Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Hal Duncan and George RR Martin’s Abusive John

05.05.11
by Daniel Abraham

As a warning to the easily offended, Hal Duncan works blue, but he’s not wrong.

Niall Alexander: I believe authors should be able to write what they want when they want rather than writing to a timetable dictated by the whims of what a particular sphere of readers are seen and indeed heard to want.

Martin Lewis: That is absolutely right up until the moment they start writing an open-ended serial with the deliberate aim of making more money. In which case you become a business and your subscribers are perfectly entitled to ask where the hell there product is. Martin didn’t invent the commercialisation of fantasy but he certainly played along with it so artisitic freedom goes out the window.

There’s a whole lot of wrong in that second quote, as I see it, so I may post a more detailed response on how profoundly harmful I think that mindset is for a marketing category that’s been commercial since its inception in the pulps, but for now I’m just going to unleash the snark.”

In Which the Snark is Unleashed.  Come For the Rage, Stay for the Extended Metaphor

26 Responses »

  1. From what I can tell, Martin works on multiple projects at one time. He’ll be editing an anthology, working on a Wild Cards novel, hammering down a screen play, and writing the next installment of a Song of Fire and Ice. He might not work very fast for each individual one, but he’s putting in a LOT of work that is simply spread out all over the place. Personally, I can see how working on one thing only could get tiresome. As long as it keeps him happy enough to continue writing, I’m okay with that.

  2. Wow. That was awesome.

    I’m actually kind of stunned to still hear people…not so much complaining about it, I guess. I can understand why fans complain, even if I don’t agree. But I guess I am stunned by the venom expressed by people because they feel like, yeah, he’s working on it, but he’s not working hard/fast enough.

  3. I’m equally stunned as to why some folks feel the need to get so agitated on George’s behalf. Yeah, the folks who are pounding on him need to rein it in, but it’s hard to deny that the gap between books has been kind of discouraging.

    On top of that, Duncan’s analogy is just a bloody mess. The author-as-prostitute frame is just an excuse to add shock value to an emotional rant. When an author starts up a series, there IS an inherent implication of more to come, especially these days when there’s so much publicity on the ‘nets. As Exhibit A, we have our own fearless proprietor and his numerous comments that the Dagger and the Coin will be at least 3 books, more likely 5. Now just because I buy The Dragon’s Path does not mean that Daniel owes me even book 2 in any literal sense, but if he simply decides he’s done and focuses only on MLN Hanover stuff, he has broken his word to me as a reader and he has damaged my trust in him.

    The prostitute angle doesn’t even come close to matching the above. It’s transactional, whereas the book series and reader relationship is just that, a relationship. It just feels like Duncan (and Gaiman, too) are exercising some oddly deep-seated frustrations with their readers; if you don’t want pressure like this, guys, and just want to write what you feel like writing, then don’t sign multi-book deals and stop telling people about your sequels that you’re not serious about finishing (in no way is this a slam on George…I think no fan was more irked at the delays than George himself was).

    On a personal note, at Bubonicon or Page One or wherever I have to be to get my copy of Dance with Dragons signed, I intend to thank George for taking as long as he needed to maintain the quality we’ve seen from the series thus far. And if it takes 10 more years to get The Winds of Winter (or the sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, for that matter), then I’ll wait and buy it the day it comes out, too. I can’t say that the same applies to Mr. Duncan’s work.

    • The argument that there is a ‘relationship’ between reader and writer is a relatively new phenomenon. I think it is largely created by the, to some degree false, sense of access that internet tools like blogs and facebook create. It should certainly give writers something to think about when considering how much access they want to give their fans. Because, let’s face it, intimacy brings with it a sense of entitlement.

      • An excellent point, Ty. We used to just be able to scribble away in our garrets and then send out a book once it was done and we felt happy with it. (There is that whole contractual obligation to your publisher, but that’s a different and a topic for a legal discussion. The problem is that writers aren’t making widgets. There isn’t a set design that once it’s designed you can just crank them out. Books are ephemeral things. Blah, blah, blah, but back to the point –)

        Facebook, Blogs, etc. do create a false sense of intimacy. It’s why I try never to post anything about my interior or emotional life. It’s my life, and I only share it with the handful of people who are close to me. But it’s how the game is played now so you try to find a balance.

  4. I find this so interesting, because I’ll be perfectly honest: I’m working on book #11 of my open-ended series because the money’s awfully good.

    But I’m writing the books I want to write within that series. I’ve got my projects and my interests, and I’m not really thinking about my readers’ expectations, except in terms of what I can do to overturn them and maybe do something new and different along the way.

