Cheated or Spoiled?

About a week ago, a friend linked to a New Yorker article about George RR Martin and all of the “fans” who vilify him for the delays of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his “Song of Ice and Fire” saga. While I read all of the previous books in this series and was aware of the increasing discontent with how long the new book was taking, I had no idea things were this bad.

Like a picture of Bigfoot

For those who are unfamiliar, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a series of fantasy novels set in a low-magic, medieval world. It had drawn a lot of attention for both the intricacies of its politics, and the fact that Martin is unafraid of killing off characters, even beloved main characters. A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series – which had also been long delayed – came out in 2005, but only contained story about half the characters and the world. Dragons was meant to be the companion to that, detailing the adventures of the other people and places concurrent to Crows. Over the last several years, fans have gone from eager, to impatient, to angry.

As I read the article, I kept looking for a reason why people feel this way. Why they feel entitled to this book to such a great degree that some angrily and publicly begrudge any time Martin spends on any other pursuit.

First, I have to say that, after reading the New Yorker article, I can understand why the book’s taking so long. For one thing, I can’t think of a fantasy series of any quality that hasn’t had long gaps between the releases of sequels. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” and Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” sagas are two that come to mind. King’s magnum opus took the better part of 40 years and Jordan never finished his (although he ensured that it would be completed). And neither Jordan’s or King’s sagas had the political complexities of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Add to that the fact that Martin has a unique challenge of having to make events in Dragons sync up chronologically with events in the already-published Crows. I’m surprised he still believes this novel is possible to put out.

So why do his “fans” believe that this delay can only be the result of laziness or greed? Why can’t they accept that good work takes time?

The first, and I think smallest part, of the blame is Martin’s own. He said in the afterword of Crows that the next book would be finished “within a year.” He now admits that that was a mistake. But, he couldn’t have known the problems that have arisen from trying to weave the two books into one another. I’m betting that if he could do it over again, he would have waited to put out Crows until both books were done. It would have likely shortened the total time to get the pair out and he would have avoided a broken promise.

Also a part of this, paradoxically, is Martin’s close relationship with his fans. He maintains a personal blog as one way to keep in touch with them and this has turned against him in a way. It allows his fans and “fans” to see all the things in Martin’s life that aren’t “completing A Dance with Dragons.” Too many people read it as a progress report on the book. If a post doesn’t specifically mention working on it, then they assume he hasn’t. Never mind that most people who write personal blogs don’t constantly write about whatever project they’re involved in at work (for one thing, it’d get boring quick).

But, as I said, I think that’s the smallest part of the blame. A much larger portion, maybe the largest portion, has to go down to ignorance. I’ve written before about how hard it is to explain artistic work to people who don’t participate in it themselves. There tends to be a lot more that goes into these undertakings than most people realize. Writing and re-writing and editing takes time, especially with all the continuity-based editing this book requires. There’s an old saying, “You can have it fast, cheap, or right; pick two.” Novels aren’t expensive and Martin is taking “right” over “fast.”

Martin’s part and ignorance’s part aside, there’s still something else. It’s our fault too. Martin’s fans’ (and “fans'”) fault. Fantasy fans’ fault. Western entertainment consumers’ fault. Somehow, in the last decade or two, we’ve gotten entitled. We’ve come to believe that we should have what we want quickly and cheaply (if not free) and then are further entitled to complain about the quality. We download MP3s and video files from torrent sites, but say we’ll pay for something if it’s good enough. We complain about authors taking too long to put out books or having the audacity to die before they’re done. We show up 20 minutes late for the theatre and can’t understand why it’s already full. We TiVo our favorite shows so that we can fast-forward through the commercials. What happened to us?

Part of it can be put down to the internet. A wealth of information and entertainment is now literally at our fingertips. High-speed internet means we no longer have to wait for gratification. If it’s out there, we can have it here, now, and usually free of cost, without having to leave our chairs. The idea of being delayed is anathema to how so much of our leisure-time works.

Part of it is thanks to the mass-media corporations. Most major entertainment entities have the financial muscle to put out sequels faster then ever. The three movies of the Star Wars trilogy came out over the course of sixteen years. The prequels? Six years. The Lord of the Rings took three. Twilight will be done five years after the first came out. Michael Bay will keep churning out Transformers movies every two years until someone stops him. And the movies building to Marvel’s Avengers movie are coming out two to a year now. Waiting three years or more for a sequel to a major motion picture seems unreasonable nowadays. How are we expected to wait five or ten years for a book?

We’ve lost the ability to have patience. We’re quickly pissing away our ability to feel gratitude. As a society, we’re slowly degrading into a pack of entitled brats. And it really needs to stop. I’ll admit that I’m as bad as anyone. When I heard that there was an announced release date for A Dance with Dragons, I rolled my eyes and made a snide comment like every other one of his “fans.” But I know that I’m going to buy it, even if I have to re-read the other four first to remember what the heck was going on, because Martin’s a damn good author and “A Song of Ice and Fire” is one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read.

And after I’m done with Dance, I’m going to try like hell to remember that no author “owes” me a book. Hopefully, I’ll remember it for as long as it takes him to put out the next one after that.

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Posted on April 25, 2011, in Art and Media, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Definitely no author “owes” anyone a book–when you bought the preceding ones, you bought books in existence, not future books.

    On the other hand, I think that a lot of what has frustrated fans who read his blog has been that not only is he talking about lots of non-writing stuff (most authors do), but he’s been doing all these various editing projects that are unrelated, so fans look at those editing projects as “he’s doing Wild Cards/this anthology/etc etc instead of Dance! Why?!” and that, I see as somewhat more valid of a frustration than “omg why is he watching football?!”

    That being said, though, it goes back to the idea of entitlement. Books take time to write; they take time to do well. Sure, I can spit out 60,000 words in 30 days (hi, November!) but they aren’t good words. They aren’t production-ready. And Martin’s novels are well in excess of 60K.

    I am going to have to re-read the first four, though.

    • I think that their frustration about his other editing projects ties back into my point about ignorance. I think it’s a fairly common misconception that writing or editing a work can be done continuously, without taking a break from it. Pretty much every description of writing as a craft that I’ve read has made a point of putting a work aside between drafts so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. It seems counter-intuitive, but working on other things besides Dance has probably helped speed it along more than constant attention ever would.

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