Game of Thrones and genre-unfriendly critics

For some reason only known to themselves, the New York Times published not one but two reviews of the upcoming TV adaption of A Game of Thrones. The review by Heather Havrilesky I discussed yesterday at least managed to take the show on its own merits, though Ms. Havrilesky is obviously not a fantasy reader, and made some interesting points that touch upon the recent epic fantasy discussions.

The second review by Ginia Bellafante, which was inaccessible yesterday due to that bloody New York Times paywall, was also written by a genre outsider, but by one who is unwilling to engage with an unfamiliar genre and instead gets condescending.


While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

So women, at least women known to Ginia Bellafante, don’t read fantasy. Instead, they prefer women’s fiction about depressed nannies to wannabe adoptive parents who lose their brothers in Afghanistan, as in Lorrie Moore’s latest novel A gate at the Stairs. I’m sorry, but A Gate at the Stairs (which I keep misreading as A Gate at the Stars, which sounds like a much better book) sounds like a book so joyless it would make me want to slit my wrists. I would probably rather read A Game of Thrones again than subject myself to that.

But then it’s obvious that plenty of women do read fantasy of some sort. Many women read epic fantasy and several women even like A Song of Ice and Fire, though I personally am not one of them. In fact, I’ve met several women who hang out on romance boards and are not regular fantasy readers who are looking forward to A Game of Thrones, because they like Sean Bean and Nikolaij Coster-Waldau. Whether the show will work for them remains to be seen, but at any rate it does not just appeal to male readers of epic fantasy.

Besides, I find shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad or Deadwood, which are praised by Ms. Bellafante, much more obviously geared towards male viewers with their macho posturing and largely male casts, where women are prostitutes, wives or irrelevant.

But Ms. Bellafante not just dislikes A Game of Thrones in particular or epic fantasy in general, she is one of those poor souls who dislike any kind of fantasy at all.

When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. […] If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

So HBO is cheating its viewers by making speculative shows, never mind that True Blood is its most successful program since The Sopranos. And never mind that the much lauded The Wire was never a big ratings success.

It’s also telling that Ms. Bellafante considers a show about the lives of mafiosi in New Jersey, a show about drug dealers and cops in Baltimore, a show about polygamous fringe Mormons (and how insulting is it anyway that the only Mormons seen on TV are members of a fundamentalist fringe group?), a show about a highschool teacher who starts manufacturing drugs, because he hates his suburban life or whatever, a show about 1960s advertising executives cheating on their spouses, a show about people in the Wild West cursing a lot and a show about some pretty good actors having not very realistic adventures involving lots of sex in ancient Rome relevant, yet a fantasy program based in real world history (it’s common knowledge that A Song of Ice and Fire is based heavily on the Wars of the Roses) and with some highly detailed worldbuilding is somehow not relevant. And of course Ms. Bellafante manages to insult con-linguists, while she’s at it. Never mind that I wonder how much of the dialogue in The Wire she managed to find in the dictionary.

Now I frequently have issues with the type of TV drama offered by American pay-TV cable stations such as HBO, Showtime, AMC and whatever else there may be. These shows usually arrive in Germany loaded with awards and critical acclaim, the broadcaster is always overjoyed to have snapped up such a highly acclaimed program. And then, they just sink like a stone, because no one can be bothered to watch. Except for Sex and the City, none of the US “quality drama” from HBO and their ilk has ever caught on in Germany. Most vanish into late night slots on niche channels after a few episodes, some at least manage to hang on for the full duration of the show, while others never make it to Germany at all.

And the reason is pretty simply: Whatever those shows have to say to American viewers – and there’s obviously something they have to say, or they wouldn’t be as highly acclaimed as they are – German viewers simply cannot relate to it. My main issue with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Weeds, Mad Men, West Wing, In Treatment, Big Love, etc… is that I neither like the characters nor can I relate to them and their situations. The excessive focus on drugs and drug taking (alienating to many German viewers, because illegal drugs are more taboo here and most people have no experience with illegal drugs, not even cannabis), while alcohol and smoking are demonized, the joyless sex (perhaps HBO subscribers would be better served by a porn channel) and the often excessive violence are turn-offs as well. Frankly, I find the attitudes and behaviour of the four women in Sex and the City more alien than most SF and fantasy. Never mind that a realistic look at the lives of drug dealers in Baltimore is not particularily relevant to anyone not living in Baltimore.

