|George R.R. Martin|
George RR Martin: when writers just can't finish their books
The Game of Thrones creator still hasn’t finished the sixth book in A Song of Ice and Fire – placing him in a long tradition of writers, from Chaucer to Dickens
Tuesday 5 January 2016 17.55 GMT
hen George RR Martin announced this weekend that he still hadn’t finished the sixth book in A Song of Ice and Fire, the reaction took two broad themes. One, as we chronicled here, saw fans of the books being broadly supportive of his slowness and evident agony over the same. The competing attitude was more usually subtly expressed, surfacing in aggregated news stories that observed that Martin might become “less relevant” to the series if he did not catch up to the television show soon.
Get off the pot, old man, went the not-so-subtle subtext of such stories. His problem to them seems unfathomable. The man now has all the money and time in the world, and yet he can’t be bothered to produce this book? To them, the statistics speak for themselves. “In the four years from 1996 to 2000 he published three books; in the 15 years since he’s published part of one,” wrote Tim Marchman at Deadspin, in a piece published a few days before Martin’s admission. Plainly, this line of thinking held, Martin is physically and intellectually capable of producing faster. Does he ever plan on finishing the thing, before he dies?
Well, the muse doesn’t quite work like that, most writers would cluck. In fact, Martin is just another in a long and sometimes highly literary line of authors who have conceived grand projects and ultimately can’t finish their work. Both Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are, for example, technically unfinished. Those two examples would suggest, actually, that leaving a grand-scale creative project unfinished at your death is actually a mark of greatness. Not that Martin is dead yet.
Things get worse when your fame is not posthumous, of course. Dickens – the literary patriarch of popular serials – was lucky that he could crank out copy for most of his life without suffering writers’ block. (The one exception was Dombey and Son, but there his interruptions were all of a personal nature, the endless illnesses of his extended family.) Dickens always preferred to neglect his family rather than his fans, as you’ll learn from just about any book on him published after about 1935.
Still, he died mid-novel, just a few months after beginning to publish The Mystery of Edwin Drood in serial in 1870. At the time of his death, Dickens had completed more installations than he’d published, but not yet the entire series. As a result we don’t actually know who the killer is in Drood, having only speculation and guesses. Thus followed a century of devoted fans guessing the answer for various stagings and BBC television productions.
So obsessed were some prominent Dickens fans with the outcome of Drood that in 1914, the Dickens Fellowship staged a full mock trial of one of the suspects. (Mindful of spoilers, I shall not here reveal the name of the defendant or the outcome of the trial.) GK Chesterton acted as judge, and George Bernard Shaw as foreman of a jury of fellow writers that included the likes of Hilaire Belloc. Yet none of this cultural ephemera threatened to eclipse Dickens’ involvement in the story, nor make him “less relevant” to it in the first place.
Granted, Martin has made things more complicated for himself by handing the stories over to HBO, creating a competing cultural product in a time when far more people probably watch prestige television than read books. (Though one longs for a study about that, actually.) That said, the existence of an energetic Dickens fandom, one which long before the era of snarky users of internet message boards found speculating about his books delightful, suggests that authors are always running against a couple of pressures: mortality being one, but the appetite of loyal readers another, an appetite which can grow so all-consuming
But perhaps reasonable people can disagree over the appropriateness of comparing Martin to Dickens. A closer analogue might be the case of Robert Jordan, a former military man from North Carolina who wrote a series of bestselling fantasy novels, inflected by the author’s personal interest in ancient history, called The Wheel of Time. (I haven’t read them so shan’t attempt to summarize with any authority, but suffice to say there seems to be lots of Dark Forces and channeling involved. And a large wheel.)
Whatever their merits, these books were at the top of the lists all through the 1990s and have a devoted following. Yet Jordan, like Martin, saw his project spiral out of control, from a six-book original plan to a 12-book actual one. When he tried to take time out from the project to do other things, online fan communities bristled about it. Then, as he was working on the 12th book, in 2006, he was diagnosed with cancer and died within months. He had assured his fans, though, that he was leaving plot-prescribing notes so that the books could be finished by someone else. His widow chose a young novelist named Brandon Sanderson to write the books.
Sanderson was chosen in part because he was a big fan. “I’ll be perfectly honest: when I heard the news [of his death], my first thought was of the big loss of someone extraordinary,” Sanderson told the LA Times back in 2008. “My second thought was … he was working on the last book, would we ever get to see it?” In the world of fantasy and science fiction, heavily reliant on serialized work, this was seen as a heavy responsibility, of course. But they were still greeted (Sanderson published the last book in three instalments, ending in 2013) as the work of Robert Jordan.
Martin may, as such, take succor. David Benioff and DB Weiss, the producers of the television show, may be ahead of him, story-wise. But those characters and events will always be his.