George R.R. Martin responds to critics who call his Song of Ice and Fire books 'gratuitous'

Only George R.R. Martin would take the foreward of a cookbook and use it to defend his books against criticism that they have too much gratuitous violence, heraldry, sex and descriptions of food.
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2023 Atlanta Film Festival - Image Film Awards Gala / Paras Griffin/GettyImages

Today marks the publication of The Official Game of Thrones Cookbook, a book full of recipes inspired by George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. From the Wall to Dorne the Free Cities of Essos, this book will teach you how to cook the best in made-up medieval fair, courtesy of author Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and "Maester Alton—a food-obsessed maester of the Citadel, who has wandered through the realms and throughout history, collecting recipes from both high tables and low..

Martin himself fills us in on Maester Alton in his forward to the cookbook, which you can read at Polygon. But Martin doesn't stop at recommending the book and the yummy recipes therein. He takes the opportunity to respond to critics who have called his books "gratuitous" over the years, using his famously long descriptions of food as a jumping-off point.

"There is a lot of food in my novels," Martin writes. "Everything from wedding feasts with seventy-seven courses to that horse’s heart that Daenerys Targaryen wolfed down.Too much food, certain critics are wont to complain. The word they like to trot out is gratuitous. Uncalled for, unnecessary, unwarranted, just too damn much. My great big fat novels would not be nearly so big and fat if only I would cut out all the gratuitous feasting, the gratuitous violence, the gratuitous heraldry, and of course the gratuitous sex (that is usually the biggest complaint). "To which I say, pfui."

FYI, "pfui" has long been Martin's favorite dismissive onomatopoeia. "When used in the context of literary criticism, 'gratuitous' usually translates to 'more than I wanted' or 'did not advance the plot,'" he continues. "And you know, often that is true. Was it necessary for me to mention that the minor knight who just entered the lists bore seven golden hedgehogs on a field of dark green? In that sex scene, couldn’t I just have tumbled them into bed and cut to 'the next morning'? And the feasts, oh those feasts, surely the only thing that mattered was what the characters were saying, not the honey-roasted duck they were eating as they said it?"

"Well, no. Not for me.

"It’s not the destination that matters to me, it’s the journey. I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember. A reader of fiction, specifically. Fiction is not about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible. It can educate, but it is not educational at heart. For that, nonfiction is infinitely superior. Fiction is about emotion. The heart, not the head. Fiction gives us vicarious experience. It takes us beyond ourselves and the world around us.

"I love nothing more than opening a new book and falling through the pages. The tales that I love best are totally immersive. That’s what I aspire to provide to my own readers as well. I want them to see the colors of the knights’ surcoats in the tournament. I want them to hear the clash of steel on steel when swords cross, to hear the shrieks of dying men on the battlefield. If a song is sung, I want them to hear the words, get a sense of the rhythm. I want them to remember the sunsets, to glimpse fireflies in the dusk, to feel the heat of the dragon’s fire. I want them to live my story, not just read it. When they sit down at my table, I want them to taste the food.

"Nothing is gratuitous, as I see it. It is all part of the experience. If the plot is all that matters to you, well, there are Cliff’s Notes you can read in a tenth the time.

"Me, I will stay with novels—the richer and more immersive the better."

George R. R. Martin
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Yes, George R.R. Martin mentioned The Winds of Winter in his foreward

I completely agree with Martin here. I'm currently reading the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, and while I enjoy it, it does often feel like it jumps from plot beat to plot beat without savoring the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of what happens in between. It's hard to fall in love with the characters when I'm not immersed in their experience, and whatever faults Martin's books have, they are immersive. Just look at this description of Davos Seaworth about to chow down on a bowl of Sisters Stew in A Dance With Dragons:

"The beer was brown, the bread black, the stew a creamy white. She served it in a trencher hollowed out of a stale loaf. It was thick with leeks, carrots, barley, and turnips white and yellow, along with clams and chunks of cod and crabmeat, swimming in a stock of heavy cream and butter. It was the sort of stew that warmed a man right down to his bones, just the thing for a wet, cold night. Davos spooned it up gratefully."

I'm sorry, but do you not want to eat that? I do. I think Martin can get excessive as a writer, particularly when he's insisting on following well over a dozen point of view characters despite how little some of their stories contribute to the forward momentum of the story, but for those characters who remain, I love that I hear, smell, see, touch and taste what they do. That's a big part of what makes a memorable reading experience.

Also, because this is a post about George R.R. Martin, we can't sign off without mentioning The Winds of Winter, the looooooong-in-coming sixth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. He mentions it at the end of his forward. "I hope you’ll enjoy cooking the dishes within these pages," he writes. "And I hope the taste of them will take you back to the first time you tasted them in the pages of A Game of Thrones or A Storm of Swords or (one day, I hope) The Winds of Winter."

I hope so, too. The Official Game of Thrones Cookbook: Recipes from King's Landing to the Dothraki Sea is on sale now.

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