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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Reviewer Matters: On the NYT Review of "A Game of Thrones"

If you haven't seen the blogosphere throwing a fit yet about this New York Times review of the TV adaptation of "A Game of Thrones," then prepare yourself.  It was bound to happen that some hack of that lovely "literary" culture would come along to talk about something they barely understand:  this time A Game of Thrones and fantasy in general.  Some choice quotes, though, are:
The bigger question, though, is: What is “Game of Thrones” doing on HBO? The series claims as one of its executive producers the screenwriter and best-selling author David Benioff, whose excellent script for Spike Lee’s post-9/11 meditation, “25th Hour,” did not suggest a writer with Middle Earth proclivities. Five years ago, however, Mr. Benioff began reading George R. R. Martin’s series of books, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” fell in love and sought to adapt “Game of Thrones,” one of the installments.
(Because we all know that no non-genre writer could possibly fall in love with a genre property and suddenly want to be involved in genre things, right?)


The imagined historical universe of “Game of Thrones” gives license for unhindered bed-jumping — here sibling intimacy is hardly confined to emotional exchange.
(Because there was no unhindered bed-jumping in realistic feudal societies...)

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
(Because women don't like swords and medieval sex parties and dragons and other things like that...)

And, finally:
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.
(Because the only people who enjoy fantasy are people who like D&D...)

Read the review on your own to get a better sense of the biases and absurdities of the author, which I'm not going to refute here.

Instead, I want to talk about the responsibility of editorial departments and the reviewer.  Aidan of A Dribble of Ink has already responded to the NYT review, the body of which I take some issues with.  He wrote:
There’s an argument out there that the NYT should have handed the television show to a reviewer with a taste for and a history with Fantasy literature and cinema. I don’t fully agree with this, however. One assumes that the early viewership of the show will primarily be made up of fans of Martin’s series, an already established audience, but as the show moves on (and garners more critical acclaim, as it has everywhere besides the NYT), that audience will continue to grow and reach outside the typical circle of core Fantasy consumers. Does one need to be immersed in 60′s corporate politicking to enjoy Mad Men? No. Does one have to understand the Tudor dynasty to enjoy The Tudors?
Aidan does eventually argue that Bellafante, who wrote the NYT review, should have been open-minded enough to immerse herself in the medium (fantasy), and that she shouldn't have been selected for the job, but I still take issue with the criticism over proper reviewer selection.  This is because it seems absurd to me to select anyone who demonstrates a clear bias against a particular genre, or who has no familiarity with it.  It is difficult to expect someone to write a fair review of something they are not familiar with.  I certainly could not write anything remotely fair about a book on Swedish politics, in part because I don't know anything about the topic, but also because non-fiction books are not my specialty.  My review would be unfair to the source material.

In the case of Bellafante, though, her credibility as a genre review is questionable at best.  On the New York Times alone, only seven of her last two-hundred articles deal with television shows we might call speculative fiction (Flash Forward, Warehouse 13, Virtuality, The Event, Supernatural, and Spartacus:  Gods of the Arena).  Of those seven, one is on a fantasy show (Supernatural) and one is on a show that might be called fantasy depending on how much liberty one has to take with a historical period to make it unreal enough to qualify as alternate history (Spartacus:  Gods of the Arena).  Can you guess which works Bellafante dislikes most?

If you guessed the two fantasy properties (roughly defined), then you should give yourself a cookie.  Bellafante's reviews of fantasy TV contains such a clear level of bias that it's a wonder anyone is handing her fantasy properties to begin with.  About Supernatural, she had this to say:
Asking anyone to explain the story line succinctly is like demanding a 15-second account of the Hundred Years’ War. “Supernatural” is intricately plot intensive, and perhaps you need the flower-bud brain cells of youth really to keep up.
If you are neither 15 years old nor the sort of person for whom the term fan fiction has an ounce of resonance, then chances are that ”Supernatural” is not in your DVR queue or even in your frame of reference.
It seems to me that the issue here is with the editor who selected Bellafante for the review (or selected her review, in the event that the NYT is run by submission).  What would compel an editor to select a reviewer who a) does not have a track record as a fantasy reviewer, and b) appears to have a general disdain for the genre and its fans?  Perhaps some leeway can be given to a), but there is clearly a problem with b), since it demonstrates a clear disinterest in fair reviewing.  I'm not suggesting that a positive review is in order; maybe the TV show for A Game of Thrones will be awful.  But when a reviewer already (and always) seems to dislike the very community that makes GRRM's work popular, you're stepping into dangerous reviewing territory.  This is not unlike asking someone who can't stand erotica to review erotica books.  Would any of us expect that reviewer to be fair to the product?  Of course not.  It's always possible that the reviewer would find an erotica book they enjoyed, but it's much more likely that everything they write will be tinged with their utter distaste for the genre.  This is the same problem with Bellafante, whose track record as someone who appears to despise the fantasy community marks her as incapable of fairly reviewing anything within that genre.

