Thursday, May 14, 2009

Because I Am, Apparently, Stupid Enough to Argue With Neil Gaiman

Not really. Just Internet argue, and just sort of Devil's Advocate, because I get what he's saying, and honestly Gaiman doesn't read my blog and why would he care about my opinion anyway, but I've seen a lot of this kind of thing coming from authors in response to some of the crazier fans and... well, I should probably end this run-on sentence and start with what the hell I'm talking about.

Gaiman has a much-linked article on his blog called "Entitlement Issues" which addresses the notion of fans feeling like writers owe them the next book in their series in a timely fashion, or indeed that writers owe them anything, with the pithy quote "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch."

And he's absolutely right. 100%. Writers are people, their job is a tricky one, and if it ain't there, it ain't there. If you're bitching because Martin went on a week-long vacation instead of slaving away on the next Ice and Fire book, get a grip.

However... Gaiman makes a few points that I really disagree with. Here's the key one, and it's the one he closes with: "George R. R. Martin is not working for you."

Well, uh... yeah. He kinda is. I mean, no, I don't pay him directly, but I buy his books, which makes the publishers think, "Hey, we should give this guy more money for more books!" Now, I'm not his boss, I can't set his hours, etc., but if the message of the consumers is "We would like to read more of your epic fantasy series rather than this new story that has caught your writing fancy" than maybe, as a professional writer, he's better off seeing if that epic fantasy series is something he can write right now.

Because here's the thing: When you start a big epic series, especially one that is in large part predicated on "what happens next" and prophecy and other such dramatic elements that require later payoff for the setup to be as enjoyable, you are making a promise to your readers that you will finish it. And when you promise you'll deliver it more than once and fail to live up to that promise, it seems to me that rational readers are fair in saying, "Uh, does this mean that promise you made us at the beginning to tell us the end of the story might get reneged on too?"

There are plenty of great standalone novels. There are plenty of great novels in a series that are satisfying reads on their own, and if a next book comes, that's great but if it doesn't each book pretty much stands as a complete chapter.

The Song of Ice and Fire is not that series. It has been sold, from the outset, and written, from the outset, as one big story told in novel-sized chunks. Imagine if a four-year gap between seasons three and four of Lost... might it seem fair to gripe about that? There is reason to have legitimate concern, given the growing delay between books, that Martin has lost interest or worse, doesn't know how to wrap up the plot and character arcs he's built up. There is even reason, ghoulish though it might be, to worry that Martin might die before completing the series, given that writing books takes an awful long time in the best of circumstances and writers have, in the course of time, died with works unfinished.

Does this give fans the right to berate Martin if they see him in public having dinner with friends? No. Does it give them the right to badger him inecessantly online and start crazy petitions about not buying any other Martin work until he finishes Ice and Fire? Well, yeah, actually, although it does seem crazy and self-defeating.

But does it give fans the right to bitch about it, and have their concerns taken as valid, if only from their own personal point of view? To be disappointed in the lack of more stories that the author should be thrilled have connected so deeply with so many fans? Well, yeah. I think that's fair.

Authors want to write what they want to write, hey, that's cool. But fans want to vent, within reasonable limits, that their favorite author isn't writing their favorite book, and they feel a little pissed that they only have half the story with no end in sight? I think we can all be OK with that, too, right?

And if you don't want people asking for the next chapter in your epic story so that they can see how it all turns out, I can think of two easy ways to do that: 1) Write a bad epic story that nobody gives a shit about or 2) Don't start big epic series, write more self-contained novels.

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