Friday, April 15, 2011

Media disgracing itself with A Game of Thrones coverage

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 not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

-- From “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms,” Ginia Bellafante, New York Times

I’m probably not the best candidate to come to the defense of A Game of Thrones. Despite the praise heaped on it in some quarters I don’t place George R.R. Martin’s series at the level of The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Once and Future King, The Broken Sword, or any of Robert E. Howard’s best short fiction. I do like it well enough. It’s gripping, unpredictable, gritty fantasy, and pulls together complex plotlines and multiple point of view characters in an impressive feat of sustained storytelling. I give author George R.R. Martin plenty of props for doing something different with the genre and for spinning a well-told tale. But I’ve read better.

But you know what? Martin doesn’t deserve the level of abuse he’s getting in some quarters. If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre you ought to feel insulted by what’s going on. I’m frankly appalled at the “open minded” media outlets that have savaged the series and/or fantasy by association at every turn. I’ve already mentioned one review from The LA Times, riddled with snark and anti-fantasy bias.

The next, courtesy of Slate (hat tip to Dweomera Lagomorpha), ups the vitriol. The title of the article says it all: “Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap.” This particular piece (of shite) is probably the worst of I’ve read (or I should say tried to read—it’s scarcely readable). A rambling, self-referential, near-incoherent opening morphs to a cliché-laden rant about fantasy as a whole. Its quite difficult to even determine the subject of the reviewer's scorn. Overall it’s an all-around poor job by Slate.

This piece from The Atlantic means well, but I think it reveals a problem with traditional media outlets whose reporters are expected to be jack of all trades (but wind up being master of none). When they attempt a deep analysis of a subject they know only on the periphery, it shows. Alyssa Rosenberg posits that fantasy always has a happy ending; this is typical of someone who doesn’t really get the ending of The Lord of the Rings, and hasn’t heard of works like The Broken Sword or Eric Brighteyes. And WTF is up with calling Tolkien “a religious skeptic?” (Having been a former writer for a newspaper, the safe bet in these instances is to just report the facts, and stop trying to pass yourself off as an expert).

Next is The Guardian, which engages in yet more patronizing. It’s not as terrible as the others, but it condemns most fantasy released prior to ASOIAF as for children. Someone better tell Tom Shippey he’s been wasting his time on a children’s book. Here's a cringeworthy statement from this piece:

Fantasy is not a genre you would ever expect to describe as having "grown up", but let's at least say it's moved on since Tolkien's day. If The Lord Of The Rings is like the gateway drug of high fantasy, then today's fans crave something harder.

The latest is from the New York Times, supposedly a bastion of open-minded thought. “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms” by Ginia Bellafante contains all the standard anti-fantasy bias (escapist, for children, etc.), but ups the criticism by introducing misogyny into the discussion: A Game of Thrones is “boys adventure” with gratuitous sex scenes added in solely to attract a female readership, Bellafante says. Huh?

The Times piece prompted an angry response from Amy Ratcliffe over on, who comes to the defense on behalf of female fantasy fans everywhere. Says Ratcliffe: How dare anyone say that Game of Thrones is “boy fiction.” What a crude and useless phrase. I am proof that it is not the case, and I am not alone. Also? I love The Hobbit.

Amen, Amy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Despite its immense readership and passionate fan base, fantasy continues to be treated like a turd in the punchbowl by most mainstream media. They don’t get it, great swathes of them actively hate it, and many of our “enlightened” 21st century media outlets refuse to treat it as a serious form of art. Martin must be wondering how he’s ever going to get an honest review under these circumstances.

On a side note, is anyone else tired of the ironic, cynical tone of these reviews? I guess this is what passes for hip, young, journalism these days.


Trey said...

I read the Slate piece and thought it might have been an abherration. Guess not.

Bob Reed said...

I know fantasy doesn't usually get much respect, but I've been surprised by the extremely condescending tone of these recent reviews. I wonder if it's some sort of backlash against the recent credibility "geek culture" has been gaining. The Slate article in particular was a silly. At one level this stuff is annoying, but at another I could care less...

Kent said...

>If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre you ought to feel >insulted by what’s going on.

I can't agree with this Brian. I couldn't read much of 'A Game of Thrones' before putting it aside as weak stuff [we admire many of the same classic fantasy works]. TV itself regardless of genre outputs series of mixed quality at best. So frankly I expect this kind of stuff to be rubbish and to be reviewed as such.

I don't think we have an obligation to feel defensive about an entire genre only some of which reaches the greatest heights.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Kent, that's fine, and the TV series could very well be terrible. What I object to is the general sneering, condescending tone towards fantasy in general and the blanket condemnation of the genre. My belief is that the signal to noise ratio in fantasy is no worse than traditional mainstream literature.

Falze said...

I guess this is what passes for hip, young, journalism these days.

When you don't know what you're talking about, you might as well fall back on what you know - acting all 'too cool for school' - if you aren't into it, then why would anyone be into it?

