Richard Morgan on ‘The Slow Death of Nuance’

Richard K. Morgan, author of Altered Carbon and The Dark Defiles, the latter of which I finished reading (and loved) recently, wrote a fantastic essay on his blog a couple of weeks ago about the dumbing down of storytelling and how it increasingly asks less and less of the reader:

Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves.  Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying.  One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable.  There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping.  You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking.  Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here!  Get with the programme.

And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.

He opens by discussing the ending of Lost in Translation, and the powerful way in which Sofia Coppola uses stylistic storytelling to allow the viewer to form their own opinion as to what precisely passed between the main characters while nonetheless showing fairly clearly what actually happens.

The ending of Morgan’s most recent novel The Dark Defiles presents a deliberately inchoate conclusion to its story: the action is cut off at a point where the reader, presuming he or she has been paying attention, should have absolutely no doubt about what happens next, but the coup de grace isn’t shown.  And it’s brilliant.  Apparently not all of Morgan’s readers got it, though, which is unfortunate, because it was a hell of a lot of fun:

The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously.  Honest.  Not at all.  There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion.  You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.

Most readers seem to have done that.

That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.

As Mr. Morgan goes on to point out, sometimes it is indeed the author’s fault, not the reader’s.  But that isn’t the case here.  If you couldn’t follow the ending of The Dark Defiles, you weren’t paying close enough attention.  It’s all in there.  Reread it.  If you still don’t get it, email me and I’ll be happy to explain it to you.

The broader point Morgan makes is well-taken: it’s unfortunate that the mainstream trend in fiction and in film is to remove all ambiguity, and thus do the audience’s thinking for them.  That’s not what art is suppose to be.  Don’t let your art talk down to you.  You deserve better.

Will HBO’s Game of Thrones Reach the End of the Story Before the Novels?

You’ve probably heard the news by now that the sixth novel in George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the incredibly popular HBO series Game of Thrones is based, will not be released in 2015, according to his publisher Harper Collins.  This was hardly a surprise for Martin’s fans, given the frequent and often massive delays between books in the series.

That being said, Chris Taylor over at Mashable took the time to do some basic math and came to the (quite reasonable) conclusion that it would be impossible for Martin to finish the series before HBO does at this point.

What HarperCollins didn’t draw attention to is that the later arrival of Winds of Winter all but guarantees that the HBO series will do what Martin has long hoped it wouldn’t: overtake the books. Here’s why. (Caution: What follows indulges in mild speculation, and includes mild spoilers if you haven’t read the books.)

Season 5 of Game of Thrones arrives in April. It is based on book four, A Feast for Crows, as well as parts of book five, A Dance With Dragons. (The producers managed to split book three into two seasons, but that was jam-packed with plot; sadly, there’s barely enough meat in Crows and Dragons combined to make for a single season.)

The HBO show is on a regular schedule; it films every fall, and screens every spring. There’s little hope of delaying Game of Thrones, especially given its large number of teenaged actors who are growing up faster than the pace of the story allows. Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran Stark, has already gone through so much pubescence that the producers have already parked Bran at the place where he arrives in book five.

The producers have made it quite clear they intend to end the show with Season 7. So we already have a clear road map: Season 6 arrives in 2016, and the HBO show will grace our screens for the last time in 2017.

Martin’s roadmap, meanwhile, involves two more novels: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. The titles were announced nearly a decade ago.

So let’s be generous to Martin, and imagine that Winter is coming in early 2016, just ahead of the TV season that will likely be based on it. That schedule is not entirely beyond the bounds of reason, given that he has already offered two sample chapters of the new book online.

What is beyond the bounds of reason, however, is that Spring could be completed just one year later, in time for Season 7 in 2017. Martin’s books are behemoths lasting between 800 and 1,100 pages each, and even the early books — when he was actually writing fast — had two-year gaps between them.

In other words, at his fastest conceivable writing speed, he would have needed to release Winter this year — and that possibility has just been taken off the table. So we can definitively say that all the long-debated secrets of the series (who Jon Snow’s mother is, who ends up on the Iron Throne, whether the dragons and the arrival of winter destroy everything and everyone) will be revealed on screen before they arrive on the page.

I’ll spare you further commentary on Martin’s writing speed, polemic about whether he’s anyone’s bitch and what, if anything, authors owe to their readers, and pointless speculation about potential differences between the TV and book endings.

What I will say is this:

1.  The TV show has surpassed the books in storytelling quality in certain areas, particularly in regard to its treatment of certain characters (Cersei, for instance) and the plot of the later books, so this isn’t as disappointing to me as it otherwise might be, given that I first fell in love with Martin’s world through the novels.

2.  Mr. Martin has stated publicly that the television show is a major motivation in hastening his work, but I have no doubt that when it becomes clear to him and his publisher, as it may well have already, that they cannot beat HBO to the punch, we’ll see an immediate return to the years-long delays ASOIAF readers have experienced with prior volumes in the series.

3.  Martin has said before that he would consider expanding the (as of now) seven-book series to eight or nine books if he needs to to tell the story.  It seems to me that if the motivation of ending the story ahead of the show disappears, so will any motivation to fit the print story into seven books.  This would be unfortunate, as the story has already gotten flabbier than it should have.