In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King recalls advice he got form his editor during his first professional writing job as a highschooler covering sports news for a local paper:
“When you’re writing a story, you’re telling yourself a story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
This was a lesson we had repeated to us during my years of grad school getting an MFA in creative writing (an education that makes you better at talking about writing than actually writing, at least in my experience), but there seems to be a counterpoint that I haven’t really seen explored much. While taking out everything that is not the story seems to be advocating for minimalism, or at least a strong since of parsimony with the text, there are also tremendous works of literature that have gone in the opposite direction, towards maximalism.
Maximalist texts are those which seem to throw in every single detail and tangent imaginable. We don’t know just that the hobbits are singing while leaving the Shire, or even just learn the lyrics to the song (home is behind, the world ahead), but learn that Bilbo wrote the lyrics to a tune he’d previously learned from the Elves and then taught the song to Frodo who taught it to the others. The Iliad recounts the details of the deaths, it seems, of nearly every person killed during the tenth year of the Trojan War, including far too many people specified as having been speared in the crotch. GRRM lets us know in savoring detail exactly what Lady Tanda is serving for dinner each and every damn evening.
During grad school, and for several years after, I thought of minimalism and maximalism as simply two different stylistic choices. We can enjoy a simple and easy “just the facts ma’am” story, and many stories prosper from the lightness of their text. By contrast, maximalism can be equally enjoyable, especially when we’re placed in a fantastical world we want to dwell in for as long as possible.
I think to a certain extent this is right, and the degree of detail included is largely a stylistic choice. But, after letting the issue stew, rereading Thrones and Clash again, and having not an insignificant number of Hazy Little Things (dear Sierra Nevada, I’m looking for a sponsor), I think there’s more to it, and at least as far as ASOIAF is concerned the style and story are intrinsically linked.
All The Things Are The Story
What if maximalism was not the counterpoint to the principle of removing everything that isn’t the story, and is instead a different manifestation of that principle? What if the story is pears poached in wine, and savory fish rolled in salt and cooked crisp, and capons stuffed with onions and mushrooms, and great loaves of brown bread, and mounds of turnips and sweetcorn and pease, and immense hams, and roast geese, and trenches of venison and barley stew, and cream swans, and spun-sugar unicorns, and lemon cakes, and spiced honey biscuits, and blackberry tarts, and apple crisps, and wheels of buttery cheese? What if that can’t be removed because that is the story?
It’s easy to think of the Song of Ice and Fire as being chiefly about the Others and the dragons and the Prince That Was Promised, as being about Dany and Jon and Arya’s journey to become a Faceless Man and Bran becoming the Three Eyed Raven, and all the other goings on of the high lords and their Game of Thrones and the War for the Dawn. Certainly the story is about all that, but it might also be about the disparity in wealth between Lady Tanda’s table and flea bottom pot-shops. It might also be about the fact that Rodrik Cassel’s brother had four sons, only Jory reaching adulthood, and Rodrik himself only having daughters. It might be about the butcher’s boy.
While it will probably matter a great deal what children Rhaegar Targaryen fathered, it matters to Rodrik Cassel what children he has. Who (if anyone) eventually lands with Sansa matters, but so does who ends up with Lollys Stokeworth after her tragedy in the riot of King’s Landing.
ASOIAF is about the fact that all these things matter. Robb seeking vengeance against the Lannisters for a once-in-a-generation travesty matters, but so do Mirri Maz Duur’s vengeance against the Dothraki for their everyday savagery. One gate guard with a grudge, or a drinking habit, or a gambling problem, or a plain old fire in his loins can make as much difference as a high lord. This isn’t a world just of kings and queens; it’s a world of everyone, and only a maximalist style can accommodate that idea.
None of this is to say that maximalism always reflects the intent of a story, or that this is the only thing maximalism can do. I haven’t read Lord of the Rings in some time so I haven’t really thought much about it in this way, but I don’t think it’s about emphasizing the importance of mundane folk. I’m actually not really sure what to make of the style there. Same with The Iliad, I haven’t read it since college (and gods, that was… 15 years ago?), though Lindybeige has some thoughts.
But, when it comes to ASOIAF, I think maximalism is doing a lot more work than simply fleshing out the world. It’s telling us what to think about it.