Columns > Published on July 9th, 2012

What Do The Authors Of Serialized Works Owe To Their Fans?

Just recently I finished the fifth book from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. (5,000+ pages in two months. Where's my medal?) After putting down A Dance with Dragons I was overtaken by feelings of malaise and depression.

So many questions demanding answers. So many dangling plots! And answers will be a long time coming. There are still two books in the series forthcoming. Thus far, the first five books took George R.R. Martin 16 years to write. A Dance with Dragons came out last year. I am not holding my breath. 

Right after finishing the fifth book, I stumbled upon this: A music video by Geek and Sundry for a song titled Write Like the Wind (George R. R. Martin). In said video, these fans of the series beg that Martin finish the last two books as soon as possible, being sure to point out that the 63-year-old writer is old and could die before he has a chance to finish. 

[video:http://youtu.be/j7lp3RhzfgI]

Wait, what?

This video really bugs me. I mean, really guys? That's how you want to encourage Martin to write more? To remind him that he's old and is going to die? 

The band tries to walk it back, singing: You're not our bitch and you're not a machine and we don't mean to dictate how you spend your days...

And then they ruin that sentiment in the very next verse: But please bear in mind in the time that you've had William Shakespeare churned out 35 friggin' plays.

I get that this was probably done in good fun, but it strikes me as selfish and condescending. But hey, that's me. So I figured I'd bring it here and we can talk about it. Because it's an interesting discussion, I think: What does an author of a serialized work owe his or her fans?

When fans breathe life into the characters, is there some level of ownership there? How far does the ownership go? And why does it seem to morph so quickly into hate?

Who owns the characters?

It must be nice, to write something so beloved that people wait for the next installment with breathless anticipation. Something that people speculate about and create theories for. Something with a massive cultural impact. My hat is off to Martin. It's a well-deserved honor. 

But what is it that makes this story resonate so strongly? Certainly it's well-written. It's exciting (when the narrative is focused on anything but the Iron Islands). It speaks to universal truths, about power and wealth and religion. But that's not really it.

I think the thing that makes this resonate strongly--that makes any work like this resonate strongly--is that the reader can empathize with the characters. 

We care about Jon and Daenerys and Tyrion. There are things about them we can identify with--feelings of alienation and persecution. Inadequacy and rejection. Ultimately, triumph (we hope it for them, just as we hope it for ourselves). They are characters on which the reader can project, and reflect.

But would those characters be as powerful if removed from their cultural impact? There's something here that smacks of that old adage: If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one around, will it make a sound? Martin built them, but the fans give them life by reading them (and by supporting Martin so he can keep writing).  

When fans breathe life into the characters, is there some level of ownership there? How far does the ownership go?

And why does it seem to morph so quickly into hate?

Can't we all just get along? 

The level of vitriol toward Martin on the interwebz can get pretty scary. I found this forum, which predates A Dance with Dragons, in which fans talk about whether Martin will finish. Here's one of the comments from the thread: 

George R. R. Martin has consistently said that if he dies, we're fucked--he has never written down anything about how he wants this series to go or end. My guess is that's because he has no fucking clue how he wants this series to go or end, and he's just winging it at this point.

Every time he posts something about the New York Giants on his LJ I want to comment "FINISH YOUR FUCKING BOOK!" but I'm just too damned nice. I've been reading this series since I was 18. I am now 31. At this point I just hope he finishes it before I die.

A little intense, no? Sadly, it's representative of a lot of the comments I read, both there and elsewhere (some were nicer, some not so much). 

Martin took to his blog on Feb. 19, 2009, to address some of the vicious e-mails he had been getting from fans: 

After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don't want me to "pull a Robert Jordan" on you and deny you your book.

Okay, I've got the message. You don't want me doing anything except A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. Ever. (Well, maybe it's okay if I take a leak once in a while?)

Robert Jordan, of course, being the pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr., who died before he could complete his Wheel of Time series (another instance where fans were pissed off to no end, that the author wasn't delivering books fast enough). 

Neil Gaiman even came to Martin's defense, writing a great blog post addressing this in response to a fan who felt "let down" by Martin for not writing his books faster (and given the use of the word bitch and machine in the video, I'm sure Geek and Sundry read Gaiman's post too). Here's an excerpt: 

You're complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you.

No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren't coming out on time.

Gaiman contends there's no contract. So when I went to Amazon and bought the first five books, that's what I was paying for--it wasn't a voucher for two more installments. And I'm inclined to agree with Gaiman on that. 

And as a writer, it makes me sad and angry to see Martin take so much flak. I have to wonder what it says about our culture. I think we're spoiled, is the problem.

So maybe there isn't a contract. But could there be an understanding? I think it's fair to say that we have an understanding, George and I, that I will buy his books and sing his praises and hope to be rewarded with two more books and a satisfying conclusion (which of course would be Hodor on the Iron Throne).

Though, I'm not going to get angry at him. I'll even wish him a long and happy life, whether he keeps writing the books or not. As a writer I sympathize. Not that I know how it feels, to write a series of such acclaim and importance, but I can imagine if I close my eyes and wish really hard. 

Writing is important but there are other things that are important too. Sometimes the writing has to wait. If Martin has to go take a leak, who is anyone to deny him? 

And as a writer, it makes me sad and angry to see Martin take so much flak. I have to wonder what it says about our culture. I think we're spoiled, is the problem. 

The NOW Generation

We live in a glorious era where massive amounts of entertainment are available through the series of tubes we call the internet. But that easy access has made people selfish. 

Game of Thrones is one of the most pirated shows on the internet, and people try to beg off the fact that they're stealing it by bemoaning HBO's distribution method, and why should they be forced to wait weeks to see it legally? (It's a funny argument because of how loaded down with bullshit it is--if you're in a deli and you're hungry it's not your right to take a candy bar without paying.) 

And yet, people get all worked up and cry and moan that they can't watch Game of Thrones and they steal it anyway. Because that feeling, be it the ownership or the understanding or just selfishness, is enough for them to break the law to get their fix (and yes, pirating is breaking the law--people forget that, given how easy it is). 

Does the anger stem from the fact that we've been trained to expect things delivered to us quickly? Have lightning-fast downloads ruined us? In the future, are series' authors going to be expected to push out their books on a yearly or semi-yearly basis, just to keep their fans from rioting?

Your turn

I have just talked a lot. I'm surprised you're still here! While I used Martin as an example, it's only because I just finished the books, and then saw that video. But there's plenty of other examples, like the aforementioned Wheel of Time series. There was also the concern after Stephen King was hit by a van, that he wouldn't finish The Dark Tower series. 

Then there's a whole other conversation to be had about whether other authors should take over characters after the creators have died, like Brandon Sanderson did on the Wheel of Time series, or Robert Goldsborough on Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Or Max Allan Collins, who told us about completing Mickey Spillane's lost Mike Hammer novel.

So, there's plenty to discuss, but let's start with: As a reader, how do you feel? 

Is there a contract, or an understanding, or something else? Do you think readers have the right to be upset? Am I being too touchy about the above video? Do you think we've been spoiled?

Ultimately, what do the authors of serialized work owe to their fans? 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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