Having recently finished A Dance with Dragons, I feel the need to confront the following question: “Did this book really need to take six years for George R.R. Martin to write?”
Well, yes. Truth be told, I expect future instalments A Song of Ice and Fire to come with long intervals between them. We’ve already seen the trend: the steadily increasing space of time between each volume. By the usual fandom logic, Martin should take no longer to write volume x as volume y if the word count is around the same. And yes, barring the usual vicissitudes of writing life, I would agree. If these books were unconnected novels about completely different things.
However, they are connected. Rather intricately so. It is the tyranny of the modern multi-volume fantasy saga that, as the material expands and the plotlines grow more tangled, the author has a lot more to think about, must choose steps far more carefully. Especially with previous volumes already published and out to the public. I remember a book of essays by Isaac Asimov speaking of his trepidation to step back into the Foundation series, because he just couldn’t remember all the details, couldn’t wrap his head around everything he’d already written. The entire Foundation trilogy doesn’t quite scratch A Game of Thrones in terms of size, and Asimov being Asimov, the whole thing’s a good deal less complex. You also have to keep continuity straight, because it’s too late for Martin to go back and revise earlier segments for a more satisfying whole. There’s something to be said for Gene Wolfe’s method of writing out an entire series (well, multi-part novel, as he would call it) before publication; but in Martin’s case, the Wolfian method just isn’t feasible. The story is just too damn big, and this is one of those rare cases where I think the story actually merits a suitably sprawling size. To expect Martin to work from book one to finish without pay in between is asking just a bit too much.
This isn’t a new story. The world of fantasy since the late 70s has been filled with very long works. We’ve lived under the tyranny of the fantasy saga for a while, and it’s easy to spot what happens when authors start churning out these things on a set schedule without regards to quality. The result is usually over-inflated servings of boredom (see: The Wheel of It Never Fucking Ends). I haven’t picked up the fat volumes in many of the top series for a while, mostly because there’s so many books I could read in the same space of time I would spend slogging through a series that could be so much better (and their stories are finished, too!). Fortunately, the first book usually leaves me quitting partway through anyhow. That’s not to say a good, long story can’t be satisfying if done well. I didn’t quit reading A Game of Thrones, because it was genuinely gripping stuff.
For Martin to get it right in the end, he needs to invest the time. He’s not just writing the next book, he’s writing on top of an already huge pile of material, already writing with an overwhelming amount of characters and plotlines to consider, and ones he can’t just wipe away on the next rewrite to make things more elegant. Martin’s working on something, well, rather gigantic. He also has the skill to back it up—Martin started in short stories, after all (I’m more of a fan of his short fiction, actually), has a care for language and story that might not be Wolfe or Le Guin-level (and how many authors can really claim that?) but is certainly there.
The problem is simply the size, and the demand. The tyranny isn’t just on readers to remember everything that came before, but on the writer. Martin produced A Feast for Crows in part to appease the fans, chopping up a previous manuscript and then entirely rewriting the second half before moving on with the rest of A Dance with Dragons. That already felt like a misstep. With this latest book, I saw the gaps finally closing. I saw an end, maybe, in sight.
It’s just going to take Martin a while to get there.