And what glum beast, its hour come round at last,With apologies to W. B. Yeats
Mopes towards Bethlehem to be born?
Song Sung, Blue
I'd had in mind to read George R. R. Martin's sweeping fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire (SoIaF) and write the same kind of reader's diary that I did for Stephen King's The Dark Tower. And here's what happened. Beware, even though there is no play-by-play recap as in those earlier entries, spoilery things are ahead!
I'd heard a great deal about the series; a lot of blogs I read referred to it as "fantasy for adults." Usually, that's the kind of thing people say when they like something but they figure they'd have a hard time defending the genre or style of writing, art or music it belongs to. So the particular piece they like becomes music "for thinking people." Or art "for the discerning viewer." Or fantasy "for adults."
But I had read and enjoyed a good deal of the Martin-edited "Wild Cards" series, in which he and several other authors wrote about comic book-styled heroes in a kind of shared-world anthology format. Their stated goal was to translate those heroes into a more sophisticated kind of environment -- not at all strange even in the regular comic-book world these days, but definitely different in the mid-80s when the series began. Whatever the stated idea, the effect was superheroes + violence + sex, the latter two a pretty common equation whenever we get into stories labeled "more sophisticated" or "more adult." The sex and the way it's written may owe a lot more to the fantasies of early adolescent boys than actual adult activity, but that's rarely a good way to market them.
So I purchased A Game of Thrones, the first in the series, and dove in. Halfway through the book, I could see why people found themselves enmeshed in the world Martin created. Yes, it was typically gloomy Martin. Nobody's happy for very long when they come out of his keyboard; they're either evil, angsty or forlorn. But still! Many different characters, skullduggery and plotting in the background, in the foreground and pretty much all around, vivid descriptions, a fascinating world, and so on. Then I realized something. I was halfway through the first book. I was four hundred pages into the shortest book of this originally-three-now-up-to-five-supposed-to-be-finished-in-seven series, and we were still pretty much scene-setting. Although the pacing of the novel was fine, the pace of story advancement was glacial. The four in-print volumes of the series total almost 3,900 pages and Martin's manuscript for the fifth, scheduled for publication in July, was itself more than 1,500 pages long. For comparison, Game's manuscript was nearly 1,100 pages long and produced an 800-page paperback.
Well, that's not necessarily a deal-breaker, although it definitely banks one's passions. And they cool a little bit more when reading a forum post Martin made in 1998 about the series owing a lot to the historical Wars of the Roses period of English history, about how it would now be four books instead of three. It had, he said, "grown," which is not the kind of thing that makes a reader optimistic about authorly discipline. I forged on, though, because around that point in the book things do start to happen a little, even though what they mostly do is start other things happening.
But by the end of Game of Thrones, I was completely unhooked from a desire to read the rest of the series, however many books it turns out to be. One of the things Martin said fairly often about this series was that readers should be prepared to see anyone die, and he very clearly meant what he said when he killed Eddard or "Ned" Stark, the knight whose agreement to serve as Hand of the King plays a large part in getting things going. Ned has been our focal point for most of the book -- other storylines branch from his. His illegitimate son Jon Snow joins the Night's Watch at the great northern Wall, his wife Catelyn seeks out the murderer of the previous Hand and suspects Tyrion Lannister, his daughters Sansa and Arya become a part of the palace life and intrigues at King's Landing, and so on. Only the story of Daenerys Targaryn stands completely separate (and it's a dispute over King Robert's desire to kill her than forces a break between Ned and the King and makes both vulnerable to their enemies).
Moreover, Ned has been the character has displayed morality and decency throughout his appearances. Even his wife Catelyn, a mostly admirable person, shows ugliness towards the illegitimate Jon Snow despite Jon's complete lack of threat to her own children under the laws and customs of the kingdom. Most every other adult character is either rotten from the start, like Robert's wife Cersei Lannister or their son Joffrey, or shows deceit and treachery when probed a little further. In short, by the end of Game of Thrones I was willing to stick with this slow-moving and expanding story in order to see what happened to Ned. He's beheaded by order of Joffrey after Robert dies -- convicted of treason on trumped-up charges, but promised his life if he goes north to join the Night's Watch in order to spare the feelings of Sansa, Ned's daughter and Joffrey's betrothed. But Joffrey is sadistic. and probably unbalanced, as he is not King Robert's son but is actually the product of an incestuous relationship between Queen Cersei and her fraternal twin brother Jaime Lannister. So he orders Ned beheaded in front of Sansa and spends random joyful afternoons dragging her to where the head is mounted on spike and having her beaten if she doesn't accompany him happily and willingly.
