FTC announcement

by Henry on October 25, 2009

Given recent “ambiguous FTC mutterings”:http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/10/ad-group-ftc-blog-rules-unfairly-muzzle-online-media.ars, it is probably no bad thing that I make it clear that I receive lots of free copies of forthcoming books (partly because of CT; partly because I help out the Book Salon people at FireDogLake), and that any reviews I do are likely as not of books that I have gotten for nothing. When I first decided to write this post a few days ago, I was going to talk about all the things that I’d like to get for free but don’t, starting with good f/sf books (nearly everything I get is non-fiction) and in particular _Unseen Academicals_, then moving rapidly through ever more preposterous requests for technology (the new Barnes and Noble e-reader looks quite interesting; I would _happily_ review one of the new Macs with the 27 inch screens), and finishing with the frankly unethical/completely implausible – books that didn’t exist but that I promised to review favorably if only the authors in question would get their arses in gear and produce them. I figured that I’d be prepared to trash my integrity for a complete and definitive edition of _Bloom County_, or indeed for an ARC of _A Dance With Dragons_ (my come-on – “George R.R. Martin Is Not My Bitch”:http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html – but _I’ll be his_ if only he gets it finished). But then I saw (via Laura) that “Volume I”:http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/59885/ of the complete _Bloom County_ has just come out _without any inducements whatsoever_ on my part. Can this be taken as a sign from the Fates that the GRRM logjam too is about to break …

{ 21 comments }

1

LizardBreath 10.25.09 at 1:56 pm

At this point, isn’t it clear that A Dance With Dragons will kill all of the characters who have been previously mentioned, and follow the lives of eighteen entirely new people for a two-week span? I’ve completely given up hope that anything will ever resolve.

2

John Holbo 10.25.09 at 3:56 pm

It’s funny, because when I read an academic book review or a newspaper book review I take it for granted that the publisher provided a freebie for review purposes. Wouldn’t it be great if the NY Times had to disclose ‘and we got a free copy of the book from the publisher’ at the end every damn review?

3

Kaveh 10.26.09 at 12:59 am

In a sense, GRRM has backed himself into a corner that writing himself out of would be like writing the script for Star Wars Episodes I-III. The best thing about Ice and Fire is how it skirts around the main centers of action–the most heroic battles and the most awe-inspiring supernatural events–being suggestive, indirect, showing the impact, the ramifications, while avoiding a blow-by-blow account of main events that could only disappoint. Like showing us the crater and the ruins of the city where the nuclear missile struck, rather than narrating the explosion. I suppose he could keep going on the path he’s been on, but I can’t imagine any conclusion to that series that wouldn’t be less of an ending than a beginning.

Maybe killing off everybody and giving us two weeks in the lives of eighteen new characters would be just the thing: jump ahead to the (distant?) aftermath of the main events of the story, so as to keep the most fearsome or amazing things as shrouded in fog of legend and war as they have been up till now.

4

John Quiggin 10.26.09 at 1:30 am

My problem is the opposite of LizardBreath’s. I agreed to review all the Hugo nominees in the year A Feast for Crows came out, and this is what I wrote:

Martin’s fans have waited five years for its appearance, and the nomination appears to reflect their enthusiasm for the series, rather than the merits of the work considered as a novel (which is, after all the category). If my experience is any guide, Hugo voters who try to assess the work as a novel are unlikely to find it compelling. I started gamely enough, and the opening chapters held my interest, but after 100 pages nothing had happened except conversations between various characters about events that had presumably taken place in Volume 3. I cheered up when I noticed that there was a dramatis personae at the back, but then realised that the list itself ran for many pages and included hundreds of characters who had not yet appeared.

5

Kaveh 10.26.09 at 2:28 am

@4 You really need to start at the beginning for it to make sense, and I can see how that would make things difficult if you’re trying to review just the 4th volume. Most of what I like about Ice and Fire is how it plays with intertextualities, and a 700-pages-times-five-volumes monstrosity like that is big enough to start creating its own intertextualities, and those are the basis of Martin’s storytelling for most of the books. Those books are to a novel as a TV series is to a 2-hour movie.

6

andthenyoufall 10.26.09 at 2:54 am

I love Martin’s books, but defending their bloatedness as some sort of subtle intertextuality is ludicrous. The books would be better if they had fewer major, and many few minor, characters. Period the end.

7

Kaveh 10.26.09 at 5:07 am

Maybe they would be better if they were 30% shorter, say if he found a way to tie things up and end the series in book 4, but they’d still have to be on the same large scale.

defending their bloatedness as some sort of subtle intertextuality is ludicrous

Alright, tell me if this is ludicrous.

