A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.
Back in 2013, psychologists at The New School in New York City conducted an experiment to see how reading different types of literature affect the reader’s ability to empathize with others. To clarify, empathy is the ability to identify and understand the thoughts or feelings of others, not to be confused with sympathy, which is caring about them. Their results were that reading literary fiction greatly improved empathy, while genre fiction did not. Bold claims based on psychology experiments should be met with a huge dose of skepticism, but the mechanism theorized behind this effect makes a lot of sense — and that mechanism shows how the Song of Ice and Fire series looks much more like literary fiction than genre fiction.
The theory behind the increased empathy is that in literary fiction you spend a lot of time in the head of characters, getting to experience their thoughts. This happens intermittently in third-person omniscient texts, but in first-person narratives you’re in the character’s head the entire time. Spending hours on end directly observing someone’s thoughts, it’s believed, increases our capacity for figuring out what other people are thinking and feeling. Even though the characters are fictional, the practice of reading these kinds of books at least gives the reader experience witnessing ideas and motivations different from their own.
I remember when the article first came out; I was in grad school getting an MFA in creative writing. Our Facebook group lit up with clickbait articles claiming “reading literary fiction gives you the ability to read minds” and talk about how of course literary fiction is superior to that low-brow genre stuff. I recall only one person in the program regularly writing genre fiction; the most popular genre was misery porn.
Yeah, well, as Sandor Clegane said, “Keep talking and I’ll chicken you next Tuesday.” Or something like that, I forget the exact line. Point being, the literary fiction divide is quite silly.
ASOIAF as Literary Fantasy
So what is “literary” fiction? Basically, it’s a dumb name, that’s what. It applies to everything that isn’t “genre” fiction. So what’s genre fiction? Think about how streaming services like Prime and Netflix organize their films. There’s action, scifi, superhero, comedy, westerns, war films, etc. Everything that falls into the general “drama” category? That’s literary fiction. For some reason, folks in graduate lit departments have started to think “literary” described the quality of the text. It doesn’t.
Truth be told, a lot of genre fiction is rather bad. Probably the vast majority of it is bad. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire is the reading equivalent of stubbing your toe every 5 minutes. Thrawn was a massive improvement, and Zahn succeeded in writing the world’s greatest 450-page Wookiepeedia article. But to be fair, this stuff is hard. Getting a D+ puts you in the top 1% of writers. There’s a reason you’re reading my commentary and not my original works.
Also, truth be told, a lot of literary fiction is also rather bad. There’s nothing about being not-genre that makes writing good.
So, where does this leave A Song of Ice and Fire? I’m going to call it Literary Fantasy. And, I don’t mean that to say “it’s really well written fantasy.” It is really well written fantasy, but I mean something more specific. It’s fiction that is doing what literary fiction is supposed to do.
Going back to the empathy study, what the researchers classified as literary fiction were stories which spent a lot of time in the head of the characters, giving the reader direct access to their thoughts and feelings. In that light, it’s obvious how A Song of Ice and Fire is exceptionally literary.
I mentioned third person omniscient and first person points of view earlier, but ASOIAF is third person close, sometimes called third person limited. Think of this as the over-the-shoulder camera angle common in many video games. It’s written with third person pronouns, but stays very intimately attached to a single character (or in the case of ASOIAF, close to one per chapter). This gives us an amount of interiority on par with first person narratives. It varies from character to character, with some being more introspective than others (AGOT Catelyn has much more internal thoughts than AGOT Sansa, for instance), but in general we’re spending a lot of time inside the heads of the characters.
While most literary fiction lets us experience the thoughts and feelings of a single protagonist, ASOIAF goes a step further by giving multiple point of view characters. We spent time learning about the mechanics inside several different people’s heads. This makes GRRM’s novels arguably more literary than most literary fiction, though it does also take him 700 pages to get in all those different perspectives — doing more with more is the expectation.
Syd Field’s Three Lives
In his book Screenplay, Syd Field describes three different lives everyone lives. We have our public/professional lives, our personal lives, and our private lives. This is who we are to the world, who we are to our friends and family, and who we are to ourselves.
Not every novel necessarily needs to delve into each layer, and certainly not in equal amounts. For instance, in Stephen King’s The Body (the short-ish story Stand By Me is based on) we get mostly Gordon LaChance’s personal life with his friends and parents, and his private life, but there’s always an undercurrent of the public life, dealing with characters who are only beginning to really have a public life, and how they deal when the public and private butt heads (especially with Chris Chambers’s interactions with the school).
In ASOIAF, we often do get a near-even blend of the three. Characters hold war councils, they speak privately with their family and confidants, and they keep some thoughts to themselves. We regularly get all three layers in a single scene. Bran has some time with Rodrik and Lewin before receiving guests for the Harvest Feast. Tyrion travels with some guards to a brothel before sneaking off to Shae’s manse. Theon is on a commercial ship before riding off with Aeron, and then meeting with his father privately. Someone meets with a big group, then meets with someone one-on-one, and all the while there we watch their interior gears turn.
While different stories will necessarily require a different blend of these three lives (hard for four kids in the woods to have much of a public life), when it comes to giving the reader useful experience in building their empathetic muscles, seeing these three worlds goes a long way. It reminds us that when we encounter people in the world, we encounter one facet of a multi-faceted personality.