On Authurial Obligation

Like many other avid fantasy readers, I have eagerly awaited publication of the Winds of Winter, book 6 in George R. R. Martin’s mesmerizing A Song of Ice and Fire series, for years. And, like every other ASoIaF fans, I have been frustrated for years. “Write like the wind, George R. R. Martin,” many fans have pled. Still others have become infuriated, feeling a sense of entitlement, that Martin has an obligation to get these books finished. Martin has replied by stating he is a slow writer, and wishes the fans would stop pressuring him; it’ll be “done when it’s done.” Other writers have strongly supported Martin in this view. As a writer who understands just how much work goes into the craft, but one who cannot yet comprehend all the ins and outs of celebrity and dealing with my craft in other mediums, this back and forth on the topic of authorial obligation intrigues me.

Do we as writers truly ‘owe’ our readers anything beyond what we’ve already published? One can argue that we do from a purely financial angle; if we don’t write to our audience, maybe our audience will stop buying our work.

But that’s not the issue at hand. Should writers be held to some kind of timeline, a reasonable, minimal framework for completing stories or sequels? It sounds like a simple question, with a simple answer. Of course we can’t work to rigid deadlines—with the fans, anyway—our editors can most certainly hold our feet to the fire. Past that, however, I don’t think the answer is as black and white as one might think.

My belief is that authorial obligation does exist, but it’s a much more amorphous concept than simply churning pages out at a reasonable rate. I’ll use Martin as an example. He’s taken a long time in between books, sure, but let’s examine why. He’s caught up in working on a television series about ASoIaF, Game of Thrones, which is surely relevant and which has brought us fans no end of joy. He’s also of necessity been attending a lot of events worldwide, as part of the publicity and celebrity he’s written himself into. This must hamper his writing, as it takes up large chunks of time and must often put him on an irregular schedule. So far, so good, and fans should simply shut up and wait. The problem I as a fan and writer run into, though, is with his other writing and editing pursuits.

Martin has been prolific in writing and editing in recent years, but a lot of this focus has been devoted to works other than the Winds of Winter. Granted the Dunk and Egg novellas take place in ASoIaF’s history, they are not book 6. Likewise his story about the fictional-historic Dance of Dragons in the Dangerous Women anthology, an anthology he edited too. He’s also editing a new, unrelated anthology to be released in June, called Rogues. Add to this the World of Ice and Fire, a history of the ASoIaF’s world soon to be published, and the Wit & Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister, released last year, and it seems like Martin is doing everything but writing the Winds of Winter.

Of course he’s working on the Winds of Winter. He’s just devoting a lot of his writing time to a vast array of other projects. Martin has also said that he enjoys having written, not writing, which likely results in a lag in word count. Couple this with his television work and his worldwide appearances at conventions and other media events, and it’s no wonder it’s taking him forever to finish the next book, let alone the series. It’s enough to make a fan and reader want to tear out their hair.

Let’s face it, though. Martin has no real, tangible obligation to forego other projects and focus primarily on the Winds of Winter. I do think he owes it to himself, not just the fans, to regain some of his focus and get on with his story. No, sales will not lag because his word count lags. Still, as an author, I would feel uncomfortable spreading myself thin working on other writing projects while I let a popular series simmer on the back burner. Whether or not you get burned out, you also need to push on to the conclusion. That’s my personal view as a writer. I’ve never experienced this situation, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think we have an obligation to focus on our projects, once they’re begun, and to not take on more than we can handle.

This doesn’t mean we have any obligation to fans and readers in any real sense, though. Martin is right to ignore the critics and to fire back when the situation calls for a louder response. So yes, while I do think authorial obligation exists, I don’t think it should be overblown, or go any further than what should be an inherent dedication to your own work.

Sorry fans, but you’ll just have to be patient right along with me. Then again, I’ll be seeing Mr. Martin at ConCarolinas 2014 in May. Perhaps he’ll have a little announcement for us there 🙂




  1. Erica says:

    An interesting post. Authors vary greatly in their writing speed. A book every year or so seems to be the norm for genre fiction writers, but some seem to be able to put out several books a year (no idea how they do this), while others write much more slowly. Martin’s books are very long, of course, and with so many story lines and characters to coordinate, I’m not surprised he’s slower than average, even without the work he probably has to do with the TV show. But I’m guessing a more typical mid-list fantasy writer would be expected to work much more quickly if he/she wants to keep their contracts.

    I don’t know about the obligation thing. A writer can retire at any time, of course, and he or she can write the stories in the way that makes sense to them, even if their fans aren’t happy with the angle they took. But I think once you’re contracted to write a series, it’s reasonable for fans (not to mention editors) to expect the books to materialize at predictable intervals until it reaches a satisfactory conclusion, barring unforeseeable circumstances, of course. Sometimes that even means finding another writer to finish it, as was the case with the WoT series. Hopefully, GRRM will stay healthy for many more years.

  2. stout says:

    Erica, great point about the Wheel of Time series. Sad to say, I found Sanderson’s writing much better than Jordan’s, by the end. Jordan spent about three hundred pages each book in rote summary, and I’m glad Sanderson didn’t continue the trend.

    Yes, let’s cross our fingers and hope Martin survives another fifteen years; we’ll probably have at least that long to get to the end of ASoIaF 🙂

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