Writer Responsibility

So a friend said to me, on Friday, that he was done with George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series.  The reason he gave was that Martin isn’t fair to his readers.  (My words – I could have the sentiment wrong.)  That is an interesting statement that I’d like to explore.  Partly because I responded flippantly to its utterance.

The first idea to look at is if there is a contract (social not legal) between an author and the readers.  That is pretty tricky.  Mostly I’d say there isn’t, but there is a little.  Writing is mostly a solitary pursuit.  An author writes and, perhaps, a reader reads.  The two actions are separate and inherently different.  From what I’ve read a writer generally has an exemplar reader in mind when they create.  It might be themselves – writing a book they’d like to read.  It might be a family member or a friend.  It might be no one in particular, but just an imaginary person who they think wold enjoy the work.  But what it isn’t is the reader.  And for good fiction it isn’t a type of reader either.  Writing for a type of person produces marketing not literature.  Or maybe Micheal Bay movies.  So I’d say that certainly the author has not betrayed you if you are dissatisfied with their work.

But, what about writing within a genre?  Genres have rules much like a haiku has rules.  If you break them what you have produced is not longer a haiku.  Even more to the point within a series the writer has created an expectation that what comes after will resemble what comes before.

Of course the strictures of genre fiction aren’t nearly as inflexible as the structure of a haiku.  It is said that there are only a few master plots. (I’ve heard as few as two – Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk – to a number around 20.)  Within those limitations it is how an author build character and mood, or uses suspense and style that makes one book different from another.

Now there is a reason why within a genre there are rules.  The most popular and successful works within the genre adhere pretty closely to those rules.  For instance, the differences between Harry Potter and The Once and Future King are pretty vast, but there are a lot of similarities too.  Breaking from them might be satisfying to an author but will usually end up alienating many of the readers.

On the other hand, it is the tweaking of those conventions that some readers look for.  Ever wonder why movie critics dislike most of the good movies?  They’ve seen it before because they’ve seen a million movies.  They either go back to the source of an idea – an idea that may seem raw and unsophisticated now – or they laud what is different because it is different.

Readers grow the same way.  Using the word growth is misleading here – maybe change is better.  Certainly within fantasy I am most intrigued by what is different – Stephenson, Mieville and Martin rank at the top of my must read list, because, in large part, I’m not sure what to expect next from them.  Of course neither a reader nor an author should thus expect to enjoy everything they encounter.  And if an author is playing fair with their readers they will announce fairly early on that this work will be circumventing certain conventions.

Which comes to a third way the author could betray the reader.  They could cause the reader to think they are delivering one thing and instead deliver another.  I felt this way about the latest Dresden novel.  I thought I was promised a murder mystery, but that was only a sideline and instead there was a novel about coming to terms with guilt.  I read a post lately by an author, Daniel Abraham, who felt exactly that sort of betrayal from Stephenson.  Let me find it: here.

I’d certainly say that if you encounter that it would seem to be a betrayal of the relationship between the reader and the writer.  I’ve read Cryptonomicon and didn’t have that same issue, but I can certainly see Abraham’s point.

Then there is one final way to look at it.  Maybe a person just doesn’t like it.  Maybe, as Martin’s books do, they spend an inordinate amount of time in showing the actions and motivations of cruel and evil people.  Maybe, the book seems to relish in the suffering of its characters.  I can relate to that – I can’t watch reality tv for exactly that reason – it seems to be like watching a car wreck.  But in fiction I feel the opposite.  My favorite genre would be film noir which pretty much always ends in a tragedy that the protagonist brings about on themselves.  And that same criticism could certainly be leveled at Martin and be very hard to defend.

Here the betrayal isn’t dishonest – the book might be doing what it says it will on the cover, but the betrayal is still felt since the reader leaves the experience feeling – hmm violated is too strong a word, but I can’t think of another, so just dial violated down do a less extreme meaning.

In the end, what it comes down to is that you shouldn’t feel pressured to like something just because others do.  Hmm, no that is a lousy in the end.  Scrub that.  Try this:

The relationship between a reader and a book is between the words on the page and the way they influence the reader, but it isn’t between the reader and the writer.  There are lots of reasons to dislike a book.  It could be badly written.  It could be morally offensive.  Or it might just nor be your thing.  My high school english teacher used to tell us that we weren’t allowed to say that a piece of classic literature sucked.  The novel/play/whatever had been proven throughout the generations.  That may be true, but that still doesn’t mean that I need to like it.

And Martin is fair from writing the next War and Peace or Hamlet.

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4 thoughts on “Writer Responsibility

  1. Adam says:

    I would argue that in some ways Martin is unfair to his readers and he did break a huge promise. At the end of book 4 of his series, there is a letter from Martin saying that he hoped to have book 5 out in the next year. Book 5 didn’t come out for another 6 years, at one point he hadn’t updated his website page talking about the book for over 3 years. He is planning on his series having 2 more books. I’ll probably read these books when they’re released, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for the books.

    As for your teacher saying you can’t say a piece of classic literature sucked, you cannot be wrong in your opinion. For example, I absolutely hated Slaughterhouse Five, which is a “classic” that has been lauded for years. I understand that many people over time have enjoyed the book, and many people consider it a great piece of fiction, but I reserve the right to say that I thought it was garbage.

    • I was avoiding talking about lateness. I think it is a different kind of betrayal than content.

      But you are correct. Saying the book was half done and that it was only a year away was unfair. I do get the impression though that GRRM was being dishonest with himself as much as his fans and publisher.

      Specific to that, I think that GRRM is most interested in the politics of his books and the wars and not so much in the magical threat. A lot of the vibrancy went out when the war of the five kings ended. You could see it pick up again with the new Westeros invasion in book 5.

      But if he has lost interest, we might wait forever for it to finish.

      Sigh.

      But Slaughterhouse Five is excellent. I prefer Cat’s Cradle for Vonnegut’s writing. But I can also understand why it might be loathed.

  2. Craig says:

    There is the classic Niel Gaiman GRRM is not your bitch post http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html

    Specifically to GRRM I do think that he should have ceased with 5 years of “I’m almost done” and said it would be done when its done. I don’t think that an authors ‘owes’ his readers anything but I do think that they should be honest with the readers regarding their works. Those works are the reason that the authors are making in money (and are given advances).

    In most of my English classes it was an unspoken rule that the classics couldn’t be disliked but the Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 200 year old harlequin romance novel.

    • That is the tack GRRM is taking now. There are no promises about book six. I’m sure he regrets the afterword in four…

      Never read hunchback. We read Les Miserables in French for our Hugo quotient. Toughest thing I’ve ever read. Couldn’t say if it is good or bad because it was just so hard in a foreign tongue.

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