On Authors and Delays

This video from Comic-Con has been making the rounds this week: Paul & Storm start singing “Write Like the Wind”, their song asking George R.R. Martin to hurry up with his next book, when Martin comes on stage and angrily attacks them. It’s obviously staged, but has still struck a chord with lots of people.

It’s time for me to speak up, because I think the conversation is getting one-sided. The common point of view now is Neil Gaiman’s statement that “George R R. Martin is not your bitch“. And, yes, that’s true as far as it goes. The (few) people who are personally attacking Martin are offensive and wrong. However, I think this statement is usually being used to set up a straw man. It’s perfectly possible to be frustrated with a series’ delays without acting entitled.

The question that Gaiman was replying to wasn’t really that strong at all. Someone asked whether or not it was realistic to feel that Martin was “letting him down”. My answer: Hell yes it’s ok to feel let down! The fundamental assumption of my blog is that people have a right to feel any arbitrary way they want about works of culture, and that emotional responses are good. No matter how disappointed I may be in a work, I don’t personally judge the creators for it. But I have every right to feel good or bad about my reaction to the work, and to make it known.

Series are tricky things. The individual installments affect each other, and a new one can change how we see the earlier bits. If you’ve never had an old story retroactively ruined (or saved) by a sequel, then you read very differently than I do. And a book that leaves plot threads dangling would normally be bad, unless you buy into the promise that they will be resolved later. If we aren’t enjoying the work in a vacuum, then those external factors can change it later. (I’m not touching on the balance between timeliness and quality here. Yes, sometimes it’s best in the long run to make fans wait while you make a story right. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’ve seen plenty of successes and failures both ways.)

Authors want us to buy into the promise of the ongoing story. As Gaiman says in his article, almost no one can afford to write an entire series ahead of time and only publish it after it’s complete. But the reason consumers are willing to buy the story before the final installment is complete is because they trust the author to work on it, and their experience will be an open and ongoing thing in the meantime. The claim that “if you enjoyed the work at the time, you have no right to complain now” is a fundamental betrayal of the way series are supposed to work. If authors really believe that, then the only rational response is for people to wait until the series is finished before risking any money on it. And if everyone waits, of course, it would destroy the industry.

We need to accept a middle ground between “authors should slave away for the fans” and “it’s selfish for readers to let delays impact their experience”. The new era of crowdfunding and social media is teaching us a lot about the contract between creators and their fans, and it should be relevant even to existing publishing systems. People support the creators that they like in order to see new works from them, and creators need to respect that trust. There’s no contract in place, of course, but the fans are taking it on good faith that the author will try. It turn, fans need to show good faith when unexpected events get in the way. Fortunately, transparent Kickstarters are helping to teach everyone about all the things that can delay projects. Good reasons typically earn forgiveness. Taking on side projects or saying “sorry, I had no idea what I was getting into when I took your money” typically does not.

In the end, fans have every right to make inferences like “the author will make it a priority to continue his best-selling series”, and every right to complain when delays are justifiably hurting their enjoyment of the books. George R.R. Martin is not our bitch, but we’re not his trust fund, either.

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