For all the ‘great books’ that have been written, for all the stuffy tomes that everyone lies about having read, for every recommendation by Harold Bloom, there are a lot more genre works floating around the bookstore. Oh, sure, we know what we should be reading, what we’re told since grade school are the ‘proper’ books for ‘proper’ little minds, but how many people read those books? How many people really care to read those thick, dense, intellectual, impenetrable, novels by dead white men?
Books like Martin’s, however, are fun and exciting and full of twists and deaths, and everyone is reading them and so it’s also fun to keep up with your friends so you can keep up at parties when people talk about Game of Thrones.
Yet is this distinction fair? Can Martin’s book(s) never be considered a great book? What makes a great book? Some college professor might say a great book is one that opens your eyes to the vast human experience in such a way as you have never experienced it before, or has plumbed the depths of human psychology so deftly, and so realistically that it nearly transcends art itself.
But who is to speak up for a well told story? What about Homer, for example? Oh, for sure, we all think of the Iliad and the Odyssey as great works of high art, but when they were fresh and new and poets were shouting those stories over the sound of crashing wine dark Aegean waves along a white rocky Athenian coast on hot, summer festival days, they were just grand stories that entertained the crowds. They were, gasp, popular!
And what ‘great art’ is ever popular? How hard are Don DeLillo book signing tickets to come by? Ever scalped your season pass to the Kafka museum to the highest bidder so that you might afford a once in a lifetimes ‘Night With Richard Ford’?
Of course, it’s unfair (and also plain wrong) to claim that because something is popular it is somehow a metric of quality or because something is obscure and has the word ‘aesthetics’ in the title it is somehow automatically good.
Yet I don’t think it’s so simple either.
Why can’t something that is good also find a wide audience? I sometimes wonder if artists too often stick their heads up their own asses in an effort to shun popular society. There does seem to be a disdain for ‘the unwashed masses’ by the hipster set who only qualify the unknown with a seal of approval. In fact, Martin’s book here gets upturned noses from the ‘arty’ crowd because they’re ‘just silly kids books’.
But are they?
How many other serious novelists are exploring the world we really live in, a world that actually is a little dangerous and full of manipulative people who are quick to take advantage of another person’s weakness? I mean, look at politics (any era in history), it’s full of the very people Martin is writing about and he’s practically giving us a field-guide to understanding and observing your everyday nefarious evil-doers.
Martin is, at the heart of it all, writing about the sad reality of the world we live in where most of us have very little influence on the world around us, are at the mercy of powers much greater than us, where a lot of our lives are filled with mind-numbing sameness and struggle and sacrifice and when we think about it realize that there’s not much we’ll ever be able to do about any of it.
Yeah, that sounds pretty depressing, but it’s just reality. We do the best we can with what we have, we find our happiness where we can because life is tough and we don’t want to be bothered with a bunch of highbrow ass-talking nonsense; we just want to come home from work everyday, kiss someone we love, and relax for awhile and hope someone can tell us a great story about people just like ourselves but who also have the advantage of a few dragons, a needle, a hound, a wit, and a few fantasies we don’t so that we can live a little vicariously through a more interesting person’s life.
We also need to be careful and recognize that art that is the product of its time might one day be considered great art in a later time; not in the snooty sense of (textbook definition) great art, but in the Shakespeare, Homer sort of way – art that speaks to the people because it doesn’t lie to them while also entertaining them too.
A great artist can speak to the truth and speak to the people at the same time. More artists, both serious and pop should take note.
Anyway, the book fucking rocks.