But the review from Bellafante isn't unexpected.  We all should have seen something like this coming from a mile away.  Fantasy rarely gets any respect outside of its community, even when it does well for itself (Lord of the Rings).  Let's get our hurt parts out in the open and move on.  Nothing Bellafante says is going to change the way we feel about the TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones.  The only thing that can change that is if the series doesn't turn out the way we expected it to.  But let's face it:  so far, all the previews and behind the scenes featurettes suggest we're going to get exactly what we want.


A few notes:
  1. I have not read A Game of Thrones.  I tried many years ago, but wasn't able to get into it.  That said, I am interested in the TV adaptation.  Maybe I'll go back to the book later.
  2. Some fun things have appeared on Bellafante's wiki page.  I took a picture, since the changes will likely go away soon enough:

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  1. I think you got one thing wrong with your critique of the critique. You stated:

    (Because there was no unhindered bed-jumping in realistic feudal societies...)

    There wasn't unhindered bed-jumping in realistic feudal societies.

    What there was was 'hindered' bed-jumping. And probably a lot of it.

  2. I'll agree with you, but only for other TV series. If GOT had more negative reviews by unbiased people, I would probably start freaking out. Fortunately there have only been a couple of those, and I find the biased reviews offensive, yet amusing. I'm not concerned that I will enjoy the series (and I'm not even concerned about the green light for the second season) but if they don't green light the third season and adapt my favorite book in the world, well, I'll just ... probably go into the TV business and somehow make a better adaptation! I'll start by tracing David and Dan's footsteps and studying Joyce in Ireland.

    Where was I? Oh. Shaun, I really, really, really hope you enjoy the series. Because this is your last chance for salvation.

  3. Crotchedy: Oh, no, there was a lot more unhindered bed-jumping in the old times. A lot. The Puritans didn't come along for a long time...

    "Hindered" bed-jumping is really a whole different thing. You're really not "hindered" if you're the King or a noble or what have you...

    Carraka: Oh stop with that salvation stuff. My dislike of GoT has already caused the end of a relationship and the loss of your respect. Not much else I can do to fix that :P

  4. Anonymous1:04 PM

    I gave up on the review after the author immediately began complaining about having to extend some small amount of focus to keep track of the characters. As hard as I try to understand and accept this as a legitimate complaint, I just can't. To me, it is less something to blame on the show and more a matter of the author not wanting to have to think about what she's watching.

    The quote about Supernatural just proves this for me. I jumped into the show in the middle of the fourth season and it didn't take long to figure out what was going on and keep up with it. And if it was giving her a particularly difficult time, then there was always a quick jaunt to Google to ease that lost feeling. Oh, and I am not fifteen years old and I abhor fanfiction, but you will find the show in my DVR queue.

    I don't care that she was giving Game of Thrones a bad review. It did not hit the fanboy nerve that I lost about the third time the book was delayed. I don't like the review because it opened up with a complaint that, for me, ties with "too much cursing" as useless and worth immediate disregard.

    People are complaining about the Slate article, too. I agree that the series should not have been handed to a reviewer that hates the genre, but I did like the way it was written.

  5. I remember reviewing a Jean Claude Van Damme movie for a journalism class as an undergrad. I torched it and felt all smug about it.

    The professor proceeded to torch my review and told me to rewrite with the perspective of a Van Damme fan in mind.

    The result was a review that delved more into the nuances and how the movie was par for the course and so on. It still made it clear that the movie wasn't for everyone, but if you were inclined to see it, you might very well enjoy it.

    It was a good lesson for a 20-year-old. Perhaps Ms. Bellafante could use a similar lesson.

    Being a reviewer doesn't mean you have to be scathing, derogatory or disrespectful.

  6. Anonymous: I haven't seen the show, so the focus issue may be a legitimate critique if there are simply too many characters. That said, her tone suggests she thinks this is somehow normal of the fantasy genre.

    I also haven't seen Supernatural, but my sister is one of those insanely devoted fans; I imagine she'd be as offended by that review as I am by the comments in the GoT review.

    I'll definitely check out the Slate review to see what they ahve to say.

    Jonathan: That's an interesting way to look at things. GoT isn't meant for fantasy haters. It's a book that I think translates decently enough to non-genre readers, but you can't go into it already hating everything to do with fantasy literature.

    Bellafante is just biased. She went in and came out hating it. It's dumb, poor form, and doesn't make the NYT look good. But maybe that's her style. She's trying to be Harlan Ellison, but without the integrity to back it up...

    That said, there was a new article on the NYT about GoT which seems to offer a much more level-headed critique. I only glanced at it, but it looked interesting.