The perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series
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In the months and years leading up to the publication of A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series, Martin kept contact with his fans via a LiveJournal account. In his “Not A Blog” blog, Martin would announce upcoming events, offer spirited commentary on the current football season, and, occasionally, let people know how the book was going. His readers were eager for news. The first ASOIAF novel, A Game Of Thrones, was published in 1996, with subsequent volumes A Clash Of Kings and A Storm Of Swords hitting stores in every two years. But it was five years after Swords before A Feast For Crows, the series’ fourth entry, was released. The wait was frustrating enough for fans, but Crows was also a compromised novel, in many ways more of a stop-gap measure than a satisfying narrative, full of well-crafted but seemingly irrelevant plot threads that failed to deliver the same thrills as the series’ first three books.
Of course, A Song Of Ice And Fire isn’t over yet, and there’s every chance that Martin will pull everything together. Dragons showed some signs of just that, and while it’s in many ways as frustrating as Crows, it at least offers the hope of moving toward the long-awaited resolution. But that raises another problem: the waiting. It took Martin six years after Crows to finish Dragons, and while he’s on the downhill side of the series, there are still at least two books left to write before the story comes to an end. Hopefully, those final novels will take less time to write than the previous two, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to come to the final chapter of Dragons (which ends in a cliffhanger, naturally), and realize it’s going to be a long, long time before the other shoe drops.
Not every Martin reader has taken this delayed gratification with patience and goodwill. In fact, the response has been so negative at times that it prompted Neil Gaiman to write an essay stating explicitly, in case anyone had any doubts to the matter, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” arguing that “Writers and artists aren’t machines,” and an author’s obligation to the reader ends with the finished book. Martin’s harshest detractor-fans would post routinely in the comments of his online journal and on message boards any time Martin made mention of doing something, anything, that wasn’t directly related to finishing the book. Gaiman’s post (in response to an email to his site about Martin’s lack of updates) may have helped mollify the enraged, and the publication of Dragons even more so, but the controversy raises some interesting questions about fandom, authorial obligation, and the perils of long-form narrative.
While Martin is still in control of his story, it’s hard to deny that the series has ballooned beyond his initial plans. (ASOIAF was originally planned as trilogy; Martin now projects seven volumes total.) He wouldn’t be the first writer to get lost inside his work. The Eye Of The World, the first book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time series, starts off as an obvious Tolkien pastiche, but Jordan’s intricate world-building and central concept, of a hero destined to destroy the world in order to save it, were impressive enough to attract numerous readers. As the series went on, it developed its own distinct perspective and there were few complaints when, after the third book, The Dragon Reborn, it was clear that what had been pitched as a trilogy was going to end up significantly longer. At least at first. Then six books became seven books became eight books, with no clear end in sight, and the natives grew restless.
To be fair, they had some reason to be restless. While WOT was never as innovative as ASOIAF, the series was exciting and smart about genre conventions, and, most importantly, it had momentum and the clear sense that it was going somewhere. That clear sense started to fade in later books, as the narrative was bogged down by needlessly complicated subplots and story arcs that looped into cul-de-sacs. When Jordan died in 2007, Wheel Of Time had expanded to 11 books and remained unfinished. Jordan’s family chose fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to complete the narrative working from Jordan’s notes and other writings, but the task was so immense that Sanderson had to split an intended single volume into three additional books. As a compromise, it’s worked reasonably well, but that doesn’t change the sad fact that the man who started the journey won’t be around to see it through to its conclusion.
Long-form fantasy series (and long-form storytelling in any genre, be it prose or film or television) aren’t easy to do well, but writers keep trying, and audiences keep buying, despite the almost inevitable disappointment these series bring. The appeal isn’t hard to understand. Even with the knowledge that book Z will probably be inferior to book A, the chance to invest in characters and a world over a long period of time remains appealing. Movie sequels and remakes can always attract ticket-buyers because they offer something simple: the promise of being able to see what we liked again for the first time, a chance to re-experience the same feelings we had watching the previous film, only in a different-enough context that those feelings have an illusion of freshness. (Whether or not the movies actually deliver on this promise is another issue entirely.) A series of books or a multi-season television show with a continuous plotline does this one better, by creating an illusion of persistence. Characters grow and change, and the universe they live in remains existent in the reader or viewer’s mind, with periodic updates from the creator to keep that image fresh.
