Fantasy in real life

To set the stage, I bike to work all winter long. Here in the frozen northeast, that isn’t always the best idea, especially if, like most office workers, your office isn’t particularly accommodating to bicycle commuting.

Luckily, my bike-savvy employers have an indoor bike storage room that lets me ride in the winter without having to worry about lurking precipitation. Unluckily for the janitorial staff, they put the bike storage in the janitors’ break room.

So there I was, putting my bike away yesterday morning, cursing my frozen fingers and life in general, when I notice that one of the janitorial staff had left their morning coffee on the table next to a dog-eared  and well-loved copy of A Feast for Crows, the fourth novel in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series that began all the way back in 1996 with A Game of Thrones.

Just the sight of this novel in a very unexpected place was enough to both cheer me up in the middle of the seasonal winter gloom and remind me of the frustrating fact that it has been five years since Crows was published.

First, the cheering, then the jeering.

Seeing this book on the desk of a lowly civil servant really cemented for me a trend that I’ve seen talked about for a while: fantasy is cool! (side-revelation: the difference between internet knowledge of a trend and real-world evidence is wide. Like canyon-wide.) Between celebrities playing World of Warcraft (or even Dungeons & Dragons) and vampires taking over the world, fantasy is reaching huge new heights of popularity.

This makes me happy, as nearly every story I have in the pipeline is fantasy, with one major exception (and that one still feels like fantasy even though we’re trying very hard to keep it plausible (yes, ‘we’! I have a coauthor!)).

On top of that, and in spite of how some people will interpret my rant below, I very much love this series. It came out when I was sixteen and quickly souring on fantastic literature of all types, jaded nitwit that I was. And it is no exaggeration to claim that George Martin and his series (A Song of Ice and Fire or ASOIAF to aficionados) helped me stick with the genres for the rest of high school and on into college. I have since managed to stealthily hook a couple of friends by slipping them my copy of Game with a hushed “Read it now, thank me later.”

Now, for the jeering. Sadly, seeing the most recent book in Martin’s epic brought up some unpleasant thoughts about writing and writers.

In February of 2009, Martin posted his first update about the the sequel to CrowsA Dance with Dragons, still unfinished today–on his website in over a year. Somewhat to his surprise, an internet firestorm arose over the idea that maybe he wasn’t writing enough. (I haven’t read every word that was written on the subject, and the internets being the internets, no doubt people were assholes to him in the comments. I know, weird, right? Cue larger discussion to be filed under “Anonymity, Problems with”) This was in addition to the regular questioning on the book he got at every appearance he made. Bloggers attacked and defended and many professional writers weighed in that Martin wasn’t a machine, dammit, he’s a human being and humans can’t write forever because you fans demand it.

I understood what they were saying to be:

1) Even when you love what you’re doing, you can’t do that every minute of every day and retain that level of love and enthusiasm and inspiration. Writers need to step back and reset their brains from time to time.

and

2) Writers cannot and should not let fans dictate what they do and how they spend their time and as a corollary, blogs are a tool for writers to share with their fans, not a method for fans to pester writers

Like I said, I understand these arguments, I agree that in a vacuum they are reasonable and just, and I respect Martin’s choices insofar as how he spends his time and what he puts on his blog. But I have absolutely no sympathy for the man when he’s dealing with his fans.

1) Martin is clearly working every day, judging by the way that he updates his blog (which is, incidentally, the only evidence we fans have) with non-Dragons projects quite frequently. This single book has taken half as long to write as the first three. If something is wrong, he should own up to it. Writers get blocked, sometimes for years, and fans understand. If he’s up front about it, and the fans give him shit, then he’s clearly on the right side of things. However, if he’s not blocked, then we fans are forced to conclude he’s just not working on the book as much as he should.

Which brings me to:

2) Yes, I said ‘should’. As an aspiring writer, I reserve the right to tell annoying or disrespectful fans–should I be lucky enough to get fans someday–to fuck off when they deserve it. That’s pretty basic. I also think authors should be free to blog about whatever the hell they want to blog about (and I enjoy a Scalzi cat picture as much as the next internet nerd). But these fans are people who–right or wrong–have a lot wrapped up in this book and have been, by all accounts, inhumanly patient. Every time Martin writes about the New York Jets or his miniatures or even the very-much-anticipated-by-me Game of Thrones TV series, it’s like a poke in the eye–irritating, mildly painful and rage-provoking.

