George Martin is Kurt Cobain

The first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones premiered last night. My wife and I don’t have HBO, so we’ve only been able to watch each season once it’s on DVD, and we never bothered to pick up last season. Fortunately, our cable provider made HBO free on demand for the week leading up to the premier, so she and I mainlined GoT for the last five days.

It got me thinking about the state of fantasy in popular culture. At this point I’m not talking about superhero fantasies, which have waxed and waned for decades, or urban fantasy mediums like True Blood, or science fantasies along the lines of Star Wars. I’m presenting a very strict definition of fantasy, here. Swords. Sorcery. Wizards and supernatural occurrences and maybe (God, please let it be) dragons.

Basically, I’m not at all sure what to think of the mass popularity of GoT. I’m glad for it, because it draws eyes to the genre and dispels some of the common stereotypes about fantasy. It sells books on shelves, it raises the genre in the eyes of editors, developers, and producers (hopefully leading to more movie deals for authors, more contracts for writers, and a broader potential market of readers), and it adds fantastic elements to the social conversation.

That said, I don’t think simply writing a GoT analog will get you readers. I strongly believe that the broad swathe of GoT fans are exactly that – GoT fans. They’re not going to read very deeply in the genre, if they read at all, and they’re not going to stray very far from their comfort zone of licentious knights, medieval politics, and a host of bad guys you’re just hoping will die in this episode. That isn’t to say there aren’t GoT fans who are fans of the whole genre, and avid readers, and a tribute to the fandom. In fact, some of the best fantasy fans I know are GoT fans first (I’m looking at you, Brotherhood Without Banners!) The fact is, GoT brought fantasy into the mainstream. Martin is Tolkien’s Kurt Cobain.

But what does that mean for the rest of us? I’ll admit, the pitch sentence for The Hallowed War was “Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke”, so I’m far from innocent, here. How do we as writers resist the immense gravitational pull that is GoT, and how do editors steer clear of the trap of churning out copies of such a successful series, in the hopes of catching some of its gold? Further, should we be resisting at all? Readers clearly like this thing. Why not give readers what they want?

As writers, we have an obligation to push the boundaries of genre, to experiment, to avoid the pitfall of safe writing. But we also need to make a living. When Martin sat down to write A Song of Ice and Fire, his intention was not to do what was popular, what was selling, or what would make him a lot of money. He wrote what he wanted to write, because he loved it. There was no financial pressure on him (he had essentially retired), no time pressure, nothing but his internal drive to create. He produced the best book he could, and because he was a great writer, the fan base followed.

That’s the spirit we have to follow. Not the sales numbers, not the tastes of this editor or that popular blogger. We need to write the books that interest us the most. The readers will follow.

Or they won’t. But you’ll never know until you try.

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