 1280: by Moksha (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moksha Even if a person doesn't use literary devices and in-depth analysis to describe why they like a book, it doesn't mean those characteristics didn't play an active role in making the person like it. I truly believe that the best writing is the type that allows one to forget that it's actually writing. Forgetting to analyze technique is a tribute to the level of technique itself. I can go on and on about how I love Martin's imagery, his character arcs (how he sets up a character as a 'villain' and then takes him/her through a redemption arc that allows the reader to sympathize with him/her), his ability to weave story lines in a seamless way, etc. but since those all work together subtly to contribute to the overall novel, I didn't go into each one. I'm not saying analysis for a formal critique isn't important, I'm saying that for a rating, an emotional reaction shouldn't be completely disregarded because that's what the author aims to evoke in a reader (in the very basic sense). I do agree that some distance from emotion is needed for a critique, but I do not think it's necessary or even possible to completely chuck emotional response out of the window in rating a novel. Going back to my fashion analysis, sure the designers and critics are going to rate the weight and fall of the dress, etc. But when it comes down to it, it's that moment on the runway and if it all comes together or not. Maybe that's not the best example.

Let's take a music concert. I know very little about the classic orchestra. There is absolutely no way I can rate timbre, rhythm, and everything else that goes into music. But I can definitely listen to a piece and judge it by my emotional reaction because it's the only thing I have to go by. I absolutely loved the LOTR soundtrack and I can't tell you why because I don't know the technical aspects of it. That doesn't make my opinion irrelevant because the composer has still managed to evoke an emotion out of me, and that in itself deserves a rating because only when the technique is THERE can that response be evoked. True, there are professionals who can give a better critique and in-depth analysis of the piece. But the 'common' opinion counts as well and just because a reader may not know the literary ins and outs, it doesn't mean he/she should not be allowed to rate a piece of work. That's rather elitist thinking. Yeah, literature is about structure, analysis, etc...but it's also about the final piece and that's what all those elements construct. If an author is successful, they all come together and leave a strong emotional response with the reader. And that's why I rate Game of Thrones highly. Pure rationalistic thinking may not agree but I think pure rationalistic thinking is flawed. Humans are emotional. You can't take that out of the equation.


message 1279: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely " . . . just because a reader may not know the literary ins and outs, it doesn't mean he/she should not be allowed to rate a piece of work."

Sure, people can rate things on whatever scale they like. A person could rate books based on how nice the weather was when they were reading it, but it wouldn't mean much to anyone else.

You're not just rating a book, you're going out to disagree with other people and try to defend it. It may be true that:

"Even if a person doesn't use literary devices and in-depth analysis to describe why they like a book, it doesn't mean those characteristics didn't play an active role in making the person like it."

But how are we supposed to know what guidelines others are judging by unless they tell us? Unexplained opinions are a dime a dozen, and when I hear one, I don't just assume that the person has a great argument to back it up which they have decided not to elucidate.

I'm not saying your opinions couldn't be correct and justified, just that I have no way of knowing whether they are or not unless you have independent critical support for the original assertion.

"Pure rationalistic thinking may not agree but I think pure rationalistic thinking is flawed."

Emotional responses are rational, they are caused by events and are goal-oriented. The notion that emotions are opposed to rationality is a false dichotomy.

Becoming depressed at the death of a loved one is rational because we have lost something we value. Becoming depressed then makes us introverted, we consider our lives, our position, how things have changed, the end goal of which is to give us time to come to terms with our new situation.

But every rational process is limited by the information it is based on, including emotional reactions. In this way, a reaction may be rational when compared to a small set of data, but irrational for a larger set which the person has not taken into account.

So, it would be rational to be sad and depressed about the death of someone we value, but this might cause us to act irrationally in other ways, such as ignoring living people who we value. Because of this, it is important to look at the larger picture and to question our reactions, to mitigate our ignorance.

When we seek out the causes behind our responses, we change and grow, and so do our emotions. As a child, we might be afraid of clowns, which is rational, because they are unrecognizable strangers who make eye contact invade our personal space. We might be afraid of movie monsters because they are designed to look like dangerous carnivores. Yet we wouldn't be afraid of foreclosure or a market crash.

As we get older, by questioning and challenging our fear responses, they become more refined and their response is informed by a larger data set, allowing us to concentrate on real threats and minimize less likely ones. The process of questioning our initial reactions helps us to ensure that we are not acting on incomplete information.

