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June 5, 2015

What Do Authors Owe Us? (@satiswrites)

by Chris

A Game of Thrones
Let me clear: I have never read a book by George R. R. Martin, nor have I watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. I understand that both are profoundly popular, for which I am glad; any time reading transcends from the bookish to the mainstream is a win for literature in my opinion. The same could be said for Fifty Shades of Grey, another series I have yet to read. Chances are, I probably never will. The same goes for Mr. Martin’s books, or HBO’s adaptation of them: although I can’t participate in the fevered discussions surrounding these works from personal experience, I’m not oblivious to the scandal they’ve aroused in the media in the past few weeks.

As I understand it, the controversy started recently with the depicted rape of a popular character on the TV show. It was hardly the first time something like this has been shown in the series’ five seasons, and, I suspect, it will not be the last. What seems to have particularly upset people this time is the ‘unnecessariness’ of this scene: not only is it not included in the books, it’s been well argued that it did nothing to advance the plot or character development in the show. Some media outlets have gone as far as to refuse to publicize or cover the show again.

I’ll not go into too much detail regarding the scene itself (it’s been covered enough, I think), although I find it interesting that not only Mr. Martin himself, but even the actress portraying Sansa Stark, seem less than apologetic. What fascinates me about the outrage in this case is the accountability the general public seem to demand from the creators of the fictional universe in which Game of Thrones takes place.

Rape is a dreadful and traumatizing aspect of human nature—to many, worse than murder. It’s uniquely debasing and dehumanizing, in a way almost no other violent act can be. I’m personally highly leery of sexual violence, and tend to steer far clear of any media that contains it; hence my reluctance to delve into the world of Westeros that Mr. Martin has created. It seems to be a highly patriarchal society, filled with ill-tempered and violent, domineering white men. If you aren’t one, your chances of surviving to the end of the book (or the episode) tend to dwindle. It was his choice to create such a world, and in his defense, it seems to be a world modeled on the (unfortunately) real-life world of medieval Europe. In such a world, it seems, rape is sadly commonplace.

Yet as an author, I can attest to the fact that the events in my books don’t always seem fully under my control. Sometimes events take place that catch me by surprise as much as my readers. When one of the main characters in my first book died, I was as shocked as anyone. It was unexpected, but I wrote it anyway, because in my mind that was simply how the story played out. Perhaps, to the writers of Game of Thrones, Sansa’s rape simply had to happen.

In this regard, the people who have been offended by this scene seem to be focusing predominantly on the ‘choice’ the writers had to simply not have it happen. The scene didn’t have to happen, they argue; it could have been changed, or omitted. Perhaps even referenced, but not shown. All accountability is being foisted on the writers, and I can’t help but wonder: is this entirely fair? If a death in my book offends someone (one of the deaths is of a young girl), should I be necessarily held accountable for that person’s reaction? What of the overt racism in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn? Should I blame the author for my own sensibilities?

It becomes very easy to judge any work of fiction by the social standards of today. We demand equality among sexes and races in our everyday lives, and rightly so. But such an expectation is a relatively modern development. I’d like to think that human society will only continue to progress; perhaps in a hundred years people will look back on A Song of Ice and Fire and think of it as a product of the time, much as we do with Huck Finn now. Of course, this isn’t a justification of casual rape in literature: Tolkien managed to create a medieval world with much more equality than seems to exist in Westeros. Yet in the world that Mr. Martin created, such things occur with great frequency. Do I like it? Of course not. Hence my abstinence from his works. But if you’re going to commit to a fantasy world where such things happen, by reading the books or watching the show, you ought to at least acknowledge that the writers don’t owe you a comfortable ride.

Or am I completely wrong?


  1. Agree 100 percent. Write the story, and then find the readers who appreciate what you've written. Not everyone will.

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    1. It's ironic, because just after publishing this article, I got a two-star review of my book. They didn't cite any problems with the book, but rather that they felt the story was mainly background plot information, and that the 'true' book should have started at the end of the actual book. You can't please everyone!

  2. In general I might agree but the scene in question probably isn't the best example. This change to the book was to get the actress more air time. It makes sense the actress would be happy with the change, it puts her in three times the scenes she would have been in if they followed the book. I'm not saying this is bad or good, only that it was not the result of the story organically developing. It was more like a production meeting where it was decided that actress x needed to be on screen more.

    1. This is a really interesting perspective, and not one I'd considered before. The policies involved in scriptwriting never occurred to me; I wouldn't have thought about actors and actresses and how much screen time they get. It's funny; as an author, you don't consider how many pages your characters appear on!

    2. Thanks for the response. To be fair, the producers didn't hide the fact that they wanted the Sansa actress to appear in the show more, they were very candid.

      Perhaps more interesting, the scene in the book was actually worse, just a different and apparently less "important" woman who suffers the assault.

      It's been interesting to watch the response. I didn't like the scene in the book or the show, but the show scene did have a basis from the book--- just a different victim.