And I have to agree with you, Kent needs to re-read what you wrote - the problem is not at all with their actual review of what actually got filmed, which could indeed by quite horrible, either due to the acting/script/plot/whatever, but the problem is with the ill-informed asides about fantasy. That ignorant bit about Tolkien the skeptic actually warrants a correction by any credible enterprise, be it print/online/blog, they must have read that bit of nonsense somewhere and have been dying to use it somewhere so they shoehorned it in there.

Falze said...

If you dare, click on the other pieces by the Atlantic writer, she has several others that you might find interesting, including an earlier piece on Game and The Walking Dead. From a few things I read here and there and titles of others, most of her 'work' appears to be vehicles to complain about how women are portrayed in media - aka 'let me tell you why this makes radical feminists like me angry'.

Keith Sloan said...

The Washington comPost had an article for the Sunday paper that follwoed these lines, complete wiuth digs at D&D and the like.

As if I needed another reason to despise the media.

Kent said...

Having taken a closer look at the articles I have to say I don't understand the policy of having reviewers who are not critically interested in a genre reviewing a genre piece.

Dave Cesarano said...

Kent, you are absolutely right. It's quite possible that they were simply assigned to reviewing these sorts of things by suits who don't know/give a damn.

In regards to the reviews themselves, they are inherently flawed because the reviewer is not only reviewing from a position of extreme ignorance, but from negative bias.

I write reviews on my blog, and I always try to use John Updike's rules for writing a book review, one of which includes the admonition not to write about a work which you're predisposed to dislike. And many of these reviews, especially the Slate one, all but admit their bias upfront.

The thing is, fantasy fans should be insulted simply because the reviewer heaps condescension upon the entire genre, but in such a way as to even make it appear that those who enjoy the genre to be complete losers. Any reference to "Dungeons & Dragons" or "experimenting with icosahedral dice" is an indirect insinuation that denigrates not only fantasy/sci-fi related hobbies, but the people who enjoy them. It's a thinly veiled argumentum ad hominem.

None of these reviewers really impressed me, though. They didn't comment on pacing, technique, camera angles and other aspects of cinematography, or any of the finer aspects that combine to create a gestalt experience out of a film or episode. They were entirely dismissive of the whole thing simply due to its lack of "relevance" (i.e. it doesn't make us contend with "real, current issues" like our budget deficit, gay cowboys in the 1950s, having a black man for president or some other racial/gender/social/political hot-button wannabe-pseudopostmodern shlock) and its fantasy trappings. In the end, it demonstrates more about their own shortcomings as cheap, fifty-cent journalists. I mean, come on, if they were real journalists, they'd be publishing books and getting Pulitzer Prizes, not writing reviews for TV shows they're not smart enough to appreciate or educated enough to properly analyze.

Taranaich said...

I was just about to send you links to that hideous Guardian piece (oh how I loath that rag) and the now-infamous NYT article. The stupid, it burns!

Top notch job, Brian.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. If you haven't seen, George R.R. Martin himself, as well as Salon, have fired some shots back.

Interesting comment, Falze:

From a few things I read here and there and titles of others, most of her 'work' appears to be vehicles to complain about how women are portrayed in media - aka 'let me tell you why this makes radical feminists like me angry'.

She's really barking up the wrong tree when it comes to fantasy, then. I would guess that the split of female to male readers is 50/50, or perhaps slightly tilted towards the former. Martin has a ton of female readers, for example. Having recently attended Boskone, a Boston-based sci-fi/fantasy convention, I would say it was an even 50-50 split.

None of these reviewers really impressed me, though. They didn't comment on pacing, technique, camera angles and other aspects of cinematography, or any of the finer aspects that combine to create a gestalt experience out of a film or episode.

Agreed Dave, because that takes some research, and work, and rigor, whereas taking cheap shots at D&D and the like is far easier when you're on deadline.

Anonymous said...

In the country of the blind, they practice sculpture. Tactile sculpture, of course. When they get their hands on sculptures made for the sighted, their criticisms tend to strike the sighted as -- off.

There are people who don't like fantasy for itself, but they probably don't make good fantasy critics.

Scott said...


I've noticed a trend with a lot of critics, be they music, film, TV, where they seem more interested in showing how hip and cool thye are by writing a snark-fest instead of actually telling you anything about the piece of work . I read a review of the film 'Severed Ways' that made me wonder if the 'critic' even payed attention to the damn film, or was too busy thinking up catty little comments to make himself seem cool.
Genre stuff has always been the red-headed stepchild, as it were. Dramas and such are praised to no end, but put out something that requires imagination in it, and you lose all those whose small minds can't handle the effort. I've read the books, and the first episode seems pretty well done. We'll see how the rest turn out.

francisco said...

I thought the underating of fantasy was only in Spain, unlike the saxon countries we haven't fantasy tradition in our literature, but this articles show me that I was a bit wrong
very interesting the comment of Dave Cesarano