"I can definitely listen to a piece and judge it by my emotional reaction because it's the only thing I have to go by."

It's true, we are all limited by our own experience, but that doesn't mean we have to stay as we are. The less we know about something, the less reliable our judgments will be. You say:

". . . the composer has still managed to evoke an emotion out of me, and that in itself deserves a rating because only when the technique is THERE can that response be evoked."

But if that's true, then every book, song, movie, and play out there deserves a high rating because they have all touched someone. The only 'threshold of technique' is our own personal judgment, but we don't take for granted that someone else's judgment is reasonable.

Maybe you feel that everyone else's opinions are viable and good defenses, but somehow I doubt it. If someone came up and told me that Transformers 2 was the best movie in history, or that Justin Bieber was better than any musician of the 20th century, or that all women should be enslaved, I wouldn't simply accept that, I would want to see some alternate critical argument to support their assertion.

But even if you did find the emotional reactions of others to be reasonable, what do you do when you and a friend come out of the same concert and you loved it and they hated it? Do you feel there is no way to find a common ground for discussion and come to a mutual understanding about the performance? If your positive reaction and their negative reaction are equally valid, why discuss it at all?

I'm not saying we should 'stop being emotional', that's just silly. That isn't how people work, and it wouldn't do any good, anyways, because our judgments and views of the world are based on our material reactions.

I'm saying that we need to constantly question our reactions and our motives in order to keep ourselves honest. We need to look for the reasons behind our reactions not merely to better understand ourselves, but so we have a way of expressing them so others will understand us, and so we can understand them.


message 1278: by Moksha (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moksha But see, what did this discussion really accomplish? In the end, I still love this book and you don't. I'm moved by it and you're not. And I think it comes down to personality more than technique of the author. What you think Martin does badly, I think he does brilliantly. Maybe you and I just aren't going to agree on books. We are like the people coming out of the concert where one loves it and the other hates it. Whatever the discussion, that is what it is. I don't see us coming to a middle ground, do you?

Maybe it's because I'm drawn to what you refer to as 'melodrama.' When I write, I try to accomplish a flow to my writing that I think Martin does really well. Clearly you don't agree and I'm not agreeing with your argument about Martin being melodramatic. In fact, it may be that I would find fantasy books you rate highly to be a dry read.

I've said this before but I draw a distinction between literature and a novel. For me literature includes works like Song of Solomon by Morrison whereas a novel is more Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. The former has a deeper purpose than entertainment while the latter is aimed at entertainment. Yes, many literary works are novels, but not many novels are literature.

And in the end, I'm not trying to change your mind. I'm just pointing out that I disagree with you and I think many readers would as well. I would have missed out on loving this book if I decided, based on your rating, not to read it.


message 1277: by Karen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karen Keely, thank you for a though provoking review. Although I heartily disagree with it and find much of your philosophy falacious, you do make some valid points which, upon careful examination, I am willing to accept. The idea that mere emotional response, as based by our limited understanding of a subject, is peraps a very limited reason for expressing good or bad or in this case one star vs five is a valid one. I myself believe that emotional responses come from reason, ie our understanding of a subject. This appears to be where our common ground can be found -you say "It's true, we are all limited by our own experience, but that doesn't mean we have to stay as we are. The less we know about something, the less reliable our judgments will be" I could not agree with you more.