This gets tricky when we, as the audience, start to have a personal investment the series. Books are intimate, requiring a one-on-one relationship that lasts for hours or days, and the longer that relationship goes on, the more difficult it becomes to accept that it’s one sided. One year for a Christmas present, my parents gave me the first three books in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I read them fast and wanted more, but since this was 1992, it’d be another five years before the next book in the series, Wizard & Glass, came out. I waited, bought the next book, read it fast, and wanted more. But in 2003, when Stephen King announced he was doing the final push of the series, my interest had faded. Wolves Of The Calla didn’t grab me, nor did Song Of Susannah, and while the last book, The Dark Tower, somewhat redeemed the series for me, I was still frustrated and disappointed. King had had such a vital, great idea in those first few books. When he got off track with it, when he wasted time on irrelevant plots and the random ephemera that served to heighten rather than shore up the fiction’s absurdity, it... offended me, somehow. Clunky writing always gets on my nerves, but this was different. This was personal. I cared about these people, and King was just jerking them around. Why would he do that? Why would he let me down?
The more we care about fiction, the easier it is to lose perspective when we feel the artists fail to live up to our expectations. Was the second half of the Dark Tower series not all that great? Sure, but given the way he started the story, King finished it the only way he could. Looking back, it’s easy to see the warning signs even in the first few books. King has never been great at creating consistent mythologies, or building to a strong conclusion over long periods of time, so the fumbles in Calla and Susannah were almost certainly inevitable from the start. I’ve accepted those failings in the past, but here, because of the length of time I spent invested in the Mid-World and End-World and the last great bastard, Roland Deschain, it was as if I’d wasted years—or worse, as if King had stolen from me by making offers he couldn’t possibly see through. It’s hard not to get upset about that, much like it was hard for me not to feel cheated when J.K. Rowling brought her seven-book epic to conclusion with the muddled, often inert Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. Much like it was hard for many fans not to get outraged when the final season of Lost didn’t answer their questions.
Over the course of a series that generally works, it becomes easy to assume flaws are part of the plan, that every clumsy exchange or incongruity will eventually work itself out in the pages ahead. This puts pressure on the conclusion. Narratives are designed to build toward an ending, and the longer they run, the bigger the build becomes; as much as it’s possible to enjoy each moment as it passes, these stories run in part on the engine of needing to know what happens next. That puts even more pressure on the conclusion. And when you have something that’s been going on for a while, the pressure becomes particularly intense. The longer a series runs, the more stacked the expectations and pressures become, and the more intimate it feels, a sort of long-distance love affair of avowed commitment and mutual assumption. We need a conclusion that will reinforce our notion of that shared reality, one that holds up to scrutiny, closes off the loose threads, delivers on whatever promises have been made, and turns a fragment into something complete.
This is nearly impossible. One of the ways the writers of long series try to reassure readers that it will all work out in the end is by telling everyone, “I already know how this ends.” This is supposed to make it seem like all those weird tangents and story loops are on purpose, because, yes, somebody does know where all this is going. Except stories are tricky. They develop as much in the act of being written as they do in the planning. With a standalone, that’s not a problem; the writer can do a rough draft, work out the problems, and then publish once he or she is ready. But by publishing each entry in his series separately, before the others are complete, George R.R. Martin is, in a sense, putting out a rough draft for the public. That makes it impossible for him to go back and fix anything. None of the books in the series are obviously clunky or in need of polish, but the events in them are now effectively set in stone. So if Martin runs afoul of a plot snag, he can’t simply push through it and come back later to make everything fit together properly. He has to stop and make it work then and there, and with each successive entry in the series, that means more story to keep consistent, more iron words that can’t be reshaped. I’m sure he has an ending in mind, but who knows if it’s the same ending he had in mind 15 years ago. And if it is, can he really ensure that it’s sufficient after everything else?
The only solution for readers is to appreciate what we get when we get it, but that’s just as impossible as Martin somehow satisfying all his fans without writing a book specifically tailored to each one of them. Neil Gaiman was right to remind everyone that writers aren’t machines; the amount of work Martin, or any other artist, can put out isn’t a simple equation of time and intention, and trying to force the issue through rudeness isn’t going to change that simple fact. Really, at this point we should just be preparing ourselves for the letdown any finale will bring. Even if Martin sticks the landing, even if he manages to deliver exactly as promised, it won’t be enough. The great paradox of the long-running fantasy is that we can’t wait for a conclusion, but we never want it to end.