What is interesting about them to me is that they tell the story of events that we would normally think of as major historical events involving virtually an infinite number of actors which we boil down to a narrative involving only a few key actors (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon”), and instead of this kind of narrative, we have many personal/psychological narratives involving a lot of marginal actors, eschewing categories like “just governance,” “the people,” “popular will,” that would condense a lot of events or judgments, and without characters that we can rely on as stand-ins for an entire class of people we are sympathetic to–for example, no commoners that can be taken as representative of commoners in general. The meaning of the really important events in the story completely depends on our memories of previous interactions between the same characters (or related characters). Avoiding straightforward categories (such as saying “this story is about a civil war”) that, once you name them, beg beginning and ending dates, a list of factions, &c., means there are no anchor points that could be used to situate characters in a historical narrative. The point is to get lost in the maze, and it takes a lot more than a novel’s worth of writing to get the reader lost that way. I can imagine a much shorter work doing this by focusing on a smaller range of events and only going so far as to prove the concept, but that would probably be less entertaining, and if it weren’t entertaining, would it even work?

8

LizardBreath 10.26.09 at 1:37 pm

7: I think that’s an excellent description of the books, and when you set it forth conceptually like that, it sounds fascinating. Actually reading them, though, I find it frustrating and dull — each chapter is worth reading in its own right, but I don’t have the attention or the memory to care about what’s going on in the series as a whole any more.

9

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 10.26.09 at 3:37 pm

I’m sympathetic with Martin’s problems; the stories have become so complex, plus as he’s still a few novels away from completion, he probably still doesn’t want to tip his hand as to who comes out on top, who survives and who fails their saving throw against becoming an Expendable Character. It’s hard enough reading them: you have to reread all the previous books to refresh what’s happening.

Same problem with reading Stephen Eriksen’s Malazan books. There’s so many plot threads, I think I’d need to fire up Microsoft Project to keep track of who’s doing what when.

“What is interesting about them to me is that they tell the story of events that we would normally think of as major historical events involving virtually an infinite number of actors which we boil down to a narrative involving only a few key actors”

Or, in another way, that when historical events are happening its actually hard to figure out What the Fuck Was Going On.
I was in the Soviet Union when it collapsed, and except for the times I could beg a shortwave radio, it was really hard to find out what was happening; you could feel history turning, but figuring out what direction was very difficult without someone authoratitive with better sources taking the information and constructing a narrative.

10

alex 10.26.09 at 4:03 pm

So, the argument for the merits of these books is that they are a sort of ‘anti-history’, in which the big picture doesn’t make sense, and you work through a continuously-multiplying set of individual narratives in which meaningful connections become less, rather than more, likely as you go on to each new level of ramification?

Hmm… don’t we have the internet for that?

11

Kaveh 10.26.09 at 4:34 pm

@9 Aren’t all the characters expendable? Some of them are maybe too interesting to get rid of, but the plot could go on just fine without, say, Tyrion. Given what seems to be Martin’s commitment so far to always narrating from the PoV of characters who are marginalized (cripples, women, children…), it seems like coming out on top is the very thing that would make a character expendable. Either political ascendancy as prelude to an untimely death (Ned Stark) or else we would simply stop reading from that character’s PoV.

12

LizardBreath 10.26.09 at 6:20 pm

the plot could go on just fine

Is there a “the plot,” though?

13

Doug 10.26.09 at 7:31 pm

Is there a “the plot,” though?

It’s mostly the Wars of the Roses, with a bit of a side order of Mongols. Henry VIII dies to kick off the conflict, rather than consolidating the successor dynasty, but that’s not exactly a huge innovation.

On the other hand, would a fantasy series have the same chance for success if it weren’t set in warmed-over England?

14

alex 10.26.09 at 7:55 pm

You Yanks! Why don’t you all just come on home….

15

LizardBreath 10.26.09 at 7:56 pm

It’s mostly the Wars of the Roses,

The initial setup is the (Sta/Yo)rks versus the Lan(ca/nni)sters, but that’s not driving the plot in any detailed sense. I mean, possibly we’re going to end up with the disabled Stark kid on the throne murdering the Lannister princes, but I don’t really see the series gathering momentum toward that point. Mostly, the ‘plot’ has turned into just one damn thing after another, which is a surprisingly realistic (allowing for the whole fantasy novel level of realism) way of presenting events, as set forth in 7, but also annoying and dull.

But I should stop griping — I got sucked in by the first book, and have been growing crankier and crankier with each subsequent book.