In this particular case though, you admit that you have not read the book to its conclusion, nor have you read the remaining books in the series. This alone could be a basis upon which one could say that your own judgement of the book is less reliable than one in which the reviewer has read the book, and I would even argue the entire series to its conclusion. Since I have not read the series to the conclusion I can only say that I myself like where tho books are heading. My own ratings will lkely be changed based on the outcome of the novels as my own understanding of it is expanded.
I will say that each book has its own merits and its own flaws. I can make this argument for any and all books I have ever read.
My rating system appears to have a differing schema from your own. I value character trajectory over stunning prose, growth over climax, and humor over progression. That does not make your one star, nor the rating schema you employ to deduce it ivalid, nor does it make my five star supperior. It does, however imply that our decisions at the book shelves run on decidedly different courses.
I myself encourage one star reviews, especially ones that are as thoughtful and concise as your own. There is value in honest critique, which you have provided. Through your critique many will find that perhaps this particular book is not for them, many of the points that you make about the melodramatic nature of the novel are very true, you also mention that these particular tropes have been used much more successfully by other authors, authors which I have (in some cases) read, and in some cases can agree with your viewpoint. The "immature sexuality" could definitly put some people off the novel as a whole, myself, I wasn't bothered by it. I agree too, that in some instances, his prose was ungainly, but again, I didn't find that troublesome.
What I found most engaging about the actual book was Martin's (in my mind) exceptional use of character trajectory and growth. I found myself questioning character motives and ultimately resolving these questions in much the same way as they were written on the page. To be truthful it was the third book in the series that made me love the first book, as much of the character development in the third relied on many of the actions contained in the first. I will admit that the final book in the series will decide whether or not this particular book is worthy of the five stars I have given it, at the moment it is (in my mind), but the last installment (Feast For Crows)has gone a long way to shatter the potential that it started with. I understand that for many people the star ranking should be given based on the book itself not on the ongoing series, I for one disagree with that sentiment, and believe it is a value given to the book, as it pertains to the whole series.
It makes me wonder though, why people feel so motivated to attempt to change the minds of those who disagree with their oppinions. To me this is in and of itself a masterbatory excerise in pedantry. Instead I feel it would make more sense to explore what common ground can be found within the reading lists of the reviewers I read. After perusing your five star ratings vs my own I have come to the conclusion that we are diametrically opposed in many of our reading choices. As a result I am not surprised to find that you dislike a book that I enjoy, and that you enjoy many books that i do not. As a result, your reviews, as thought provoking as they are, likely won't deter or persuade me from reading or not reading a specific book. I will however continue to read your reviews, not for advice on reading materials, but rather because our viewpoints are so vastly different. Understanding what you may find valuable in an author I dislike may enhance my appreciation (or lack thereof) of their works. Bravo!


message 1276: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely ". . . you admit that you have not read the book to its conclusion, nor have you read the remaining books in the series. This alone could be a basis upon which one could say that your own judgement of the book is less reliable than one in which the reviewer has read the book . . . "

Certainly true, and when I write a negative review of a well-regarded book, (even if I have finished it) some part of me expects that some fan will come along with some concrete examples strung into an impassioned defense of the book. Unfortunately, this almost never happens. Usually, I get confused, angry, half-literate rants, but that's the internet, and I try not to let it color my perception of the book.

But even though my view of this book is incomplete, the responses I have gotten from thoughtful commentators have mostly confirmed my assessment, even though many were fans of Martin. These commentators have also helped me to understand why they liked the book, though it tends to feel like the same things 'LOST' fans say: they were drawn into the characters and plot twists, which brings me to your observation:

"My rating system appears to have a differing schema from your own. I value character trajectory over stunning prose, growth over climax, and humor over progression."

Because I can appreciate those things, but in this book, as in LOST, I tended to feel that character trajectory and growth were less ingrained than they were simple attempts to move things a long. This is another staple of melodrama, where there are a lot of character changes and plot twists, but they don't really add up to anything more than a sum of parts. It feels like despite the sometimes frenetic action on the surface, the undercurrent of the plot is rather sluggish, relying on deferment of long-term expectations, which some people find intriguing, but which tends to bore me.

For me, each book has to have its own arc, its own place within a series. I find it interesting that your reading of sequels changes how you think of earlier books. I tend to look at how each individual entry contributes to the whole rather than how the whole modifies each book. A great conclusion wouldn't help a lackluster beginning, nor would a bad conclusion hurt a great opening.

". . . it was the third book in the series that made me love the first book, as much of the character development in the third relied on many of the actions contained in the first."

I do appreciate that earlier books set up later ones, but I don't think a thousand pages of exposition makes for a very good book, nor is it a sign of well-structured, balanced writing. Each book has to have its share of payoff and growth.

That might have been what threw me off about Martin. I've noticed that when an author gets stuck on the conclusion, he forgets that he has to create a complete story to lead up to that conclusion. It's always a problem when an author is deferring all of their resolution to one final conclusion, because there is no conclusion good enough to bear the entire weight of the story.

