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Art of the Genre: The Age of Perfect Creation

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 | Posted by Scott Taylor

martin-300Perhaps some of you know of my utter disdain for George R.R. Martin. There are various reasons for this feeling, but this week I had a friend call me to complain about A Dance of Dragons, a book which I’ve refused to read. I must say, however, that I felt a great deal of satisfaction at his ire toward the novel because somehow that made my own dislike of Martin’s post-2000 work all the more valid. My friend’s thoughts were echoed by the bulk of Amazon reviews, and as I did a bit of research on what people were thinking about A Dance of Dragons I remembered my own experience with its predecessor in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

You see, the last Martin book I read was A Feast for Crows. I took it with me on vacation to St. Croix and read it under the tranquil skies of the Caribbean just a few months before my son was born. When I got to the end of the book, there was a note of apology placed there from Martin concerning the text I’d just read. Now I’m no rocket scientist, but if an author has to apologize to a reader AFTER they read his book, then you know you’ve been taken for a ride.

At that point I swore I’d never read anything by Martin again, no matter how much I loved A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. In that promise to myself, I was vindicated by my friend’s words concerning A Dance of Dragons. Yes, at last a true victory for being a stubborn ass was mine to enjoy!!!!!!

However, after hearing this news concerning the latest volume, a couple of remembered quotes I’d read concerning writing started doing the rockem sockem robot dance in my head.

The first of these random quotes concerns Martin’s publication dates, and his extreme time lag between.

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.

– Stephen King, On Writing.

Stephen is preaching to the choir here, and as the Song of Ice and Fire was delayed, and delayed, and delayed again, I couldn’t figure out what the heck was the problem. First I blamed the author’s success, his whims, his newfound wealth, and then I had fell into the whole mess of Neil Gaiman and his infamous ‘George R.R. Martin is not your bitch’ rant about authors not owing their fans anything, so if they [the author] chose not to finish a series, that’s not the author’s problem and the fans should get over it.

Now as distressing as I found Gaiman’s diatribe on the subject, I couldn’t readily accept that Martin was simply being a diva about Song of Ice and Fire, or that Neil was truly hitting the nail on the head with his venom toward fans. Sure, he might have been in the ballpark, but he wasn’t really ‘there’. I mean, George didn’t come off like an uncaring sod in interviews, so I kept digging deeper, and then one day I found this quote:

I don’t believe that young minds can yet begin to grasp all the complexities involved in writing good stories. Young writers regurgitate, they don’t originate or innovate. Quantity and quality are not the same thing. It often takes years of practice before a person matures enough to write anything worthwhile. A writer needs to learn about life before he can hope to accurately recreate it in fiction.

– Terry Goodkind, 2007

fellowship-300Now Terry Goodkind is certainly a diva, but he’s still a smart one [much like Gaiman for that matter]. After reading the above, and having gotten on in years myself, it certainly made sense to me. I mean, there are certain facts that just ‘are’, and until you get to that point in life you will not be able to truly ‘get it’. This really, and I mean really, pisses young people off, but I suggest it’s like the whole kids debate. Until you have children, you just won’t understand what it’s like, and I can’t possibly make you or anyone without them understand. You simply have to have done it, period, and for people without kids, well I guess they’ll have to stay pissed that people are telling them they can’t comprehend a feeling. Ignorance is bliss, and in most cases bliss = youth which is why old people are usually such downers because they’ve seen their share of disappointment and it wears on them.

Anyway, using Goodkind’s wisdom as my guide, I looked closer at the possibility that if people needed age to help them write wonderful, thoughtful, and deep works, then couldn’t it be possible that age might also be a detractor in the art of writing?

Martin, God bless him, took 10 years to write the two most recent novels in the Song of Ice and Fire, and both of them are complete rambling turds. Why is this the case? What happened between Game of Thrones and Dance of Dragons that makes one a Top 10 fantasy book of all time and another a cautionary tale? Well, when I got right down to it, there wasn’t any real mystery… the problem here is age.

Sure, I’m going to get some flak for saying this, but the reality is we all have an expiration date. I mean somewhere on our bodies there really should be a label that says, ‘best if used by’.

