Thursday, January 18, 2018

An Author's Obligation to Readers?

With the TV series GAME OF THRONES having outrun the books on which it's based, there have been speculations that George R. R. Martin may never finish the "Song of Ice and Fire" multi-volume epic. On the other hand, in July 1917 Martin assured the public that he's actively working on WINDS OF WINTER, which might even be released sometime in 2018. (We've heard that sort of claim before, haven't we? :) ) I'm reminded of Neil Gaiman's well-known blog post admonishing fans that George Martin does not work for us:

Entitlement Issues

Gaiman maintains that writing the first book in a series does not constitute a "contract" on the part of the author to write sequels, much less finish the series. He justifiably points out that writers, even bestselling ones, aren't "machines" and have a right to private lives. And I have to concede that readers aren't "entitled" to any and all books they want to read. Still, I don't completely agree with Gaiman's position.

I'm not talking about open-ended series—for example, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover universe and most detective series. These could in theory go on forever, if the author were immortal or, as with Bradley, Tom Clancy, and many others, bequeathed his or her fictional universe to literary heirs. A series like this doesn't tell a single, unified narrative building toward a conclusion without which it would be incomplete. (It's worth mentioning, however, that in her prime Agatha Christie thoughtfully wrote "final case" novels for both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, to be published after Christie's death.) Works along the line of Stephen King's Dark Tower epic, Gabaldon's Outlander series, and, yes, "A Song of Ice and Fire" do fit the second pattern.

Not that I condone harassing an author about not writing fast enough. Some fans apparently complained when Diana Gabaldon published novellas and novels in the Outlander spinoff series featuring Lord John Grey, on the grounds that she should have been working on the next mainline Outlander book instead! Gabaldon patiently explained that her process doesn't function that way, and the Lord John stories had no effect on the progress of the "big novels." I do believe, however, that when an author starts a series that comprises a unified story, he or she makes an implicit promise to finish the story. A multi-volume narrative, in that sense, is no different in principle from the serialized novels popular in the nineteenth century. While public nagging and angry demands are unacceptable, there's nothing wrong with what we might call "reasonable expectations."

Speaking of which, while I don't begrudge J. K. Rowling THE CASUAL VACANCY and the mystery novels, what happened to that Harry Potter encyclopedia she as good as promised us? She even forced a fan project to shut down because she intended to produce such a guide. All we've gotten, so far, is Pottermore, a flashy website that delivers world and character background material in sporadic chunks and seems more geared to interactivity than information. No, writers don't work for readers, but we can legitimately feel disappointed when we get "teased" with promised books that never materialize. While Gabaldon (for example) goes a long time between release dates of her "big novels," she transparently keeps readers updated about the current work in progress to forestall cries of "when will it be out?"

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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