It's like Hitchcock said: you can't keep ramping up the tension, you have to build and break, build and break. A story is made up of many smaller narratives, each made up of even shorter ones, with many separate views, conflicts, and resolutions. Without this, stories become merely a repetition of similar moments, all feeding into one final event. But this creates an undifferentiated feel, all moments having a similar weight and direction. It builds up an expectation for the conclusion that is simply too large for any writer to meet.

Thanks for your comment, I'm glad that, even if we are coming from very different places, we have been able to find some common ground to meet on.


message 1275: by Karen (last edited May 17, 2011 06:21PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karen Thank-you for your response,
you said:
"I've noticed that when an author gets stuck on the conclusion, he forgets that he has to create a complete story to lead up to that conclusion. It's always a problem when an author is deferring all of their resolution to one final conclusion, because there is no conclusion good enough to bear the entire weight of the story."

I myself have noticed much the same thing when reading, especially in fantasy. It is also my greatest fear when contemplating the final books of this series. For me there were genuine moments contained in each book of the series that felt as though there was a deeper satisfaction, that the mini plot had been resolved. Without getting into a close reading of the text you'll have to take my word for it, though I will understand if you do not. Besides any concrete examples I could give would be lost on you as you havent completed the book/series. Suffice it to say that it was because of this satisfaction that I was able to enjoy and carry on.

Some of the other plot points were, however, left to dangle the reader along, as the proverbial carrot. It is this dangling that I feel does martin a disservice in his overall collection, because with each book the carrot grows and I worry that it will soon be too large to digest. So in that regard I can wholeheartedly agree with you. I do hope tht Mr Martin can live up to the standard he has set for me, and that he will neatly cut the carrot into small digestable pieces that will be enjoyable. I would be a liar though if I didnt say that I had the same concern that you illustrate.

As to your assertation that "in this book, as in LOST, I tended to feel that character trajectory and growth were less ingrained than they were simple attempts to move things a long" I really do disagree. Myself I have never watched an episode of Lost, and so cannot comment on this, nor can I follow your particular comparison. I will say that in this particular book, Martin sets the groundwork for a stable of cliched characters, you have the ugly knight, the spoiled princess, the stoic hero, I could go on ad nauseum. but by the third installment these characters have outgrown their original clicheed existance and tumble into another. The ugly evil night becomes humbled and steadfast, the spoiled princess becomes a giving realist, the stoic hero, well he stays dead, but you get the general idea. What, for me is so vastly entertaining is watching one cliche grow and transmute into its opposite cliche, and in a way that it is totally believable! It's fun on a binary level.

I can appreciate your take on books in a series:
"For me, each book has to have its own arc, its own place within a series... I tend to look at how each individual entry contributes to the whole rather than how the whole modifies each book. A great conclusion wouldn't help a lackluster beginning, nor would a bad conclusion hurt a great opening."
I know a lot of people who tend to view books in this capacity, almost like eating a four or five (etc) course meal. Each dish should compliment the other, but at the same time should be satisfactory to the palate on its own.
Myself, and I think it's because of my reading style, I tend to look at a series more as one very long book. I read about 300 pages in an hour, and as a result the tedium many cant cope with is a small fly in the ointment for me. Each of Martins books took less than a day to get through. Game of thrones was a lovely afternoon in the park.
I can sympathize when I hear many people complaining of lengthy expostion that require rereading, or cause rising tedium, but quite fankly it doesn't affect me in the same way. What happens in book one for me, is much like what happens in chapter one for others, as a result I am perhaps more forgiving of certain faults that others can become stymied by. As a result I can appreciate that perhaps book one isn't as good as the following two, however what made book three (my favorite by far) so exceptional was the way Martin harkened back to the first book giving the reader these delicious AHA moments where everything has been stirred together and is fitting nicely. This is perhaps why I give the first three books 5 stars, because they do not feel like separate courses but rather ingredients in the whole dish. The fourth installment did make me change my rating of this one to a four, much like adding too much pepper to the soup, and as the series comes to a close I still may give a differing oppinion. To follow my cullinary metaphor, as you would understand it, the meal is unfinished. As I would relate to it, at the moment, I only hope that it leaves me satisfied, and doesnt give me indigestion.

I appreciate that you didn't like the book, and I thank-you for not attacking me as a miscreant for disagreeing with you. (I have noticed in some other threads that that tends to be de riguer) I dont intend to change your oppinion, merely fully express why our tastes run to such decidedly different repasts.


message 1274: by Moksha (last edited Jul 18, 2011 07:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moksha So, just for fun, I compared our ratings for other books and it amused me that we both rated Ender's Game and Dune highly but you rated Pride and Prejudice very highly whereas I didn't (Mansfield Park was so much better).

