Adventures in Cultural Consumption:

A Clash of Kings
A Storm of Swords
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin (no spoilers beyond a vague indication that people you probably wouldn't expect to die have not yet died)

The first real lesson I picked up as an instructor is that no one thinks about how they read or write. This is, no doubt, because most people pick up reading and writing at a sufficiently young age that both seem perfectly natural. The falsity of that belief becomes evident for most whenever they attempt to learn a foreign language: there's nothing like memorizing the English grammar rules you never bothered to consciously learn, without which Spanish (French, etc) is a hopeless task. And still, people tend to not think about writing: what it is to write at any particular length over, say, 500 words. That, at a minimum, it requires planning and structure and organization; that there are certain conventions that must be followed to write an essay or a story. It's even possible (I have seen it happen) to go through college never having grasped this; no moment had been more irony-laden for me than to watch my scientist friends attempt to write their theses. They might make fun of me for "not doing anything" before, but that ends after a few weeks of scratching out 300 words a day, falling behind overly optimistic deadlines, and the realization that one can't just begin writing and have words come. Writing at all is hard work; writing for a living even more so.

George R.R. Martin's novels make for an interesting case study on at least two levels. First, it's obvious that there have been some writing mis-steps: some having to do with the narrative, some having to do with the editing. The mis-steps make the novels open to criticism and discussion in an interesting way: no one denies there are flaws, the argument (and there is a lot of argument) is over what exactly the flaws are supposed to be. The second level has to do with the way in which the expectations of even quite savvy readers of the series are divorced from the reality of producing the books. This plays out in two primary dimensions:

1. Complaints over how long each installment of the book takes to write. By far the most frequent criticism, and also the most nonsensical. The implicit idea behind this criticism is "he already knows how the books are going to end. Why isn't he just sitting down and cranking out the chapters?", as though the only thing to writing is knowing the plot points and making sure they are spaced out by a respectable number of pages. Even with a prose style as relatively uncomplicated as Martin's, there are still many decisions to be made about how the books should be written that have to be made; and, even granting those decisions are made, not every day of writing ends up being productive. And on some days no writing happens at all. It's just the nature of writing.

2. Complaints that the books no longer embrace the trope that No One Is Safe. No One Is Safe is the dumbest of all contemporary storytelling tropes: it's not an accident that while lots of important, central characters die at the end of books, very few die in the middle. No One Is Safe means The Author Will Have to Introduce New Characters to Replace the Ones Who Died. It is also, not very surprisingly, hard to form attachments to characters who get introduced 60% of the way through: I could care less what happens to Quentyn Martell. If there's a weakness in the fourth book, it's that it has to set up too many new characters, because too many of the characters we had been following previously cannot be followed anymore, for one reason or another.

In that reason is something of the other reason No One Is Safe is a bad storytelling trope: if the story's going to be an actual story, and not just a collection of things that happen, some people will have to make it from the beginning to the end. It shouldn't be lost on the reader that the Starks are the heroes: if most of them make it to the end, that's no accident. They have character arcs that will take a long time to fulfill: so also Tyrion and Jaime. Killing one of them off much before the end gooses the thrill factor of the story, but not its narrative quality; desiring these plot points indicates a reader who only wants to be entertained, and who finds things like character development to be boring. But that fault lies with the reader, not the writer.

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