Why Is the A Song of Ice and Fire Series So Darn Long?

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The question on everyone’s mind is “When the hell does the next Game of Thrones book come out?” This has been the narrative for years ever since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series started popping up on bestseller lists in 1999 with his second installment, A Clash of Kings. Fans didn’t have long to wait for the next installment, A Storm of Swords, which arrived only a year later despite weighing in at a hefty 992 pages. As the series gained traction in literary hype circles, people clamored for the next volume to be published which would satiate their addiction for sultry and scandalous sword crossing. I mean, how long could it possibly take?

11 years. That was the ultimate answer. While working on his manuscript for volume four, George R.R. Martin originally intended to write a shorter book set five years into the future. Once he began filling in the blanks between this hefty gap, though, he realized he had stacks of manuscript pages containing stories that would either have to be addressed in flashback sequences or expository dialogue. He decided instead to scrap the “time gap” idea and continue where he had left off after A Storm of Swords.

Three thousand or so manuscript pages later, after sweating over stipulations from publishers regarding time and page count, Martin compromised by splitting the story into two volumes based on geography. The first, A Feast for Crows, came out after a five-year publishing gap, and the second installment A Dance with Dragons, was published six years after that. That is one hell of a production queue. For comparison, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was written in twelve years, and that was only because World War freakin’ Two happened in the middle of the process.

So while many people question “What’s taking him so long?” what I would rather know is “Why so many pages?”

“Blasphemy!” I already hear commenters saying. “He knows exactly what he’s doing!” While I would never think to tell George R.R. Martin how to do his job, I’m curious why his publishers wouldn’t. Yes, the man prints pure gold, and yes when the hardback comes out I’ll bring both a blunt and sharp object to fight through the lines for my copy. But that doesn’t mean there’s no need to trim it down.

Anyone who’s plowed through the nearly five-thousand-pages-and-counting series knows that it tends to suck up a lot of your day. As much as I would love to live within the pages of the novels, and as sad as I was whenever I finished A Dance With Dragons, I still insist that Martin should reign it in. Maybe just a little.

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A recent trio of South Park episodes poked fun at the series’ interminably titillating plot. While I fail to understand why Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to think there’s an excess of wang in the television show, I think their criticism at the endless plot delays is justified. The very first chapter in A Game of Thrones lets us know that there are ice zombies that will soon have their filthy way with every orifice in Westeros. Also, anyone who’s watched the first season of the show or read the first book knows that there will be dragons. Hence “Ice” and “Fire”. The dragons are one of the only things that can protect against the Others. But the dragons cannot necessarily be trusted or relied upon. Conflict established.

Admittedly, there are complexities beyond this that could take all day and night to summarize, but this is the essential gist of the plot. Also, in regards to certain characters, Martin has definitely planned out their fates farther into the future than most Stark’s life insurance policies care to invest in.

Rather than any sort of climactic clash of ideals, though, what we get most often is a slow burn. Jaime and Brienne are on their way to King’s Landing for hundreds of pages. Arya wanders around Westeros with various crowds for three books then finally sets sail to Braavos, only to be trained for several chapters. Hundreds of pots are put on burners and none of them want to boil.

While these scenarios yield immeasurable momentary gems, I found myself wanting situations to wrap up faster than Martin was willing to resolve them. Daenerys’ plot perfectly echoes this slow crawl as she leapfrogs from city to city in the East and embroils herself deeper and deeper into a political ass-cluster until all she can do is run away from it. It exhausts the reader.

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Martin’s skill as a writer comes out constantly in the books, which certainly helps counteract this fatigue. His descriptions are vivid, his characters seem real, and each chapter is small and easy to finish. These factors make reading the book like eating a bag of chips: you can’t stop until you’re done.

Eternally putting off loose ends, though, only proves frustrating to the committed reader. I fought the urge many a time to skip ahead to the next chapters just to see where the particular character I was interested in at the moment ended up. Also, the books completely fail to answer certain vital questions like “who the hell is John Snow’s mom?” without first making us read about how much the Night’s Watch hates him for book after book. Likewise, Littlefinger’s devious plan has been cooking since Ned Stark arrived in King’s Landing without a hint as to what it’s ultimate designs are. There simply has to be a tidier way to get to point A to B without taking infinite detours.

I get that Martin’s writing process consists of him literally sitting down and asking himself “what is Petyr up to today?” He writes convincing, organic storylines that defy tired and predictable tropes. That being said, writing in this fashion doesn’t mean implicitly that you have to generate thousands of pages of text about incidents that aren’t particularly memorable. The effect of reading through the more recent, lengthier novels of the series is that of reading a rather large and detailed account of World War I. Certain skirmishes prove exciting and stick out, but in the scheme of things people want the action condensed into digestible portions.

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As the HBO series catches up to the novels, and as the child actors age out of their roles, concern grows at Martin’s ability to keep up with deadlines. While Martin recognizes this from a business perspective, the man loves doing things his own way and on his own schedule. In regards to his next project, he stated in a recent Vanity Fair interview that “after I complete the seven volumes, I just won’t tell anyone I’m writing a novel. I’ll just write it, finish it, give it to my agent, and say, ‘Here. Sell this.’ There’s a certain freedom that comes with that.” Clearly, Martin enjoys keeping on his own professional terms, and only puts up with rigorous fan and showbusiness expectations out of love for his series.

I respect this attitude as a fellow artist and aspiring writer, but I still maintain my position that Martin could hurry the process along by disciplining himself and reigning in the mass-generation of text that he has become so good at cultivating. I would hate for it to affect the quality of the final product, but if he can publish three novels in less than four years, obviously he has some steam he wasn’t harnessing for the last two staggeringly-long books.

I worry that Martin has become bogged down in the universe he has created, and that akin to Tolkein’s The Silmarillion he could end up creating more stories than his audience would possibly care to read. There’s also the risk that the series could balloon if he decides he can’t possibly finish it within seven volumes. After all, it was originally supposed to be a trilogy.

Regardless of our opinions, though, Martin will do what he does and kill who he wants when he sees fit and I will continue to dream of a day I can hold a copy of The Winds of Winter in my hand and get bugger-all done while I read it cover-to-cover. I just hope it won’t weigh a hundred pounds.

 

Jarrod Lipshy is a soon-to-be-graduating B.A. English student who is scared as hell about finding a real job. He collects old video games and has more than enough free time to read thousand-page-long kinky fantasy books.


10 Comments

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