    So is it possible to have it both ways? That seems to be yet another divide in the business — the people who think you can, and those who think you can’t.

  5. Gentlefolk,

    I have remained totally silent in everybody’s comments about this unutterably silly controversy for years and years now. But this post has pushed me right over the edge. (Which, honestly, you hosting this site and you in the comments upstream there don’t really want to do, as I buy all of your books whenever they come out. And recommend them to other people, and like that.)

    Yes, committing an act of series does not imply a contract (with your readers) to deliver the next volume, either to schedule or even at all. (I am still waiting patiently for Alexei Panshin’s The Universal Pantograph, even though I am fairly confident that the heat death of the universe will arrive first.) Yes, blogging and other social media do encourage a completely false sense of intimacy. So does teaching, or lecturing, or acting, or any other activity where many eyes are focused on one person, who cannot return gaze with equal intensity to all.

    What caused this mess was a contravention of the first rule taught every professional in every walk of life: don’t promise something that isn’t completely under your control. GRRM agreed to “split” the fourth book of the series, to satisfy his publisher’s need and his readers’ desires to have something right then, and wrote about the decision on his website, saying that the second “half” was mostly done, that the splitting would allow him the extra time to get the second half done right, and that there wouldn’t be much delay, because (see above) mostly done. Effectively, he told his readers that they could feel comfortable paying for half a book, and investing time and energy in reading half a book, because the other half was coming quickly. Long, pregnant, pause.

    Duncan’s analogy would be more accurate if we discussed what the working lad might expect if he took payment and delivered half a date with the other half to come . . . later.

    Yes, I think GRRM owes me something: the other half of that d**n book that curiously lacked all the characters and plotlines that most interest me. And on July 12, I’ll get it, because amazon will fulfill my order, which has been sitting there since March 5, 2008. I don’t think he owed it to me sooner because he’s writing a series. I think he owed it to me sooner because he chose to promise something he couldn’t deliver, got me to do something he wanted on the strength of it, and didn’t apologize. (Try that scenario on someone with whom you’re in a reciprocal relationship. Maybe not more than once . . .)

    You’ll note that I didn’t cancel the order, that I intend to pay for and read the book, and that I broke a personal rule and ordered HBO just so I could watch Game of Thrones on TV. I do not believe that those actions on my part obligate GRRM in any way.

    And book 6? If I have no expectations based on authorial testimony, I am owed nothing. And it isn’t half of anything I already have (and slightly resent).

    I get that it’s easy for all y’all sitting at your computers in pjs and bare feet to forget that you’re on stage, and that you got there by showing up for auditions and walking on all freedom-of-willish, but blast it, folks, we’re YOUR AUDIENCE out here. (Look up, there, seventeen rows back, on the left, waving–there I am.) We are in a relationship, a very old and established relationship, not based on internet delusions of intimacy (and adjust your button placket, please; it’s not that kind of relationship). It involves tickets paid for, performances delivered, and roses and/or tomatoes thrown.

    So don’t promise me that I will survive the surgery, win the lawsuit, not get audited, have a perfect child who will love me every minute of my life, or find fairies at the bottom of my garden this particular evening when I walk down. Put up the “performance cancelled” sign when you have to. And don’t pay attention to the grumbling. Duck the tomatoes (and the roses for that matter because, you know, thorns).

    And if your next book shows up sometime before the heat death of the universe, and I happen to be around and have the money, I’ll buy it. And we’ll be good.

    • Susan:

      So what I’m hearing you say (and correct me if I’m wrong here) is that it’s not the delay in getting the books out that gets to you, but that authors misrepresent the progress of their work in things like blogs and interviews.

      Am I understanding what you’ve said?

      • No, I think you’re misunderstanding. A casual statement about progress toward completion, in a blog or an interview, strikes me as nothing more than an opinion, which may be wrong and is certainly subjective. An apologia for a volume presented as “half” a volume in a series is rather different, and certainly needs to be carefully worded if the other “half” is not, in effect, finished at the time. I believe the wording could be construed as a “promise,” which proved beyond his power to fulfill. Promises are tricky things. Websites are public performances.

        • All of which is only an issue because George invites readers into his process in a way that I would find very uncomfortable. If he had simply put Feast on the shelves with no explanation of his struggles to finish the other half, and no promise of another volume to flesh it out, none of the very valid criticisms you post above would be true.

          This sort of helps make my point. I think George can serve as an example of the pitfalls of this level of intimacy with the fan base.

