May 9, 2017
When the characters are our friends; or, what do authors owe us?
by Susan Rella
If you feel pity for George R. R. Martin, subject to constant onslaught by angry fans whenever he is seen doing anything other than finishing his Song of Ice and Fire series, Emily Dreyfuss agrees with you. The senior staff writer at Wired penned an article last week whose headline surely threw fans into a stupor more powerful than a long night with milk of the poppy: “George R. R. Martin Doesn’t Need to Finish Writing the Game of Thrones Books.”
Put down the wildfire; it’s actually an interesting read. Dreyfuss makes the very defensible argument that Game of Thrones is already completely different, and detached, from the original works. With the HBO series now a full season ahead of the books, and with several spinoffs on the horizon, TV has eclipsed literature as the primary medium for Martin’s vision — which has made that vision mutable, malleable, constantly evolving. The characters, settings, and plot points are now living, breathing entities. A fan’s wiki come to life.
Yes, Game of Thrones as an enterprise has eclipsed Game of Thrones as a written opus. Yes, it will continue to exist long after Martin’s demise. Yes, it will continue to unfold, and morph, and take all our money. Dreyfuss is right about all of that. But no, that’s not really a good thing.
Dreyfuss uses the world of Star Wars as an example to prove her point, but it’s a bit tricky to see the expanded universe (of LEGO toys, animated shows, books, and new movie spinoffs) as much more than a greed-fueled marketing juggernaut. And using a film empire to justify your argument against an already-bestselling book phenom is not merely faulty logic, it’s also downright offensive to the original work. In the annals of literature, having other authors take over the reins of canonical pieces—finished or not—hasn’t really ended well. When the best of the bunch is considered Wide Sargasso Sea, you might have a problem. And let’s not even discuss Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett. Familiar characters becoming their publics’ prerogatives don’t really have a great track record.
This is the beauty of—and trouble with—truly immersive literature. When books do have such an impact, culturally and emotionally, leaving their fates to the sexual violence–obsessed masterminds at HBO comes close to an act of manslaughter. From The Canterbury Tales to Middlemarch to The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the Harry Potter books, self-contained worlds in literature have rabidly devoted (not to mention fiercely protective) fans. Absolutely, something will be lost, if not ruined, in the hands of a different Creator. Of course the characters’ trajectories, their moral arcs, will shift. And more importantly, our interaction with the book, the characters, and the author shifts, too. The Work ceases to be The Work, and becomes a watered-down adaptation of itself, something xeroxed to blurriness, the unfunny ending to a depressing game of telephone. To claim that George R. R. Martin’s series can be completed, just as well, by not-George R. R. Martin is ridiculous.
So, sure: Martin doesn’t owe us, his readers, an ending to this series. But he sort of owes it to George R. R. Martin.
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.