George R.R. Martin took a break from writing The Winds of Winter earlier today (yes, guys, he really is hard at work on it) to share his thoughts on the reductive legacies of complicated historical figures and how to best reconcile their virtues with their shortcomings.
“Even the greatest of minds may disagree about what to do with those who came before us, fallible fellows all,” he writes on his Not A Blog, along with these two quotes:
Martin argues that Shakespeare was “[telling] it like it is,” in his quote (which is a Mark Anthony line from Julius Caesar) while Ghandi was describing the way the world could be, rather than the way it is.
Martin then contemplates how, as much as we want to sort people into good or bad categories after they die, everyone, be they living, dead or fictional, is an imperfect tangle of contradictory characteristics.
“Dwelling where I am now, deep in the heart of Westeros, I find myself surrounded by my characters, the children of my mind and heart and soul. They are real to me, as I write them, and I struggle to make them real to my readers as well. All of them are flawed, from the best to the worst. They do heroic things, they do selfish things. Some are strong and some are weak, some smart and some stupid. The smartest may do stupid things. The bravest may have moments when their courage fails. Great harms may be done from the noblest motives, great good from motives vile and venal. Life is like that, and art should reflect that, if it is to remain true. Ours is a world of contradiction and unintended consequences.”
Martin goes on to list some of his favorite characters in fiction, noting that they’re all deeply flawed individuals but that it’s those very imperfections that make them so compelling. Martin says he has a similar reaction to the real-life subjects of histories, biographies and memoirs.
“I am not blind to the flaws of those who went before us, and I recognize the truth of Mark Antony’s words,” Martin writes in his last paragraph. “But Gandhi’s words are nobler, and those are the words I choose to live by… to treasure the memory of the good they did.
Our world needs more empathy, less anger.”
Okay, so … it’s difficult to know what to make of this post since Martin doesn’t offer any hints as to what inspired him to write this. However, while reading it, I was certainly reminded of the Hugo Awards ceremony Martin hosted last month, for which he garnered criticism for (among other things) waxing poetic about H.P Lovecraft and John W. Campbell, both of whom won posthumous awards that night and both of whom were well-documented bigots in life.
Martin issued an apology on File 770 and, obviously, I can’t be sure that the Hugo Awards controversy is in any way connected to this Not A Blog post but … well, the timing is what it is.
I don’t have much to add to the discourse myself, so I’ll end with an excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor’s blog post, Lovecraft’s racism & The World Fantasy Award statuette, with comments from China Miéville.
“Do I want “The Howard” (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette. Lovecraft’s full name is “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) replaced with the head of some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s about that time. Maybe not. What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that… as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist.”