The jousting went all day and into the dusk, the hooves of the great warhorses pounding down the lists until the field was a ragged wasteland of torn earth. A dozen times Jeyne and Sansa cried out in unison as riders crashed together, lances exploding into splinters while the commons screamed for their favorites. Jeyne covered her eyes whenever a man fell, like a frightened little girl, but Sansa was made of sterner stuff. A great lady knew how to behave at tournaments. Even Septa Mordane noted her composure and nodded in approval.
The Kingslayer rode brilliantly. He overthrew Ser Andar Royce and the Marcher Bryce Caron as easily as if he were riding at rings, and then took a hard-fought match from white-haired Barristan Selmy, who had won his first two tilts against men thirty and forty years his junior.
Sandor Clegane and his immense brother, Ser Gregor the Mountain, seemed unstoppable as well, riding down one foe after the next in ferocious style. The most terrifying moment of the day came during Ser Gregor's second joust, when his lance rode up and struck a young knight from the Vale under the gorget with such force that it drove through his throat, killing him instantly. The youth fell not ten feet from where Sansa was seated. The point of Ser Gregor's lance had snapped off in his neck, and his life's blood flowed out in slow pulses, each weaker than the one before. His armor was shiny new, a bright streak of fire ran down his outstretched arm, as the steel caught the light. Then the sun went behind a cloud, and it was gone. His cloak was blue, the color of the sky on a clear summer's day, trimmed with a border of crescent moons, but as his blood seeped into it, the cloth darkened and the moons turned red, one by one.
- George R. R. Martin, A Game of ThronesIf Glen Cook's Black Company series aimed to rearrange the content of fantasy, George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire aims to rearrange its form. Both are, in their own ways, technically excellent productions, although we will have to see if the second half of Martin's series ends up sliding into marasmus. In any case, Martin's work deserves to be taken seriously by students of literature, and not simply as a standout example of "genre."
I want to develop and argue for this claim, but I should clarify that I don't mean it as a judgment of quality. Song is a captivating series, but I have trouble figuring out if it is a good one--and of course it's too early to tell. What I mean is that Martin's work shares a set of fundamental concerns with postwar literature (including what has come to be called "literary fiction"), and addresses them in a novel and serious way.
Let's, however, begin with Cervantes. Don Quixote is frequently called the first postmodern novel, not entirely in jest. This is not simply because Cervantes plays around with metatextual interventions and formalist tricks; to a large extent it is because the novel is usually read as providing a "postmodern" answer to its central question, which is the relationship between narrative and identity. In this reading, the narrator's skepticism about Don Quixote is treated as a transparent smokescreen for the book's sympathy for him. He's a hero because he does not hesitate to embrace a narrative convention as a framework for his identity, which highlights the arbitrariness of subjectivity and so on.
This view was embraced in the literature of the '60s because of the freedom it seemed to offer. The most classic example is the second chapter of John Barth's The End of the Road, in which the hero (rescued from a bout of apathetic paralysis) is encouraged to embrace "mythotherapy" as a cure. This involves embracing arbitrariness as an identity-shaping practice, of which the central element is the adoption of a narrative cliche (the Hero, the Wise Man, etc.) as a foundation for subjectivity. Form, for Barth and most other "postmodern" writers, is a gateway to liberation.
But Don Quixote can also be read differently: the narrator insists over and over that we are to take it as a warning against taking narrative and form too seriously. This is the path taken by Martin, who has written a modern-day Don Quixote without any ambiguity about its position in this debate. The central problem in A Song of Ice and Fire is the corruption worked by myths of chivalry and knightly valor in the real world. Even the fantasy setting is an echo of his Spanish predecessor's: instead of wise kings and damsels in distress, Martin's Westeros is defined by child rape, wanton butchery, and class oppression. Even if his characters escape their trials with some notion of honor intact--and not all do--it is a kind of honor that is pragmatic enough to recognize its own imminent failure. But most of the time, the characters that try their hardest to be knights-errant end up artfully murdered, subverted, or broken.
The result is a group of characters who are far more complex than Tolkien's, and, in fact, than most of the protagonists of contemporary literary fiction. That is not what's interesting, however. The real virtue of Martin's work is its ability to produce an interpretive community (found, for instance, in the series's online forums) that is intensely focused on the phenomenological experience of reading formalist fantasy. Anyone who reads Martin with any degree of attention and experience with standard fantasy immediately becomes aware of a split personality: one reader-self wants to take the book as a standard fantasy novel, to sympathize with the obvious protagonists and root against the bad guys, and the other works against the grain, identifying and thinking through the ways the typical fantasy tropes are subverted. It is like reading a Don Quixote in which the windmills are really giants, but the Man of La Mancha is a deluded fool regardless. Martin's fans spend much of their time puzzling out the confrontations between these selves.
As the book's fanbase proves, one need not be a Yale Deconstructionist to participate in this style of reading, and that has helped to contribute to an entire avalanche of online textual criticsm (crystallizing around Martin and other fantasy writers, but also, say, the TV shows of Joss Whedon), which has produced such monuments of Internet culture as TVTropes.org. Academic critics may dismiss it, occasionally even for valid reasons--but it is no less an heir to Shklovsky for all that. And this, in short, is why I think Martin deserves to be studied: he has not only recovered the psychologism of the Jamesian modern novel in a remarkably hostile genre ghetto, but he has also helped point the way forward for interpretation. The genre ghetto of literary fiction, I suspect, has a dimmer future.