Given our debates here over whether the sex scenes and depictions of gender politics in HBO’s Game of Thrones are sexist, I thought it was interesting to see what George R.R. Martin told my friend Rachael when she interviewed him in advance of the release of A Dance With Dragons tomorrow (programming note: I’ll try to have lots of blog posts in the queue, but I intend to spend much of the day knocking the book off so I can write on it). Martin said of the charges that the sex scenes are gratuitous:
Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex — it’s medieval.
There’s a more general question here that doesn’t just affect sex or rape, and that’s this whole issue of what is gratuitous? What should be depicted? I have gotten letters over the years from readers who don’t like the sex, they say it’s “gratuitous.” I think that word gets thrown around and what it seems to mean is “I didn’t like it.” This person didn’t want to read it, so it’s gratuitous to that person. And if I’m guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I’m also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry, because very little of this is necessary to advance the plot. But my philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes.
A novel for me is an immersive experience where I feel as if I have lived it and that I’ve tasted the food and experienced the sex and experienced the terror of battle. So I want all of the detail, all of the sensory things—whether it’s a good experience, or a bad experience, I want to put the reader through it. To that mind, detail is necessary, showing not telling is necessary, and nothing is gratuitous.
I guess I find that answer partially, if not entirely, satisfying. I’m a big believer in the idea that period pieces should reflect the sexual norms of the period rather than being fantasies of consent, reciprocal pleasure, and mutuality if those things don’t make sense for the relationship and the circumstances in question. But I think this is a bit of a dodge, and doesn’t answer a larger question about Martin’s intentions. Does he write sex scenes the way he does because he’s telling stories about women coming into their power after they’ve been mistreated in gendered ways? Or does he write medieval fantasy because he’s engaged by images of women being brutalized? I tend towards a charitable reading of A Song of Ice and Fire, but this is one case where I’d really like to have that reading confirmed by the author.