ReelThoughts: February 04, 2014

"George R.R. Martin is not Your Bitch"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


"George R.R. Martin is not your bitch." Thus wrote Neil Gaiman in his blog on May 12, 2009 in response to a growing tide of dissatisfaction from fans upset that Mr. Martin takes so long between published chapters of his Song of Ice and Fire saga. Although Gaiman first issued this sound bite nearly five years ago, he has repeated it often since then. The purpose of this column isn't to whine about the pace of Martin's writing nor is it to defend him. Instead, it's to throw out a few thoughts about the relationship between authors/TV showrunners/filmmakers and the people most passionate about their work.

When it comes to Martin, I understand the frustration. In a way, he has brought it upon himself by writing something phenomenally successful. If no one cared about A Song of Ice and Fire, people wouldn't be waiting breathlessly for the next volume. It's a good problem to have. Some fans take it too far, however. Readers do not have a proprietorial interest in novels written by Martin any more than they have a proprietorial interest in Star Wars or Harry Potter. Being a fan doesn't make one a part owner or co-collaborator. It's like following a sports team - you don't get a say in who plays second base or left tackle. You might think the GM is an idiot but that doesn't change the situation. Yes, the money you pay for tickets eventually provides the players' salaries but that doesn't mean the team owner has to listen to you.

To date, I think the biggest problem with George Lucas isn't the question of whether or not he made "good" or "bad" choices with the prequels, it's the way he treated the fans along the way. Lucas became stand-offish and dismissive. Unused to negative feedback, he grew defensive when a block of fandom responded poorly to The Phantom Menace. Younger readers may not remember it but there was a time when Lucas was (almost) universally beloved. As recently as the mid-1990s, he occupied a rarefied position. The hating started in 1999 and as the relationships between Lucas and elements of the Star Wars fan base took on a fractious nature, ludicrous phrases like "George raped my childhood" emerged.

Lucas provided what so many had been demanding for 15 years: the prequels. Unfortunately, they didn't meet with fandom's approval. This led to a spiral of cynicism from which Star Wars has yet to recover. Perhaps if Lucas had actively engaged the fans, people might have been more willing to embrace the movies. Although there are legitimate creative concerns about all three prequels, the residual negativity may be more a byproduct of fan resentment toward the creator of Star Wars than it is toward the creations. In the end, it's not that Lucas didn't listen to the fans at all - the diminution of Jar Jar Binks' role in films #2 and #3 is proof that some concerns were addressed - but the impression lingered that Lucas didn't give a shit. Fans lost sight of the fact that, without Lucas, there never would have been a Star Wars and Lucas lost sight of the fact that, without the support of the fans, Star Wars never would have made it past a single-movie release.

With Martin, the issue isn't the quality of his novels or a perceived coldness toward those who love his work, it's the gap in between books. We live in a time of instant gratification where the virtue of patience is too rarely practiced. For some people, waiting a month can seem like an eternity. I'm convinced this characteristic is one of the reasons why spoiler websites are so popular. A lot of people (mostly die-hard fans) want to know now what's going to happen in their favorite book/movie/TV show. God forbid they wait for the book to be published or the movie to debut. True, spoilers have always existed but the Internet has elevated them from the level of "teasers" found in fanzines to full-blown descriptions of things intended to surprise.

Waiting for the next installment of a book has always been difficult for the faithful. Over the years, I have tried to make it a policy only to read completed series and, in most cases, I have been successful. There have been instances, however, when I slipped up. As a freshman in college, I read David Eddings' The Belgariad. All five books were available, so I was "safe." However, about a year after I finished The Belgariad, Del Rey released Guardians of the West, the first installment of a five volume sequel series. To Eddings' credit, he was a fast writer and the volumes arrived annually but is still took four long years to get to the finish line.

I was "tricked" into starting The Wheel of Time because the first book, The Eye of the World, was marketed as a stand-alone. If I had known then what I now know, I might not have bothered. After a while, reading The Wheel of Time became more of a chore than a labor of love. By about Book Seven or Eight, I was reading out of a sense of obligation. Jordan's untimely death threatened to leave the final chapter untold but, in the ultimate act of "fan service," Jordan's wife, Harriet, brought Brandon Sanderson on board and, working from notes provided by Jordan, Sanderson completed the series. Considering the circumstances under which they were written, it's amazing how coherent and effective the final installments are.

Over the years, I have found Katherine Kurtz to be compulsively readable, so I made it a habit of buying each new book in the various Deryni chronicles as it came out. Similarly, I started reading the Harry Potter novels before the series was completed. Finally, there's A Song of Ice and Fire. My advice to any potential reader - and Martin might not like this - is to wait to start the series until the seventh (and final) volume is available. The books are too well written to be missed but a little patience now will be rewarded in the end.

As a writer, I'm sympathetic to Martin's plight. By all accounts he's a perfectionist. So even when something is written, it's not really finished. Each published page is probably the distillation of about five pages of written and rewritten prose. The creative energy present during the first draft quickly dies away during the revision process. Writing is difficult but rewarding. Editing is just plain tedious. Tedious but necessary. Fans, of course, don't much care about things like that. They're just irritated that, after devouring a 1000-page tome in a couple of days, they are now faced with a four or five year wait before the next volume is ready for their consumption. And people today aren't used to waiting.

The Internet is largely to blame but it has accomplices. Having so much information available anywhere, anytime has created expectations often in conflict with the creative process. Life may move at a faster pace but, fundamentally, the speed of writing hasn't changed. The mechanics may be different - some authors write longhand, some use typewriters, some use computer keyboards, and some dictate - but the internal chemistry by which a story emerges takes as long today as it did 20 years ago or 50 years ago or when Charles Dickens was putting quill to paper.

The strange thing about all the pressure being applied by "fans" on writers/producers is that it's hard to imagine there being any tangible benefit to it. Martin knows he has an audience waiting breathlessly for Book 6. He knows HBO is getting nervous. Reminding him about it serves no purpose. Is he going to write faster because people rant about his slow pace? And if he does, could that negatively impact the quality of the finished product? Would fans prefer to wait five years and get a polished novel or wait two years and get something slapped together for the primary purpose of meeting a deadline? That's not a hypothetical question; it's a real-world issue. Martin could probably churn out books a lot faster but neither he nor his most loyal fans would be happy about the result.

Those who create for profit, be they authors, filmmakers, or TV showrunners, don't work in a vacuum. They can't ignore the fans entirely or those fans will go elsewhere and there won't be anyone left. But acknowledging fans is different from allowing them to influence the creative process. "Official" stories should never become fan fiction. People who read books or watch movies do so because they want to be surprised and delighted. Those who prefer their own vision over the author's aren't really fans. They're something else.

So what responsibility does George R.R. Martin have? To finish what he started. To give those who read his books an ending. But he must do it at his own pace, making his own choices. If it takes him another ten years, so be it. The timeline is immaterial. What fans do or don't want to see happen is irrelevant. All that matters is the story. For those who understand and respect that, the wait, long as it may be, will be more easily endured.


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