George R.R. Martin's Crisis of Faith, or Why Our Winds of Winter Expectations Should Be Very Low

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George R.R. Martin's Crisis of Faith, or Why Our <i>Winds of Winter</i> Expectations Should Be Very Low

Last Tuesday, on Deadspin, Tim Marchman wrote what might be the most audacious and controversial of any Winds of Winter theory yet: George R.R. Martin, he speculated, has written essentially nothing.

Crazy words, on the surface—and of course it was no more than a guess—but Marchman’s speculative argument was built on a foundation of logic and indisputable facts. For one, Martin’s pace of writing has become glacial. He knocked out the first three books of the Song of Ice and Fire series in four years, but in the fifteen years since, he’s written just two books, and those books cover the same period of time through the lens of different characters; if you’re being ungenerous, you could call them one book, and even that book is technically incomplete. Marchman pointed out that the only Winds of Winter excerpts we’ve seen, and that Martin has sent to his editor, seem to be portions of the old book.

Marchman’s argument gathered momentum, and the theory that first sounded extreme became increasingly compelling…even if its origin, and its appeal to readers like me, was likely born of frustration. Neil Gaiman set readers straight on our sense of entitlement back in 2009 (“George R.R. Martin is not your bitch”), but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong to feel a bit of agony about the whole thing. If you love the books, it’s inevitable that you’ll look at Martin’s increasing age, and his lethargic rate of creation, and feel a bit pessimistic about whether we’ll ever see Winds of Winter, much less the seventh and (supposedly) final installment of the story.

Marchman’s timing, it turned out, was impeccable. In a blog post published on Saturday, Martin gave us all a long-awaited status update on his Winds of Winter progress, and while the news wasn’t quite as dire as Marchman surmised, it wasn’t much better. In fact, the portrait Martin painted of his own writing process was even more depressing than the popular perception of a man enjoying his newfound celebrity and simply procrastinating. Instead, he described himself as an artist who had lost the fire, and for whom the task of completing his series had become an anxiety-provoking labor of pain.

We no longer have to speculate about what’s happening behind closed doors in the GRRM household, because the man himself laid it all out with remarkable honesty. “You wanted an update,” he wrote. “Here’s the update. You won’t like it.”

Believe me, it gave me no pleasure to type those words. You’re disappointed, and you’re not alone. My editors and publishers are disappointed, HBO is disappointed, my agents and foreign publishers and translators are disappointed… but no one could possibly be more disappointed than me. For months now I have wanted nothing so much as to be able to say, “I have completed and delivered THE WINDS OF WINTER” on or before the last day of 2015.

But the book’s not done.

Marchman was technically wrong with his “no pages” theory, but you end up wishing he had been right. Martin has a policy of purposeful vagueness when it comes to his own progress, but sensing the mounting unease from his readers, he lifted the veil and showed us the distressed reality. After his publishers set a Halloween 2015 deadline for him, hopeful that they could publish the book before the next season of Game of Thrones—which will begin to spoil elements of the story that have not yet appeared in the book—Martin felt optimistic. The feeling didn’t last:

Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact… you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my 20s. And as spring turned to summer, I was having more bad days than good ones. Around about August, I had to face facts: I was not going to be done by Halloween. I cannot tell you how deeply that realization depressed me.

The new deadline was the end of 2015—Bantam would just speed up the process, and still get the book out by March, ahead of the series—and he greeted that stay of execution with intense relief. Which, of course, was short-lived:

I had two whole extra months! I could make that, certainly. August was an insane month, too much travel, too many other obligations… but I’d have September, October, and now November and December as well. Once again I was confident I could do it.

Here it is, the first of January. The book is not done, not delivered. No words can change that. I tried, I promise you. I failed. I blew the Halloween deadline, and I’ve now blown the end of the year deadline. And that almost certainly means that no, THE WINDS OF WINTER will not be published before the sixth season of GAME OF THRONES premieres in April (mid April, we are now told, not early April, but those two weeks will not save me). Even as late as my birthday and our big Emmy win, I still thought I could do it… but the days and weeks flew by faster than the pile of pages grew, and (as I often do) I grew unhappy with some of the choices I’d made and began to revise… and suddenly it was October, and then November… and as the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became…

But I won’t make excuses. There are no excuses. No one else is to blame. Not my editors and publishers, not HBO, not David & Dan. It’s on me. I tried, and I am still trying. I worked on the book a couple of days ago, revising a Theon chapter and adding some new material, and I will writing on it again tomorrow. But no, I can’t tell you when it will be done, or when it will be published. Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit. But when delivery will be, I can’t say. I am not going to set another deadline for myself to trip over. The deadlines just stress me out.

So there you have it. It’s a new year, but the same old story—we don’t know when Martin will be finished, but it won’t be anytime soon.

What does this mean, on a deeper level? To me, the situation looks pretty dire. This isn’t just “slow” writing. This is more like a crisis of faith. It looks like a writer who stands on very shaky ground concerning his own story, and who, if he had his druthers, would probably just spike the whole thing. As it stands, it seems like he didn’t begin seriously writing until the deadline loomed, and even then, he couldn’t sustain any momentum.

He can’t spike the whole thing, of course. There’s too much expectation, too much anticipation, and like it or not, A Song of Ice and Fire has become his life’s work. The emergence of HBO’s Game of Thrones exacerbates the situation. As Martin noted, you’d be hard-pressed to find another example of a TV show that gets made in the midst of a written series, and then catches up to and surpasses that series. That has clearly added an unhelpful burden to the psychological workload of a man who already seems to resent deadlines. Based on his dissatisfaction with some of his recent writing, it has also grievously hindered the quality of his own work, and that’s an even bigger problem.

Let’s summarize: George R.R. Martin is a 67-year-old man whose life has been changed by fame. But while many would be able to simply enjoy the fruits of their labor, Martin has something hanging over his head—his own work. The stress has slowed his production, and that’s worrisome enough. But the worst outcome, by far, is that the pressure has stripped the joy from his writing. Without the love of the game, it’s hard to imagine that he can maintain a consistent level of creativity even if the words make it to the page.

Where does that leave us? With very little room for optimism. What I’m about to say might fall under what Martin calls “the usual garbage internet journalism that I have learned to despise.” I’ll risk it, because to me, there are only two conclusions to draw from this mess, and both of them feel inevitable:

1. The Winds of Winter, when it comes out, will be of lesser quality than the previous books.

2. Martin will likely never finish the series.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong. No—here’s hoping I’m extremely wrong, and that this post becomes an object of mockery at some future date. I’m rooting for him, and if he pulls off an incredible feat against the odds, I’ll happily eat my feast of crow.