In which I opine on two TV shows I haven’t seen


Over on, Shoshana Kessock compares the portrayal of women in Game of Thrones and Girls and comes down on the side of the genre show, despite its problems.

Me, I haven’t seen either show. I have read Martin’s novels and I listened to an interview with Lena Dunham on NPR. Maybe that limited exposure should disqualify me from commenting on the topic, but this is my blog and I can be wrong if I want to.

Anyway, while listening to Dunham on NPR, she specifically addressed the whole “Voice of my generation” bit, making it clear that the character was ridiculous even when she wasn’t stoned and that she hoped viewers would recognize it wasn’t to be taken seriously. In fact, she made it clear that she was making an effort to portray a character who was not admirable at all–she admitted that others involved in the show had to make her pull back on the amount of humiliation heaped on her.

And my first thought was “She’s writing to literary protocols.”

Years ago when I was studying everything I could find about writing, someone (I’ve forgotten who) said that genre characters always (or nearly always) operated at the best of their ability. Whether it’s Conan fighting a giant snake or a CPA who discovers that her daughter has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang, the characters may not always have skills and competence in a particular situation, but they do the best with what they have. If they do make mistakes, it’s either like Peter Parker letting the crook escape (a lesson that needs to be learned/kick off the story) or it’s the cop who arrests the wrong person (a mistaken action based on a misunderstanding of the evidence at hand).

When a character persists in their error, the way Neo continues to resist the idea that he’s living in a computer simulation, the instinct is to become exasperated with them. The same is true for stories where the audience wants the protagonist to operate at their best but they don’t (or don’t appear to be) such as addiction stories.

But in stories aimed for a literary market (at least the ones I’ve read) the characters rarely operate at their best. They’re feckless, selfish, self-delusional, or flawed in all sorts of ways. They don’t get out when they should. They don’t address their problems in a way that would fix them. It’s like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd: The movie starts out with him shot to death, and you see the long awful comedy of errors that led him to that fate.

Obviously, there’s overlap here; you can’t make large generalizations about groups of books (or readers) without begging exceptions or edge cases, but to me it looks like a clash of two conflicting artistic impulses.