Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

So I've been reading Game of Thrones by GRR Martin. Like everyone else. I'm a fan of the HBO series, and so far the show tracks pretty closely to the book. That makes the reading experience very interesting -- on the one hand, I have never before read these words in this order. On the other, I know what's going to happen. It's nice to know who will die in advance, to be honest; I started grieving on page 1, and that makes it easier. And, armed with foreknowledge, I've had plenty of time to appreciate how skillful GRR Martin's plotting is. (Amazingly skillful).

But this blog entry really has a slightly different point. I've spent a fair bit of time browsing the reviews for Game of Thrones. I've waffled about reading the books for years; both the negative and positive reviews make persuasive arguments. The TV show finally has me so hooked that I couldn't resist.

One of the frequent complaints in reviews is that the book ought to have been shorter. Reviewers point out that descriptions could be trimmed, repetition eliminated, without any great cost to the integrity of the book. They're right. When I read a whole paragraph listing the names of the knights that competed at a tourney, or elaborate descriptions of meals that name every ingredient, I often find myself thinking, "Hmm, this is exactly the sort of thing I've been taught to snip snip snip."

That stuff could be cut. I don't need to know about firepeppers to understand the Dothraki. The story and the characters and, basically, the world would make sense without firepeppers. But does that mean they should be cut? I don't think so.

Yes, GRR Martin writes more words than are absolutely necessary to get across his point. And not always the most elegant, beautifully phrased words. But they add up to a deep sense of immersion in an alternate reality. Westeros feels real. The scope of the story is huge, yet every detail has been filled in. The characters, the story they're creating through their actions, feels epic.

Slashing at the manuscript with a red pen won't make GRR Martin a beautiful writer. He's not a stylist. On a pure craft level, he's average. A slimming regime might result in a marginal improvement, no more. The potential cost, however, is very high. When would the cutting start to diminish the things that GRR Martin does so marvelously well? The worldbuilding, the sense of immersion, the characters who interact with one another, with their environments, with the heritage that dictates how they perceive both.

These are questions that editors have the job of worrying about, I suppose. But as a writer, I find it pretty interesting too. I see the weaknesses as I read, and I don't care. Because he's just that good, and the thing that he's accomplishing is much more impressive than those flaws are irritating. The details build the world, and I want to be there and experience it. The repetition keeps me from becoming confused in a tremendously complex book with a huge cast of characters. As far as I'm concerned, it's all for the greater good.