AND according to goodreads 'our tastes are 55% similar'....that's over the neutrality threshold! :)

Also, I just had to get this out...you write THE LONGEST POSTS IN THE WORLD. It's surprising to hear you preaching brevity and criticizing Martin for page length. His book is easier to get through than some of your longer comments.


message 1273: by mark (last edited May 18, 2011 01:25AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday virginal pissant unicorn! my gosh, there are so many good lines in this comment thread.

i can't say that i remotely agreed with the review. a lot of it irritated me. eh, so what? everyone has their opinions. it is clear that you have an aversion to mainstream genre fiction and prefer your fabulist tales to be more literary endeavors, whatever "literary" even means. but that much is clear from the wonderful fantasy novels that you've mentioned as favorites (Jonathan Strange, Gloriana, Gormenghast....surely you must also be a fan of Little, Big and john crowley in general?). the difference between those sorts of novels and the much more mainstream writing of martin is obvious.

but anyway....this comment thread: wow! fantastic. where have your comment threads been all my life? this has been such an absorbing experience reading through it all. so much resentment and vitriol thrown your way - and then thrown at your defenders as well! there is apparently an entire angry world within GoodReads - of which i have been heretofore blissfully ignorant, prior to this review. and i have to say...i find your willingness to engage calmly and at length (at extreme length!) with each and every detractor to be completely impressive. bravo, keely! i love discovering a fascinating, new-to-me reviewer.

i am looking forward to going through your other reviews in a potentially vain attempt to recapture the magic of this comment thread.


message 1272: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Karen Said: "Without getting into a close reading of the text you'll have to take my word for it, though I will understand if you do not."

Yeah, that certainly could be, and the other books might be better, the conclusion of this book might be good. I agree that it wouldn't be helpful to give details about the book, but what I look for in someone defending a book is an analysis of what the author achieves and how they achieve it. What makes the book remarkable? What about the author's style deserves my respect? That sort of thing. I usually try to capture the feel of a book without revealing any plot details, in my reviews.

Karen said: "Martin sets the groundwork for a stable of cliched characters, you have the ugly knight, the spoiled princess, the stoic hero, I could go on ad nauseum. but by the third installment these characters have outgrown their original clicheed existance and tumble into another."

I do understand that it's meant to be a reversal of these typical characters, but I'm afraid I'm not sure why Martin takes three 1,000+ page books to get there. I've read hundred page novellas that portrayed vital, unique characters with progressive arcs. It's not just that Martin's books are long, it's that I've never been convinced he's achieving anything with that greater length.

That being said, if I could knock one off in an afternoon, I might have a different experience. As it is, I tend to take my time, looking at style, tone, word use, structure, and all the details that make up a book, so if an author isn't actively engaged their writing, I can get a bit frustrated.

Thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated.

Moshka said: "Also, I just had to get this out...you write THE LONGEST POSTS IN THE WORLD. It's surprising to hear you preaching brevity and criticizing Martin for page length."

Haha, quite so. I do appreciate brevity, but I've found it doesn't work very well when trying to discuss the finer points of story and character over the internet. It's been my experience that if I say the same thing in three different ways, one of them usually makes it to the other person. I wish I could afford to speak more briefly, but it usually just leads to assumptions and misunderstandings.

mark Said: "it is clear that you have an aversion to mainstream genre fiction and prefer your fabulist tales to be more literary endeavors"

I also mention Howard and Lieber, so I can't be all high-brow. I actually do appreciate an exciting, pulp adventure now and again. One of my problems with sprawling fantasy series like Martin's are that they tend to be so pretentious and overblown. The crux of my review is that this book is neither impressive literature nor a charming adventure, it's a sprawling pseudo-medieval soap opera with neither the vibrancy of lighter fantasy fare nor the mastery and insight of a more 'literary' book.

mark Said: "surely you must also be a fan of Little, Big and john crowley in general?"

