There’s been a little flap lately over just what an author owes his readers, if anything, especially as it pertains to the time between books in a series. It started with George R. R. Martin’s post to his detractors who are moaning about when Dance With Dragons (the next volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series) will be published, which in turn has occasioned comment by Charles Stross and John Scalzi.
Now to my way of thinking, once an author embarks on a story that’s too large to fit in one volume, he does at least have an implied obligation to those whose purchase the first volume to eventually finish the story. However, and this is a big qualifier, when he does so is strictly up to the author. As Scalzi points out, if the author rushes the job to get that next volume out, the quality will suffer, and those who were eagerly awaiting this next installment in the story are going to be disappointed and unhappy. Alternatively, if the author takes so long to get that next installment out that everyone has totally forgotten the earlier parts of the story, this will not bode well for either his sales or for keeping his fan base (here specifically I’m thinking of things like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series – 20 year gaps are not conducive to maintaining interest).
As Stross points out, there are basically two kinds of extended stories: those that basically have multiple complete stories all based in the same universe, perhaps with same characters, perhaps not (Norton’s Witch World set is a good example of this type), but certainly each volume can pretty much be read independently of the rest of the series; and those where it is really just one long extended story, where you really must read from volume 1 to volume n in order to grasp the entire story (and here Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire certainly qualifies). Each type has advantages and disadvantages.
The first type has the distinct advantage of the reader being able to get full satisfaction from any single volume, and where his expectation level is that he would like to see more stories set in this world, but he won’t feel abandoned if those volumes never appear or only show up many years later. However, the requirement to tell a complete story in one volume limits its scope and does not allow for as complex a world or depth of character building as the second type.
The second type is a great challenge to the author and potentially can be a mesmerizing story that completely immerses its readers in a fully realized world – the canvas is large, with plenty of room to properly develop all the ins and outs of the story, where complex multiple sub-plots can intertwine, characters can change at realistic paces, and be given enough room to become living, breathing people. Its disadvantage is that it is complex, takes a long time write, with always the possibility that other life happenings will eventually interfere with its timely completion, or simply that the author loses motivation to finish it, with other ideas and projects coming to seem more interesting. And it generates an expectation in its readers that more of the story will be forthcoming real soon now. Authors really should consider this factor before embarking on such a project (though I know that sometimes a story just grows, and becomes far longer than what was originally intended). Once he decides he really wants to write this story, he really should do his best to finish it as soon as is possible while still maintaining his own standards of excellence. This is really the author’s only obligation: to do his best.
Those who moan and whine and send nasty emails to the author demanding that the next volume be delivered right now are not helping. In fact, besides being rude and crass, such badgering of authors may end up causing the target author to just abandon the project. Fans who act like this should be beaten over the head with a politeness stick. Creative works are not like cars, producible on a set schedule, and fans really need to get hip to that fact.
I’ll certainly get Dance with Dragons and read it with enjoyment, whenever it makes its appearance. The series so far is both captivating and excellent, and has all the hallmarks of eventually becoming one of the great fantasy stories ever told. If it takes Martin another three years to get this next volume right to his satisfaction, so be it.