So when my reason for sticking with SoIaF got killed, so did my desire to stick with the series. And according to synopses of the later books, Martin's been no less reluctant to kill or damage most of the rest of his decent characters as well -- Robb Stark will die after asking forgiveness for breaking a promise and believing it to have been granted. Arya Stark will escape King's Landing after her father's death, but her thirst for revenge will lead the young girl to join a band of assassins before Martin decides to blind her. He may be trying to create a redemption arc for Jaime Lannister, but who knows if he'll just kill him instead?
There's nothing wrong with not knowing what will happen next in a book; in fact it's the preferred way of telling some stories. And there's nothing wrong with the idea of a very long story either. But if I'm following a very long story and I never know if the author will bump off someone I like and leave me with some skulking schemer, I for one am not drawn in. I may still want to know what happens in the end -- which means if Martin finishes this series I'll find spoilers somewhere to learn how he wraps things up -- but I'm not really invested in the journey (My guess is he brings Daenerys back to the throne and hooks her up with Jon Snow or Bran Stark, or we find out Jon is an illegitimate Targaryn and thus takes the Westeros throne for his own after defeating or throwing back the Others. Or, considering the Targaryn acceptance of incestuous unions within their royal line, he and Daenerys marry. Or everybody dies, gloomily). Someday, if I feel a little differently about these things, I may pick up the thousands of pages Martin will have written about Westeros. But not today, and likely not ever.
Some might argue that a world in which the good guys don't always win is a world more like the real one. In the real world, stubbornly clinging to honor and principle may cause you trouble. In the real world, strong and cruel people take advantage of weak people. So, Martin's defenders might say to me, he's simply placing the fantasy novel into a more realistic realm. I don't argue, but I do ask why I'd want to read that kind of fiction when I can read that kind of news every day.
Other folks say they appreciate the SoIaF novels for their subversion of familiar fantasy tropes. They take the genre's standards and flip them on their heads. Again, swell if that's what you want to read but it seems to me that the subversions -- which are less "subversion" than "adolescent contrarianism" -- become the new tropes and the story, rather than replacing old ruts with new ideas instead replaces them with new ruts.
The Never-Ending Story?
Martin is, by most accounts, one of the more accessible best-seller authors working these days. He frequently attends gatherings of his fan club and regularly interacts with readers via blog, fan forums and science fiction conventions. It's a double-edged sword for him, though, because it leaves him open to a lot of the complaints some of those fans lodge against him for what they perceive as the slow development of a story they love very much. When you read this profile from The New Yorker, you can see how the differently writers and readers approach the same thing: The novel that one of them created and the other one reads.
From the writer's point of view, a novel is a completed work -- he or she may write from love or driving compulsion, but at the end of the day the manuscript is the product of a job. We can hope writers want everything they create to be their best efforts, but the basic outline of their job is completing a contract by submitting a manuscript to a publisher.
We readers see things differently -- as the consumers of this work, we are invested in the story itself. We fall in love with the world the author's imagination reveals or the characters with which he or she peoples it. We develop appreciation for other worlds the author may create and other journeys upon which he or she may lead us. So when we are swept up in a story, we want to complete our journey with it. Surely such a wondrous beginning or wondrous journey must have an equally wondrous end! Surely this great tale to which we have become devoted, this magic spell into which we have been woven, this grand intoxicating story will have a finish as satisfying as it is!
But of course, it might not be. Our readerly satisfaction may not mirror the writer's authorly satisfaction. We may believe the proper ending is for everyone to live happily ever after. Except for the villain, of course, who will be messily but justly dispatched at the end. The author, however, might have something different in mind. The questions we think the author has raised in the story may not be answered, because the author may have an entirely different set of questions and resolutions in mind. Martin's version of this is that he's writing the SoIaF novels, not us, and we don't get to write our own endings.
Again, fair enough, although Martin's own public dissatisfaction with the way the television show Lost ended would seem to suggest that he knows the reader's (or watcher's) side of the contract as well.