Never had the pleasure, but I'll have to keep an eye out. Glad you enjoyed the thread.


message 1271: by [deleted user] (new)

Keely: I actually read this book based on your absurd review! 1,500 words to tell the world how little you liked it? Another 8,000 (more?) words arguing with the naysayers and the haters? This book isn't worth that much attention. Don't waste the steam, my friend. It took a few days, but, having read it, it's just not a 1 star read. It's a 2 (maybe 3) star book. Your review is wrong. Objectively, wrong. I applaud your misplaced passion, though. Dedicated. Articulate. Wrong. Bravo.


message 1270: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "This book isn't worth that much attention. Don't waste the steam, my friend."

Probably true. The original review was much shorter; the new one is a summary of various arguments and points that have come up in discussion. I would much rather talk about how the Greek notion of an afterlife in the Iliad prefigures existentialism, but I don't get to choose which reviews get comments.

". . . having read it, it's just not a 1 star read. It's a 2 (maybe 3) star book."

I'd say I was getting two stars of story and took off a star for the atrophied prose and thoughtless construction.

"I applaud your misplaced passion, though."

Eh, if I was passionate I'd reread the book and make a textual argument, but I agree with you: I don't think it's worth the attention. At this point GoodReads is just my version of an MMO: it's a place I come to pass an hour or two here and there; less a thing of passion than procrastination.


Sridatta An excellent review. But still I don't think it justifies a rating of 1/5. You probably felt cheated after reading some fancy reviews. I didn't expect it to be anything other than a tiny bit interesting soap opera and I was decently rewarded.


message 1268: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "You probably felt cheated after reading some fancy reviews."

Actually, I read the book before I joined GR, though I still haven't seen any reviews which can explain this book's reputation. I understand readers who enjoyed it as a soap opera, the same way I understand people who got caught up in 'Lost', but I didn't find the characters, plotting, worldbuilding, or prose strong enough to make it interesting.


message 1267: by Alex (last edited Jun 29, 2011 01:14AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alex Hi Keely great review. I agree some of the sex scenes were a bit sticky.

You say Martin 'puts in some pointless deaths..'

Why do you say they were pointless. I found that the killing off of main and minor characters created a hightened tension because one didnt know what was going to happen next and that characters we cared about could die at any moment.

I found the depth of character motivations to be lacking. He has created a world where chivalry and honour are vital aspects of characters motivations, and yet there is no convincing source for their desire to be virtuous. The medievil concepts of chivalry that he has used was inseperable from a persons faith in the One God and the subsequent motivation that this belief has for the desire for virtue. Thus Ned seemed like even more of a fool then he was. The vague constructs of Old Gods and human faces carved into trees was not fleshed out enough.


message 1266: by Alex (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alex Ben wrote: "Jesus, this was a terrible review."

Careful you dont want to wake the dragon!
[twists Bens nipple]

;)


message 1265: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "I found that the killing off of main and minor characters created a hightened tension because one didnt know what was going to happen next and that characters we cared about could die at any moment."

It's true, but I've found the unpredictability of 'anyone can die' only gets you so far. In order for it to be surprising, the author must first build up the character sufficiently that the reader won't expect the death. Ironically, this 'build up' can then become a very predictable way for the reader to see such deaths coming, especially if the death would cause the turmoil and instability on which melodramas feed.

But even if the author doesn't telegraph them, there is another danger in 'sudden deaths'. Back in college, when I was taking creative writing courses, I remember a lot of students asked the teacher if they could write the first chapter of a long story in lieu of a short story. The teacher would usually just say 'no'.

This is because writing a whole story is different from writing an opening chapter. Opening chapters are fun because the author can throw in all of their ideas and promising characters and not have to worry about how the plot will unfold or how all of these ideas will resolve. Once things are set in motion, it can be very tempting to defer these conclusions, and one way to do this is to literally kill off loose ends of the plot and then dive into the fun, new conflicts that result.

So basically what I'm talking about here is narrative structure: the way the author introduces ideas and how those ideas get resolved. In long-form melodramas like Lost or Soap Operas, resolution of ideas is usually secondary to the continual thrust of the plot. This is pretty common in modern fantasy, where conclusions get deferred over and over again, the story bloating with new characters and ideas instead of dealing with what has already been introduced. Then the author usually resolves the whole thing in a pseudo-spiritual transgressive event which invalidates all the secondary conflicts that had been building (see: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Harry Potter, Quantum Leap), which makes the build-up rather pointless.