You see, Game of Thrones was released in 1995, which means Martin probably wrote it as late as 1994, when he was 46 years old [and Wiki says he began work on it in 1991, which means age 43]. That, for all you scoring at home, is undoubtedly a writer’s prime.

To help prove this I’m going to make the dreaded sports analogy here. Professional athletes hit their prime in most sports around age 28, and by 32 are in decline. Those four short years define their career, but it’s usually in that window that we see the magic happen. Sure, there are exceptions, NFL Quarterback Brett Farve had his best statistical year in 2009, at age 39, and was one bad pass away from the Super Bowl, but this lightening in a bottle doesn’t happen often. [The following year, at 40, his career tanked, he had his worst year as a pro and did permanent damage to his legacy…]

Writers have a window of ‘perfect’ production, and although it’s much more forgiving than the 4 years of an athlete, it still exists. I mean, there’s a reason you know famous works by authors and yet don’t know what they’ve done in the past 20 years of their lives until their obituary is plastered all over the internet.

the-white-dragon-300There comes a time where you need to retire, you need to hang up your cleats, or in this case, your keyboard, and sail into the sunset. It sucks for everyone, sure, and it’s sad to see them go, and yet isn’t it more horrible to pick up an author’s latest work and think ‘wow, what happened?’ Wouldn’t you rather remember them in the light when their words could do no wrong and each sentence was linguistic gold?

I’m going push my argument with some stats and let you be the judge. Inside these stats you’ll see I’ve included a defining award, and I’ve done this because typically an award showcases the very best of an author’s work, thus, that should be the barometer for the high point of a career.

Let me give some examples:

    Michael Moorcock [Born 1939]: Definitive series Elric 1965-1979, Nebula Award Behold the Man, 1967. Prime writing years Age 26-40.

    Orson Scott Card [Born 1951]: Definitive series Ender 1985 – Ongoing [but can you name a book after Xenocide, 1991?], Nebula Award Ender’s Game, 1985. Prime writing years Age 33-40.

    Stephen King [Born 1947]: Definitive series [Fantasy] Gunslinger 1982-Ongoing, Bram Stoker Award Misery 1987. Prime writing years Age 30-50 [ending with The Green Mile].

    Piers Anthony [Born 1934]: Definitive series Xanth 1977-Ongoing [I dare you to name all 36 current volumes!], Award Nebula Nomination A Spell for Chameleon, 1978. Prime writing years Age 32-52.

    J.R.R. Tolkien [Born 1892]: Definitive series Lord of the Rings 1940+ [written], Published 1954, Award International Fantasy Award 1957. Prime writing years Age 40-57.

    Arthur C. Clarke [Born 1917]: Definitive series Odyssey 1968. Hugo Award 1956 ‘The Star’, Prime writing years Age 40-55.

    Robert Jordan [Born 1948]: Definitive series Wheel of Time 1990-Ongoing [Jordan died in 2007 at age 58], Locus Award Nominee Lord of Chaos, 1995, Prime writing years 40-50 [before the wheels came off Wheel of Time].

    Isaac Asimov [Born 1920]: Definitive series Foundation 1942, Award Nebula The Gods Themselves, 1972, Prime writing years Age 22-65.

    David Eddings [Born 1931]: Definitive series Belgariad 1982-1984, Locus Poll Best Fantasy Novel Nominee Pawn of Prophecy, 1983, Prime writing years Age 50-60 [in which he wrote both the Belgariad and the Mallorean]

    Sue Grafton [Born 1940]: Definitive series ‘is for’ [A is for Alibi] 1982-Ongoing, Anthony Award ‘B’ is for Burglar 1985, Prime writing years 42-55 [ending sometime around ‘M’ is for Malice]

    Anne McCaffrey [Born 1926] Definitive series Pern 1968-2001 [before she started co-authoring the series], Hugo Award Weyr Search, 1968, Prime writing years Age 42-65 [ending around All the Weyrs of Pern].

foundation03This could go on until the cows come home, but the essence of it breaks down to a set of years that ‘most’ great writers produce their best work, which is typically sometime between age 35 and age 55, a very comfortable twenty year window. Yes, yes, all points can be argued, all dates debated, but remember I’m talking as a whole.

