George R.R. Martin and his fans might be the closest thing the book world has to a tabloid couple. One day they’re all over each other, the next they're sending veiled barbs through the media about his poor work ethic and their greedy entitlement.
That was all forgotten this week, in the sort of orgy of forgiveness and gratitude that typically follows a near-breakup.
Martin announced, in a long, painful blog post, that he had missed his deadline for completing the upcoming book in A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series on which the HBO show “Game of Thrones” is based, The Winds of Winter, and that he didn’t know when he’d be able to send it to his publisher.
The author, clearly, had braced himself for a wave of fury from his readers, especially given the circumstances: The publication of the book will now be delayed past the premiere of the upcoming season of “Game of Thrones,” and since this season will draw from The Winds of Winter, readers will likely have some plot points in the new book spoiled by the show itself.
Instead, Martin revealed that he received an outpouring of support. Fans commented on his blog, The Guardian reported, telling him to “take as long as you need to, sir” and “get it done when it’s done.”
The kind reaction, Martin said, “has been astonishing” -- an assessment any casual observer of his turbulent relationship with fans would cosign.
For years, readers have chastised Martin for allowing himself to be seen out of the house when he should be working ceaselessly on his next installment of the series. The frenzy surrounding his delayed book deliveries -- readers worry that he’ll die before finishing the series, or that he won’t get the next book out in time because he went to a show premiere -- has become almost a joke at this point.
It’s nice to see the salivating hordes of “Game of Thrones” fans showing their humanity toward the man who’s brought them so much joy; a little New Year’s miracle.
But let’s get real, it’s not just the fans who are guilty of controlling behavior in this equation. While they’ve been stamping their feet and demanding he get back to writing about the Starks and the Lannisters, Martin has been stamping his feet and demanding that fans get back to not writing about them. That is, Martin has taken readers to task for the crime of writing amateur fan fiction -- repeatedly.
“It's a lazy way to go when you're just taking my characters,” he announced at a panel in Brisbane in 2013. In a LiveJournal post from 2010, he was still firmer: "'My characters are my children,' I have been heard to say. I don't want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children…. No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.”
Writers from Lev Grossman to Elizabeth Minkel have discussed and defended the art of fan fiction, even as powerful authors such as Martin attack it. It’s worth noting that while Martin blasts the artistic laziness of the approach, fan fiction is generally either a recreational art for super-fans, or training wheels for budding artists; even if all aspiring authors started making their own characters as he suggests, that leaves the hordes of fans who simply want to imagine their favorite queens and warriors in new stories.
Nor can the risks to authors be so great when authors such as Martin, J.K. Rowling and even Stephenie Meyer are still doing so well for themselves. Meyer may have the most cause for complaint, yet she herself drew heavily from bland literary tropes to create bland characters hardly recognizable in the renamed, un-vampiric Christian and Anastasia of Fifty Shades of Grey, which technically originated as Twilight fan fiction.
It’s also worth noting that, despite Martin’s argument that fan fiction once designated original fics published in zines, and that “the Internet has changed everything,” perhaps the oldest literary tradition is the borrowing and reuse of characters and narratives. To cite one obvious example, nearly every Shakespearean play drew directly from an existing story. The legalistic possessiveness of fictional characters, however -- that is a relatively modern concept.
The law is on Martin’s side here, especially insofar as profit goes; fan fiction authors can’t write their own versions of The Winds of Winter and publish each for $15.99 a copy. But once he’s published his books, he can’t control what people think about them, and dream about them, and imagine about them. His characters might feel like his children, but by publishing those stories, he’s giving tacit consent to millions of readers to develop close attachments to those characters, as well. Once you let your characters out into the world, they don’t just belong to you anymore.
By the same token, Martin doesn’t belong to his fans. He’s not morally obligated to deliver new books on schedule, and as readers seem to have realized with this latest kerfuffle, this pressure cooker isn’t conducive to turning out a high-quality read, either. He’s a creative, not a manufacturer on a deadline, and his readers may want both speed and quality, but they can’t dictate either.
The Internet may have created one problem for Martin: with so many lines of direct communication to and among his fans, it's harder than ever to simply ignore the fan fiction and art of his work, the critiques of his pace, and the fevered theorizing about the series.
Martin may not want to hear this, of course, but fan fiction may be his best friend during these prolonged, beleaguered waits. Nothing takes the edge off the wait for a new installment like a good fan-fic binge, or getting caught up in your own fantasy of what might come next for Westeros. It’s no replacement for The Winds of Winter, but it keeps readers thinking and talking about the books while they wait -- and hopefully talking about something other than how livid they are to have seen Martin out at a convention when they want him to be finishing a draft.
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for George R. R. Martin and his fans alike: take a deep, deep breath, and set each other free. I promise, you’ll all be happier in the end.
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