But in a piece of fiction, no death is random, they are all deliberate choices by the author and they are, by their nature, almost always resolutions of one kind or another. In reading Martin, I did not see much point to the deaths beyond trying to shock the reader and produce more conflict to defer the plot.

Certainly, the histories from which Martin is taking his cues have unexpected, anticlimactic deaths, but histories are not fiction. A fiction author cannot create 'random' deaths any more than a person could spout out a random string of numbers. We create stories, patterns, structure, and narrative in everything, so whenever an author does not deliberately create a narrative structure, they will inadvertantly fall back on an unintentional structure.

I think this is also the reason many of these authors end up with unbalanced sexual depictions. Unless the author is creating carefully and deliberately, he will end up writing what is familiar and comfortable, often without recognizing it. The benefit of editing is that we can try to go back and make sure that our bad habits and unconscious preferences haven't muddled up the story we wanted to write.

So when I say the deaths were not meaningful, I mean in terms of narrative structure and the progression of ideas in the text. They did not seem to further the plot or tie up loose ends as much as they maintained a status quo of continuous, reflexive conflicts ad infinatum, and allowing the author to 'kill off' problematic plot threads along with the characters.

Thanks for the comment. Your point about the 'old gods' is interesting, but I'm afraid I couldn't say much to add to it.


message 1264: by Alex (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alex Thanks for the reply, I learnt something from it.


message 1263: by Wyndslash (new)

Wyndslash thanks for your review! i was likewise considering reading this novel, but then I saw how long it is, and well, I kind of feel tired just thinking about reading it. May I ask for your fantasy recommendations? I'm personally not too big on romances in the plot.


message 1262: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely Alex said: "Thanks for the reply, I learnt something from it."

I'm glad you found something interesting in it. Thanks for the comments.

Wyndslash said: "i was likewise considering reading this novel, but then I saw how long it is, and well, I kind of feel tired just thinking about reading it."

Heh, me too. Maybe the TV series will be more fun.

Wyndslash said: "May I ask for your fantasy recommendations?"

Of course,

The Gormenghast Trilogy
The King of Elfland's Daughter
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Perdido Street Station (and its kind-of-sequel, The Scar)
Gloriana
Kipling's Fantastical Stories
The Lankhmar Books (well, the early ones)
The Worm Ouroboros
Sandman

I've also found it interesting to read older mythological stories to get my fantasy fix, things like The Arabian Nights, Beowulf, Le Morte D'Arthur, and Bulfinch's Mythology. Hope you find something you enjoy!


message 1261: by Kirsten (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kirsten This is a great review, and even if I clearly got much more enjoyment out of the book than you did, I can't really argue with anything you've said here -- in fact, I've complained about a lot of the same things myself, particularly the endless occurrences of rape. I basically ended up rating the book much more highly because even though all the flaws were so terribly glaring, I'm still getting a ridiculous amount of enjoyment out of it. I think I'm enjoying it because it's impossible for me to take seriously, which probably aggravates many of my friends who are die-hard fans.


message 1260: by Keely (new) - rated it 1 star

Keely "I think I'm enjoying it because it's impossible for me to take seriously, which probably aggravates many of my friends who are die-hard fans."

Heh, I bet it does, though die-hard fans seem to get riled up pretty easily.

I guess I feel like, if an author takes themselves seriously but I find their books funny, that doesn't mean their writing is good, even if it inadvertently amuses me. I mean, Sarah Palin quotes are funny, but that's not because she's clever or well-informed, rather the opposite. Just because something is so bad it's amusing doesn't mean it's no longer bad.

Glad you enjoyed the review, thanks for the comment.


message 1259: by Kirsten (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kirsten Just to clarify: it's not that I find Song of Ice and Fire funny (although I do on occasion), it's more that I take it about as seriously as I do, oh, one of Anne McCaffrey's novels about Pern, or maybe the way I like the HBO series "True Blood." Neither of those things are actually good in most objective ways, IMO, but they entertain me and they're reasonably good at doing what they do. That's the way I feel about GRRM's stuff: it's not that good, and I don't take it seriously as literature, but I find it entertaining, if problematic. Kind of a guilty pleasure, I suppose, although I dislike the phrase. Maybe I feel this way about the books having come to them from the TV show (after resisting reading an unfinished series for so long)? Anyway, I liked your review, gave me a lot to think about.


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