          • Ty,

            Yes. There are things that I prefer not to know. 🙂

            I don’t think you’re correct that the idea of a relationship between reader and author is a new one, however. I do think that blogging and twitter have blurred some boundaries that were previously there. The relationship was once understood to be public and formal. You write, I buy the book and read it. You read or perform, I listen and applaud (or hiss). The enterprise requires us both. We always meet fully clothed. And unarmed, except for fountain pens at ten paces.

            I’ve read other authors blogging about their agents or editors trying to persuade them not to blog during the moments when they absolutely hate their books. If you and your book are at odds, that is, I imagine, a private matter that will be resolved between you. Honestly, you don’t want me taking your part against the book and holding a grudge when I come to read it. Or necessarily sharing your opinion. Counterproductive all round.

            I share George’s (publicly reported) opinion about one thing, however. Leviathan Wakes is the best vomit zombie novel I’ve ever read.

            Regards,

            the part of the fan base called Susan

          • Thanks for the kind words, Susan. And thanks for your thoughtful additions to this discussion.

            I think we’ll have to just disagree on the relationship issue, though. I grew up reading the works of Isaac Asimov. All of them. I remember wishing I could meet him and shake his hand and tell him that I loved his work. But I never for a moment thought we were ‘friends’.

            The prevalence of blogging and twitter and all of the other stuff has changed that. I have another friend who’s a fairly famous writer, thought not quite at George’s level. And she runs a blog and does social media. And she’s talked about how strange it is when a person she’s never met walks up and begins speaking as though they’re longtime friends. Eventually the person will say, “Oh, I comment on your blog as so-and-so!” In that person’s mind, the fact that they’ve exchanged comments on the blog means they are friends.

            I wonder, did anyone ever read Tom Sawyer and then assume that made Samuel Clemens their friend? I have to think not.

            Writing and reading books is definitely a two person job. I agree. And books can be deeply personal things, that speak to us profoundly. But even with that, the book is a product that someone makes to sell. I don’t think buying the book entitles a person to a relationship with the author any more than buying a sofa entitles you to a relationship with the person who built it.

            But that line has gotten pretty blurry in our social media age. It’s something I think about a lot, mostly from the perspective of how to harness the power while avoiding these pitfalls.

          • Mr. Franck,

            We don’t seem to be using the word “relationship” the same way. You seem to be using “relationship” to mean “friendship” or “intimacy”. I think of a relationship as “an association between two or more people regulated by law, custom, or mutal agreement.”

            Perhaps if we try 18th century capitalization, it will work better: Authors and Readers are in Relationship with each other. The Relationship that obtains between them is Formal in nature, having to do with their Functions in the Literary Enterprise, and is regulated by Custom. Custom requires that undue Familiarity breaks the Relationship.

            Custom isn’t doing its job very well these days, which is a matter for concern. I doubt you will ever find yourself at a book signing without facing people who think they know you because you’ve exchanged comments online. Many of them will think you also know them. Or that you want to. Or that you should want to. That is not what I mean by “relationship.” In 18th century parlance, that is Presumption. (I don’t know what vicissitudes Asimov faced where fans were concerned, but Samuel Clemens had his moments with gushing fans. He worked the lecture circuit, his era’s version of the internet. I believe they sometimes invited him home to dinner upon first meeting.)

            It’s easier for actors or teachers or preachers to remain aware of their relationship with an audience, because the audience is always before them and lends them energy directly. How you choose to be Author for your audience is up to you, but it is certainly worth thinking about. I’d suggest avoiding undue Familiarity, but the suggestion would be a Presumption.

            I do have a relationship with the person who made my sofa, however. Whoever he or she is, she or he did a fine job of tying the springs. After twelve years, it’s still comfortable to sit on, and every time I sit down, I feel gratitude.

          • Yep, we were using it differently. That happens a lot to me. My greatest failing as a philosopher is always forgetting to define my terms up front. 🙂

            But I think the kind of vitriol you see directed George’s way comes from people who placed a lot more personal baggage on his failure to deliver what they wanted than just an unhappy customer.

            You, for example, seem much more like an unhappy customer. You’ve been able to explain why you’re unhappy quite rationally.

            You are also not going to every message board where George’s name is mentioned and calling him a waste of flesh. Or sending him veiled threats in the mail. I think the people doing this are taking it personally in a way that isn’t justified by the infraction.

          • I don’t know that I’d even characterize myself as an unhappy customer. I’m a not completely gruntled customer, and obviously an ill-informed one. I had no idea that reactions had become so dangerous or demented. I reacted yesterday to two things: a prevalent characterization (here and at Duncan’s shop) of readers as rapacious, intrusive, predatory, and foul; and the binary set-up that either you accept that authors have no responsibility to their readership, none at all of any kind, or you’re rapacious, intrusive, etc. I see now that much of this comes from unfortunate, recent experience.

