Saturday, March 5, 2011

Winter Isn't Coming Fast Enough For Some People

I’ve been planning a big—you might even say epic—series of posts about fantasy books (rejected title: Suck on This, J. R. R.) and the “Song of Ice and Fire”/”Game of Thrones” books were and are going to be a central part of it, since that’s the one that rekindled my interest in the genre. But I’m realizing now I had some minor points relating to the ASoIaF fandom and the upcoming TV series that didn’t really fit. Fortunately, the news this week that George R. R. Martin (um, what’s with all the RR’s in fantasy authors’ names? I just noticed that) has finally finished the next book, A Dance With Dragons, provides an excellent pretense to make them apart from those.

If you’re not familiar with the flap around these books: basically, the series is a tremendously fun, compelling fantasy series, one that refreshingly relies on character over world-building, and features a plot that’s a lot more satisfying and twisty than “heroes walk from point a to point b to retrieve object”. In fact, this is one of the only “high fantasy” series I can think of that I would classify as a genuine page-turner, with a lot of wicked cliffhangers that guarantee you’ll be wanting to snatch up subsequent volumes once you’ve started. The last book, A Feast For Crows, ended that way, and here’s where the controversy begins. Each book is structured around a number of viewpoint characters, and this last book ended up running so long that Martin eventually declared that he was chopping it in two, putting off a lot of the most popular characters to the next book, the aforementioned “A Dance With Dragons”. Martin announced that ADwD was basically done and would be arriving shortly. That was over five years ago.

In that time, frustration has built up among the series’ fans, to the point where it’s curdled into…well…this kind of thing.

I don’t blame the readers for being frustrated. It was absolutely silly of Martin to claim that the book was done when there was so much work left—although any creative person, myself included, can vouch for exactly how hard it can be to judge exactly how long it’ll take to revise something. Martin HAS strung his fans along to an extent, though, announcing repeated release dates and then forfeiting on them. But I’m certainly not in a position to criticize there.

What I don’t get, and what bothers me, is the slavering hatred this has engendered in “fans” of the book. You can’t read that blog I linked to above without thinking, “Wait, if you love the books enough that you feel the delay is worth devoting an entire blog to, why are you spending every post putting down the books, their author, the upcoming show, and everyone Martin’s ever met?” (Especially ironic: they failed to blog for almost two months, during which they missed a lot of important news, causing their readers to turn on them. Reap what you sow, dude.) It’s more than a little reminiscent of Homer Simpson’s lament in the episode where he runs for sanitation commissioner: "My campaign is a disaster! I hate the voting public so much! Why won't they vote for me? I'd make 'em pay!"

The guy took six years to finish a 1000+ page book. That's neither unreasonable nor unheard of. Yes, Martin handled it badly, but the people obsessing about this seem to believe that he’d done all this specifically to hurt them somehow, because he feeds on the tears of fanboys, or something. The common lament is that Martin had made so much money that he no longer cared about the series and was simply rolling in hundred dollar bills when he should be writing. Now that this has pretty much been definitively proved wrong, the conspiracy theories are coming out (“he finished it years ago and waited for the show to come out to cash in”—seriously, that’s the argument some people are making) and the muttering has shifted to “Well, I’m sure it’ll suck.” (A Feast For Crows has some problems compared to the first three, so this of course makes it TEH WORST BOOK EVAR and PROOF THAT MARTIN HAS LOST IT)

Of course, the people screaming the loudest seem to care the least about getting, y’know, a good book. Neil Gaiman wrote this and John Scalzi wrote that, which both hit the nail on the head, but there’s another issue here that bugs me beyond defending Martin. I mean, I like the books, but they’re not classics of western literature that are beyond criticism, and as I hope I’ve made clear, Martin certainly isn’t for his handling of the situation. But the arguments employed by some of these faux-fans make it sound like they have no taste, no discrimination, no sense of how literature is supposed to work. It’s not a factory, churning out product to keep you fed or clothed. I thought most people understood that it’s worth waiting for a good story—all of which are different.

One of the constant complaints compares Martin to Steven Erickson, who writes about one of his “Malazan” books a year. “If Erickson, who’s a GILLION SPILLION TIMES BETTER THAN MARTIN, can do it, why can’t he?” I wasn’t hugely impressed with the one-and-a-half books in Erickson’s series I read, but even if it was the greatest fantasy series of all time, and Martin wasn’t in his 60s compared to the relatively young Erickson, it’s still apples and oranges. Different writers work differently. I’m a lifelong fan of Douglas Adams, who famously said, “I love deadlines. I love the whizzing sound they make as they fly past.” Some people work more slowly. And again—“Dance” is apparently longer than the entirety of Lord of the Rings. Which took Tolkien at least a decade to write. Objectively speaking, Martin’s still working at a pretty brisk pace here. I wonder how these people would handle being fans of Thomas Pynchon or Stanley Kubrick.

But, you protest, “Dance” is part of a series! It’s continuing an ongoing narrative! Martin’s entered into an unwritten contract with the reader by starting it! No, you, the reader, have entered into the same unwritten contract you enter into whenever you engage with an unfinished piece of serial fiction. If you’d picked up the first book as soon as it hit shelves, you’d have been taking a number of risks. The book could have been such a bomb that the publisher decided not to continue the series, just as a TV show or a comic book can be cancelled before it reaches a conclusion. Martin could have been in a plane crash. The common fear that Martin might have simply lost interest in the series isn’t entirely invalid—that would indeed have been shabby—but what’s dismaying about that assumption is the way people grabbed onto it as the obvious conclusion, when “writer’s block” seems like a more obvious, and charitable conclusion.

Speaking of Martin dying, this is a particularly noxious example of how self-absorbed and entitled these people are. As mentioned, Martin’s in his 60s, and not precisely a specimen of health. So the refrain has been, “Martin has to finish the series before he dies!” (And that’s the more mature phrasing. A common variation is “Hurry up and finish the book so you can die already, you fat fuck!”) The basis for comparison here is Robert Jordan, whose “Wheel of Time” books hadn’t concluded when he died. Putting aside the fact that I found the one Wheel of Time book I read to be insufferable, I’m fairly certain that Jordan didn’t die to personally inconvenience anyone, and that whining about a man’s death depriving you of entertainment is borderline-sociopathic behaviour. If I were George R. R. Martin, I don’t think I’d be particularly motivated to service a fanbase that’s ghoulishly speculating about my death, let alone one that seemed to wish it on me.

The long and the short of it is, this is an ideal example of just how obnoxiously entitled the world of genre fanboyism has become. It’d be nice if, now that the book has come into being, they had a moment of self-reflectiveness and realized how silly they look in retrospect. But somehow I doubt that’ll happen.

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