Martin has been quite firm that he will continue to work on other projects and he will finish SoIaF when it's finished. He won't rush out substandard work just to get to the finish line. Considering the rate at which some popular authors churn out words just to get the pages into print, that's a refreshing position to hear. The only problem is that the question of "Well, does it really have an end?" has taken on more weight than it would otherwise. SoIaF was to be a trilogy. Then four books. Then the fourth book turned into two books by itself; one published now and the other one to be completed soon. Then a little later. Then a little later. Then, six years later, the second volume of what should have been the fourth book finally hits print (maybe; it's scheduled for July but who knows), coming from a manuscript 1,500 pages long. And there yet remain two more books in the series as Martin now sees it, fifteen years after it began. Even people who believe he does know where he's going with the story can still harbor doubts that he has the discipline to get there, and discipline won't be imposed on him by a publisher that knows the more pieces of paper bearing Martin's name it squeezes between two covers, the more pieces of paper bearing presidential portraits it can remove from SoIaF's devoted fanbase.
SoIaF labors in the long shadow of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (WoT) series, which the New Yorker profile refers to. James Rigney, Jordan's real name, and Martin were friends before the former's death of cardiac amyloidosis in 2007. In 1990, Rigney published The Eye of the World, the first volume of his fantasy series that first aimed to explore what it was like to be a world's savior at the ultimate battle. It too was seen as a three-book series when Rigney first started writing it, back in 1984, but quickly ballooned until it will finish with a full fifteen books (including a prequel) sometime next year. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is doing the actual writing of the final three books based on Rigney's outline, fragments and rough drafts. And, not unexpectedly, what Rigney had said would be the final book in the series, A Memory of Light, will actually be printed as three books instead.
The New Yorker profile recounts a conversation between Martin and a fan who both remark over how cruel people are for being upset that Rigney died with his story unfinished, as though those people were mad at him for getting sick and dying. There probably are some folks who feel that way, but I wonder if there are not plenty more who would point out that WoT wouldn't have outlasted Rigney if he hadn't spent time adapting the 1998 WoT prequel novella New Spring into a full-length novel in 2004, itself the first volume of a projected trilogy. Or the 1997 "reference book" The World of Robert Jordan's the Wheel of Time, with Teresa Patterson. Or that the pace of the story slowed from gripping to adequate to stately to glacial to cosmic as the series progressed. Rigney's illness and death didn't leave the fate of WoT up in the air; by most accounts he worked as hard as his health allowed during his final years. It was his inability to rein in his own story or to get his publisher to do it for him.
When people refer to Martin "pulling a Jordan," I imagine most of them refer to what begins as a great story moving forward ever more slowly until it lurches to "The End" long after its magic has drowned in the bestseller's bloat in which it's been wallowing for years. Rigney's three volumes became fifteen and might have been more if New Spring had sold better when it was released. Martin's three volumes have become -- so far -- seven, so he's just past Rigney's halfway point.
Long stories sometimes take a long time to get finished. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (LotR) started in 1937 but wasn't finished until 1949. Tolkien planned it as a one-volume story combined with The Silmarillion, his "prequel" history of Middle-Earth. But the publishers didn't see a market for The Silmarillion, and realized that wartime paper shortages would make the longer version too expensive, so LotR became three volumes. The Silmarillion wasn't pubilshed until 1977, four years after Tolkien's death. Tolkien's journals and letters from the LotR writing period show quite a bit of frustrated correspondence with readers awaiting news of Frodo's fate. But LotR didn't jump from three books to seven or fifteen, and it would have stayed one longer book if it hadn't faced real-world concerns like the paper shortage. It didn't grind to a halt while its author indulged his "world-building" jones by describing every character's every outfit or constantly introducing new characters and storylines and moving the story forward just barely faster than light escapes from a black hole (trick metaphor there: Light never escapes from a black hole). And Tolkien wrote in longhand to boot.
Like I said, I'm sure that whenever SoIaF finally finishes, I'll check into some online synopsis somewhere to see how it finally wraps up, and see what kind of morose finish Martin creates for his morose world and its people. I'm curious enough to want to see what glum beast does mope into Bethlehem at the long-awaited hour come round at last.
Just not curious enough to mope along with it while we're waiting.