            If I may perform a meta-communicative translation of your posts upthread that is something of a reductio, you’ve said to me: “Lady, you seem nice enough and not openly psycho yet, but you don’t get a piece of me just because you buy my book.” Yes, that’s right.

            As to what can be done to limit the risk that people will go off on you, encouraging civility can only be a good thing. I’m about to make a generalization, a very unsafe thing to do, but I believe that most readers would welcome a way to greet and congratulate authors without intruding upon them. The nineteenth century was problematic in uncountable ways, but it had one very nice form of social interaction: leaving a calling card. If there were a part of an author’s website set up to receive short messages from readers of the “Hey. Read your last book. Nice work. Best of luck to it.” sort, I think it might be a very good thing. That is frequently all I feel moved to say, and I doubt I’m alone. Will it keep me from going psycho on you? Probably not, but it will give me an outlet for my need to say “thank you.”

    • Also, as context, I think that when authors — myself included — begin pushing back, it’s not that we feel readers don’t have a right to disappointment when we blow our deadlines, so much as the violence with which the feeling is expressed. I’m not going to go into detail because it’s not mine to do, but George has had some things happen that I think crossed the line into threat. I would have called the FBI.

      To go back to Hal’s analogy, I think Miss Manners would agree that a John may be permitted to express disappointment when his favorite rent-boy isn’t available, provided he do so in polite, non-violent terms.

      As I often say to the Darling Child, we get to feel whatever we feel, but we don’t get to express it any way we want to express it. That more than anything seems to me at the root of the controversy.

      • Good lord. It’s beyond appalling that he should ever have had his personal safety threatened.

        I had incorrectly assumed that the controversy had remained at the level of rhetoric.

        At the level of rhetoric, I steam a bit that the conversation keeps returning to “a volume in a series.” If it were merely a volume in a series, the only behavior appropriate for readers would be to express mild impatience and wait politely. Only because GRRM represented book 4 as a partial performance, acceptable because the other “half” was coming soon, does an issue arise, in my opinion. And the limit of the acceptable response is to abandon the series and not buy future books. (I know a number of people who have taken that option.)

        Given the context you’ve suggested, the rent-boy analogy is perhaps fraught.

        If you promised the Darling Child a full day at the park, and around eleven you got a phone call that required you to go home and attend to business documents, before you’d gotten to paddle boats, or the miniature train, or the carousel, or the ducks, and if you promised her that, if she’d clean her room while you took care of business, you’d go back to the park soon and do all of those things, would you expect her to be happy with you when “soon” didn’t materialize anytime she thought was “soon?” Especially if she’d cleaned her room pronto? You’d expect her to behave nicely, of course. You’d expect her to use her words rather than just pouting. You’d expect her not to hit. But you’d expect her not to feel as happy about you as she had done before, because you promised and didn’t deliver. If you’d just said, “I’m sorry, honey. Daddy has to go back to the house right now for business. We were having such a lovely day. I’m disappointed too,” then it would be different. (Worse in the short term, maybe, but different.) Because you hadn’t promised anything.

  6. I just think it comes down to the old adage: “the loudest squeak gets the grease”. If someone just posted on the Facebook page “Darn, no ADWD this year” it would go unnoticed. But if they write a 2 page diatribe on how GRRM is the devil, people will flock…and the person will get some validation.

    I read GRRM’s books for enjoyment (usually devour in 2 days, and of course will re-read). I dont know why anyone would get so frustrated that they would allow the delays to ruin their daily life for 5 years…for mere days of enjoyment?!? Doenst sound like a good trade-off to me.

    For myself, I read other things. The funny thing is, every other book I read I get from Amazon or the library…but for ASoIaF…I still love walk into a book store the day it comes out and pick it up off the shelf. And get as giddy as a school girl…

    • If what you’re looking for is validation, I guess that makes sense.

      If what you want is the book to be finished, then nasty-grams are counterproductive. They actually, for a variety of reasons, slow the author down.

  7. The people that get that upset at the lack of a book would be like aliens to me. I wonder if it’s solely the younger generation, who have grown up with more of this direct interaction with the authors and show-runners than in the past who dish out most of the abuse.

    Also, is that one series the ONLY thing they read? Open another book sometime. You might like it.

    • I think Susan above makes at least one valid criticism of the way Dance was handled that doesn’t make her an alien.

      But in general I also find the really heavy vitriol puzzling. If I read a book a day for the rest of my life, I’d never get to all the books I want to read. There’s always something else to slot into the opening.