I agree with Martin’s defenders that he should be free to write on his own schedule. However, when that schedule is nonexistent or irrelevant and the author in question persists in activity that ignores or marginalizes his fanbase, then his behavior comes across as unprofessional eye-pokery and, it’s perfectly natural for said fanbase to get upset. And, in fact, to vent their frustration in Martin’s general direction. You dance with the girl that brung you, Georgie, and when your fame and your leisure and your prominence are subsidized by fans salivating for Dragons, then you should damn well write Dragons.

From a fan’s perspective, am I going to stop waiting for the book? No. Am I going to not read it when it comes out? Again, no. Will I eventually hand Martin some of my hard-earned money? Yes. I probably won’t buy it in hardcover and I probably won’t be very forgiving of the minor issues I gladly overlooked in Crows, but I will almost certainly buy it eventually.

In the link above (way above), John Scalzi asked:

do you want the book now, or do you want the book that GRRM is happy with?

And I think the overwhelming answer to that question is “ooh, the second one, please!!11!!” For this fan, it isn’t about how long it’s actually taken for this book to get written, it’s simply about the total mishandling of the delay by the author. Which largely is the reason for fans’ animosity. Which then led to Martin getting upset. Which no doubt affected his writing for the worse. Ad infinitum.

Scalzi again:

what authors owe their readers is that when their book comes out, it is, in the estimation of the author, as good as the author can make it. Everything else — how much time it takes, what else the author is doing with his time, so on and so forth — is neither here nor there.

He’s right. But it’s in the “everything else” that the relationship between an author and his fans exists. If you go to lengths to cultivate that relationship, then leaving it to wither on the vine while you tend to other things makes you a jerk.

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5 Points Book Review: Shutter Island

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

1. One-Sentence Sentence: In 1954, US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule head to an isolated, creepy-as-hell mental institution secreted among Boston’s Harbor Islands to recapture an escaped patient (who also happens to be a murderer), but are unprepared for recalcitrant staff, mysterious happenings, unexplained disappearances and one hell of a hurricane.

2. Op-Ed: After seeing the preview for the new movie embedded in the Martin Scorsese retrospective at the Golden Globes (I was watching them ironically, honest), I noticed a wayward copy of Shutter Island cluttering up the shelf of the waiting area at my office. Knowing that I had a two-day business trip in my future, I happily “borrowed” it. There’s just something about mystery/thriller/crime novels that seems perfect for “stuck-on-the-tarmac-while-de-icing-the-plane”.

Needless to say, Island fit the bill for business travel. It’s a fast read, tightly paced, cleverly plotted and devilishly intricate without sacrificing characters, atmosphere or dialogue in the process. Color me impressed. It also served as my first taste of Lehane. Rest assured, dear reader, it won’t be my last.

3. Thumbs Up: Atmosphere! Rule #1 for suspense fiction is that it has to be suspenseful! Lehane hits it out of the park. The titular island is creepy, isolated, intimately tied to Marshal Teddy Daniels’ past and present and “more than it seems”.

Also, character! Teddy is damaged goods, that’s clear, but he is never beyond sympathy. He’s just a cop who’s there to do a job.

Dialogue! Right from the beginning, the banter between Teddy and Chuck is pitch-perfect and their two-normal-guys-confronting-really-abnormal-circumstances relationship plays out to the very end. The setting is bleak and claustrophobic without feeling overly manufactured.

On an even broader note, I very much enjoyed both the Boston setting (which is near and dear to my heart) and the amount of research into mid-century psychiatry (which isn’t, but is fascinating nonetheless).

4. Thumbs Down: Not too much, though slight bits  of the plot lose their believability when seen through the post-twist lens at the end (the prologue in particular). At the same time, certain elements that seem contrived and a-little-too-convenient are actually brilliantly explained, so there’s that.

*Spoiler Alert, maybe*

Maybe it’s more of a personal flaw than a critique of the book, but I really liked where things were going pre-twist. And even though the twist is more than satisfactory, the hinted-at world pre-twist was intriguingly dark and sinister.

5. Recommendation:By all means, read it before you see the movie!

-4 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”