The above is an average, but I believe my point is sound, that being that A Game of Thrones was written in Martin’s prime. Martin was born in 1948, so in 1994 he was 46 which pretty much puts him smack dab in the middle of his prime years. You add 17 years to that publishing figure for the release of A Dance of Dragons and all of a sudden you’ve slipped WELL past your golden creative window to the age of 63 [even the great Asimov was just doing novellas at this point in his life].

Now before you get all upset like I’m an ‘ageist’, remember, I’m 40 and I’ve yet to be published. Even if I had the chops to be out there contributing to the world of fantasy literature I’ve got a decade or less before whatever menial skills I have start to degrade. For me, the writing is on the wall as much as it is for anyone. Sure, I’d like to be Tolkien or Clarke, boast being a late bloomer and have fifteen years of important writing left in me, but let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tolkiens or Clarkes in any given generation.

Age catches us all, and if anyone is out there thinking about writing something but hasn’t found the time, I’d suggest you get on it. Going 5 to 10 years between volumes of your work, like Martin, will turn your creations from grand castles into a house of cards at the stroke of midnight.

If Martin publishes another volume of Song of Ice and Fire, at the current torrid pace he’s set in the new millennia, he will be 68 by that time. If you use my numbers, that simply means it’s not going to be a great piece of literature. Remember the only above listed author, working as a solo project novel, to have gone to press in a series at that age or later is Anne McCaffrey with The Skies of Pern in 2001 at age 75, and that book wasn’t 1978’s The White Dragon… let me tell you.

Now you might be asking where I’m going with all this? Well, at the core I’m saying if you wanted Song of Ice and Fire finished ‘the right way’, it’s just not going to happen, if it happens at all. I mean, Martin has already proven with the latest two volumes that he’s lost it, just as George Lucas did with his dreaded prequel Star Wars trilogy [which he both wrote and directed at age 53 to 59, his very best work coming at age 30-45 as he was an early bloomer]. If you have high hopes for whatever comes after A Dance of Dragons, just remember Attack of the Clones and save your $34 on the newest Martin hardcover if it actually ever makes it to a book store near you.

That’s not a trash of Martin, it’s really not his fault, and after a decade of hating on the guy I finally realize I was wrong. He wrote three incredible books before the bottom fell out and he ran out of time. I, like I’m sure many of you, just wish Song of Ice and Fire had been a trilogy that somehow ended with A Storm of Swords in 2000 [when he was 52]

Like Anthony, King, and Jordan before him, Martin’s expiration date looks like age 50, so although he might still be there next to the rest of the condiments in the door of the refrigerator, someone needs to turn him around, check the time stamp, and realize… ‘wow, ketchup really does go bad… I thought my last hamburger tasted funny last week…’

At this point, we’re all better off making up our own ending to the literary epic of the Stark family, and in mine Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen get hitched and rule Westros from the Iron Throne as King and Queen with wolves and dragons at their side. Yep, that’s about all I need…


  1. Sarah: Even more interesting that different types of writers would have different lifespans… I’m not sure why that is…

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 27, 2012 11:52 pm

  2. RadiantAbyss: Well, I survived the day so I’m feeling pretty good! 😉

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 27, 2012 11:53 pm

  3. With all do respect to my fellow Black Gate blogger … while I too have noted that during some long writing careers there does seem to be a point where the works produced become less interesting … you’re making quite an unscientific leap, backed only by your own subjective judgements on various books, in trying to tie the arc of a writer’s career directly to the biological process of aging. The Goodkind quote is referring to accumulated experience, not the biological process of growing old.

    Consider this: David Eddings’ entire career as a fantastist lasted from when he was 51 until his death at 77.

    I think the much more likely explanation is that each writer only has so many extraordinary book ideas in them — no human being can be an infinite fountain of genius 24/7 — and a professional writer with a long career will be lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to have a chance to get all those extraordinary ideas out on paper while he or she still has some life left.

    Comment by Mike Allen - January 29, 2012 4:34 pm

  4. Mike: If I’m right or wrong doesn’t matter, all that matters is that my fellow Black Gate bloggers take the time to read my blog, so it looks like I WIN! :)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - January 29, 2012 4:37 pm

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