      • Oh no – I would consider anything she said as anywhere close to that level. Like you said, that’s a valid criticism and there’s a big difference between an eloquent complaint and sending expletive-filled hatemail and threats of violence. I mean, if Daniel Abraham started taking years and years to put out the next ‘The Dagger and the Coin’ book, I’d sigh heavily and shake my head…and page past his name and go to the next author in line on my Nook.

        I suppose it could be taken as a back-handed compliment – you are famous enough to have fanboys/girls who ONLY want to read your stuff, like Harry Potter or Twilight.

      • Thanks, guys. This is accidentally very funny to my family. I used to tease my stepson, when he was young enough to be credulous, that his stepmother was an alien. He would then shout “you are NOT.” He’ll appreciate the confirmation. (I am fifty-seven btw.)

        The vitriol is puzzling, and suggests that something psychological occurred out-of-frame to us. The urgency, however, is the same reaction you get from a child whose bedtime story has been interrupted. WANT to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! There’s an investment in this particular story. The vitriol is distressing and frightening. The urgency is a backhanded compliment.

        I have long since made my peace with the fact that my To Be Read pile will outlive me. Some things still get jumped to the top of the list. The work of every author here represented, for example.

        • In an awful sort of way, the vitriol really is about love, isn’t it? We can only really hate the people we first loved. I’m sure some people said, “I think this delay sucks. I’m not reading any more of those books.” But we never hear about those people, because they’re actually fairly rationally. The rational ones never get noticed.

          • Oh dear. I’m afraid I think that’s a fallacy. In any event, abuse is never acceptable whatever the abusers think they’re feeling.

            One wants to understand the motivation for behavior like this, because understanding (for those of us who operate that way–definitely me too) yields the possibility of altering or guarding against the circumstances. So many science fiction plots turn on smart people fixing their level gaze on anomalies and understanding the heck out of them. I’m sorry to say that, much as my brain works just that way and always will, my experience tells me that this, too, is a fallacy.

            Let me tell you a story. My husband works for a large corporation with a fairly high profile. I’ve finally laid down the law that I won’t go out in public with him if he’s wearing a logo shirt, because people feel free to just come up to him in the store or even in restaurants and start complaining about the company’s products. My husband takes his responsibility as a representative of the company very seriously, so the first few times this happened, he tried to engage, to answer objections, to provide information, to make suggestions. Inevitably, the harder he tried to engage with the content of the complaints, the worse they got, the higher they escalated. A couple of times I thought the complainer was about to punch him out. So he changed his tactics. Now he just listens. My husband is a sweetheart, and he listens with endless patience and exquisite attention while people rant until they become rantless and dribble off to go on with their lives. I’m less patient about standing next to a grocery cart, pretending to be wallpaper and watching the ice melt around the fish. But while I stand there, I don’t have much to do but watch the ranter. Every rant has a kind of narrative shape to it, every rant tapers off the same way if it isn’t fed, and the content seems to be the least important thing about it.

            Personally, I want to suggest that some emotional event outside the situation has caused them to trigger in response to some detail within the scenario. My husband is inclined to think that internet bad behavior is just folks being trangressive because they can, and because the annonymity protects them from accountability. He may have a point. I just got back from a Friday evening run to the SuperTarget (I know, exciting life), where two young men in a monster truck kept driving around the spot where I was transferring groceries into my car, and they kept yelling “f**k you” out the windows as loudly as possible. Somehow, I don’t think it was because they love me.

            While I don’t think the vitriol will yield to analysis, the urgency of fan desires for more story may. Jo Walton did a series of articles at Tor.com not long ago on the varioius kinds of series and how they operate, from the “loose” series common in mysteries, where the detective and co. carry over from book to book and have an arc but the mysteries are episodic and fully contained in one volume, to the “tightest” form, which is essentially one biiiiiiig book chopped into convenient pieces. The “gotta have more” “gotta know now” reaction seems to me to be a response to the “tighter” series forms. In short, the better end-stopped the volumes are, the less likely you are to see rage. Cliff-hangers feed the beast. It’s a hypothesis, anyway. Kick it around and see what you think.

          • “My husband is inclined to think that internet bad behavior is just folks being trangressive because they can, and because the annonymity protects them from accountability.”

            I agree with this.

            “where two young men in a monster truck kept driving around the spot where I was transferring groceries into my car, and they kept yelling “f**k you” out the windows as loudly as possible. Somehow, I don’t think it was because they love me.”

            It also was not hate. It was idiocy. If they followed you around for the next five years yelling curses at you, then I might think they hate you. The campaign of attack on George is quite different from a random insult. It is of extended duration and at some expense to those waging it, both in time and resources.

            This is, I think, quite different.