16

Kaveh 10.26.09 at 8:28 pm

@15 I thought the best moments were in books 2 and 3 when you start really getting into the ‘second-row’ characters like Tyrion and that kid the Starks had adopted/held hostage from his parents, from the Iron Isles (forget his name). But I agree it might have been better if he had just waited to write book 4 and trimmed it down and merged it with whatever he is going to put in 5.

Ice and Fire has a kind of post-modern approach plot, like DeLillo’s White Noise (‘all plots are ultimately futile,’ or in Ice and Fire’s case, that narrative history is futile), and that the central theme and central current of events, which doesn’t particularly depend on any of the characters, is the failure of “heroism” or “nobility” to maintain a just political order. And what Martin has done is create a setup where you can infer such an over-arching plot (which in any case is more about large-scale social configurations than about characters), but he scrupulously avoids signaling that any particular event is bound to be especially consequential in “history”. The dragon girl is a foil, she looks like she will be completely unstoppable, the one character that might matter to history, and ultimately a kind of deus ex machina foretold; and she is very marginal to the narrative.

On the other hand, would a fantasy series have the same chance for success if it weren’t set in warmed-over England?

The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts is based on medieval Korea, but yeah…

Even Earthsea, which is meant to be “racially” progressive, is in warmed-over ancient Greece, and pivots on Orientalist tropes. And Martin’s Asia-equivalent is a hideous mess of Orientalist tropes (perfectly disciplined eunuch soldiers, ignorant violent nomads, slave-holding aristocrats…). But I always thought this was more a matter of self-selection by writers than anything to do with the market for fantasy novels.

17

Sebastian 10.26.09 at 8:31 pm

“But I should stop griping—I got sucked in by the first book, and have been growing crankier and crankier with each subsequent book.”

I predict this is going to end like Robert Jordan’s books. Great beginning, tedious middle, awful home stretch, no ending.

Maybe we just need to learn to be satisfied with the beginning for some things?

18

Jon H 10.26.09 at 11:51 pm

Kaveh, why not break parts out into other more focused novels after the main thread is complete?

After all, we know how WW2 ended, but people still keep using it as the setting for stories. If Tolkien were immortal, for instance, he could very easily keep writing essentially standalone novels or trilogies about people living during the events of Lord of the Rings, describing locations that were only mentioned in passing in LOTR.

I’m glad Pratchett didn’t munge all his novels together into one massive, slow-moving, never-resolving tube of plot.

19

Kaveh 10.27.09 at 3:23 am

@18 Kaveh, why not break parts out into other more focused novels after the main thread is complete?

After all, we know how WW2 ended, but people still keep using it as the setting for stories.

I don’t think the point is to write stories about characters in the context of a civil war. The point is to write a kind of deconstructed history of a civil war through the voices of a large number of marginal actors. None of them is capable of becoming a Churchill or a Hitler, but collectively their actions, even just their presence, doesn’t just influence, but virtually *makes up* the course of events (and it’s a civil war, not WWII, so it’s the chaos that’s the story). In other words, narrative history focuses on a few events the historian deems pivotal and compresses the rest into demographic trends, economic circumstances, &c. Individual motives, feelings, &c., are erased by that kind of narrative. What Martin is giving us is a history built from all the stuff that is left out of history. Maybe he’s only doing this to set us up for when the real heroes swoop in and save the day, but I doubt that.

I think of it as something like a medieval fantasy response to subaltern studies. Since it’s medieval history he’s referring to, we have virtually no data about the lower classes that isn’t demographic–few if any narrative sources that would tell us their thoughts, feelings, motives, &c., as we have for elites. So, as with medieval history, the story is limited to the elites, but he picks out the most marginal of elites–children, women, cripples: people who are mostly just affected by events, and who can do something, but very little, to change their course–while teasing us with hints of what things are like for the commoners. And then he drops in moments like Tyrion the dwarf (an actual midget, not a dwarf like in LOTR) riding a horse into battle, wielding an axe (he ends up falling and hitting his head and barely surviving), and the fat kid (forget his name) running down the stairs and dropping an old manuscript in a puddle (a manuscript which is being used for research that could end up saving the day), and a lot of attention to food, festivals, and clothing–intertextual shout-outs to historians and fans of medieval fantasy.

You could say that it’s epic fantasy without heroes.

20

rea 10.27.09 at 12:58 pm

I’m glad Pratchett didn’t munge all his novels together into one massive, slow-moving, never-resolving tube of plot.

Well, of course he did! What, don’t you see it? ;)

21

Doug 10.27.09 at 3:30 pm

I don’t really see the series gathering momentum toward that point.

Fixed.

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