Doris Egan, who knows a thing or two about writing both TV and SFF, has a scathing response to this truly awful review. Thanks to Estara for pointing me to her post.

Perhaps this is why the New York Times felt the need to have two Game of Thrones reviews. Because the first one was so badly written and argued.

Though neither the New York Times nor female reviewers who dislike genre have a monopoly on badly argued reviews. Here is a review from Slate which calls A Game of Thrones “quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap” in the headline and that one was written by a man.

If anything this review is even worse than the New York Times review, because the author, one Troy Patterson, spends more time describing the stack of review copies on his desk and his general dislike for the fantasy genre, which is so extreme that he even once refused to go out with a woman once he found out that she sometimes worked at a renaissance fair, than on actually reviewing the show. Besides, calling the subject of the review “crap” in the headline is not exactly becoming of a serious review outlet – and I’m saying this even though I am on record calling the new Battlestar Galactica “Battlestar Craptastica”. However, I was not reviewing that show for a serious review outlet.

The question raised by these utterly clueless reviews is, why did Ginia Bellafante and Troy Patterson bother reviewing A Game of Thrones in the first place, when they obviously hate fantasy? Was there no one at Slate or the New York Times who might actually have enjoyed the show or who at least was a fantasy fan and thus able to review the show on its own merits? For example, I would make a piss-poor reviewer for The Wire, considering that I barely survived the twenty minutes or so I watched of the show in order to find a suitable clip for a video montage in varieties of English for one of my classes. However, I would not go out there and review The Wire, when I know I won’t be able to give it a fair review.

On a related note, Rachel Manija Brown wonders why epic fantasy is such a male dominated genre and whether the readership really skews as male as the big name authors. Found via Sherwood Smith.

Meanwhile, 85 authors of SF, fantasy and horror have signed a letter of protest to the BBC to complain about the lack of any works speculative fiction covered in the various BBC programs to celebrate World Book Night on March 5th, 2011.

The irony here is that at least from a German POV, the BBC is not hostile to genre at all, since they have produced many speculative programs both in recent years and throughout its history. In the past six years, the BBC gave us Doctor Who, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Being Human, Torchwood, Outcasts, Survivors, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Paradox, Bonekickers, Pulse, Merlin as well as new adaptions of Dracula, Day of the Triffids and First Men in the Moon and several speculative radio dramas. Of course, many of those programs were not very good, even more started out well and then deteriorated in later seasons, at least two infuriated me so much that merely typing the title raises my bloodpressure by a few points. On the other hand, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are probably the best speculative programming of the past ten years. Nonetheless, a broadcaster that hates genre fiction would not commission so many unabashed genre shows.

So it’s not the BBC that hates genre fiction, it is the department responsible for art and culture coverage. Now I haven’t seen the World Book Night coverage nor am I overly familiar with the arts, culture and literature programming of the BBC. However, if the BBC’s cultural programming is in any way comparable to the cultural and literary programming of the German public broadcasters, I am not surprised that they seem dismissive of genre fiction. Because genre fiction and genre media very rarely feature in German cultural programming (of which I am an avid viewer) and if a genre work is mentioned, it’s usually in a condescending context. For example, just this Friday the German cultural magazine aspekte did a feature on Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of The Might Thor, which basically boiled down to “Why does someone as accomplished as Kenneth Branagh debase himself to make a comic book film?”

So in short, supposedly highbrow (well, at any rate they consider themselves highbrow) cultural and literary programs are almost always hostile to speculative fiction. This isn’t any different in the US, by the way. Oprah Winfrey, whose book show I would not consider highbrow in any way, does not discuss speculative fiction either.

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3 Responses to Game of Thrones and genre-unfriendly critics

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