The burden of George R.R. Martin – and what suspense and its resolution mean for us in the real world

I can still picture the display in our local university bookstore, sometime around 1999 – a major new fantasy series, with at least two books in print: A Game of Thrones, and A Clash of Kings. It looked medieval, and epic, and soon I was learning about the Starks and Lannisters, Baratheons and Targaryens. The author, George R. R. Martin, had sold the series to his publisher as a trilogy, but clearly the scope was beyond that.

And these books were complex. So many mysteries! Friends and I were speculating, early on, that Jon Snow was a secret Targaryen heir, but even if that were the case, there was a massive number of other storylines that needed to be resolved. And so we waited. The third book in the series was published in 2000, the fourth in… 2005, the fifth in… 2011, and here it is, 2020, with at least two more books to come. Martin is now 72 years old.

you_know_nothing_jon_snowPersonally, I stopped reading after the third book, although I’d probably return to the series if the rest are ever published. Other fans are more emotionally invested and have had stronger feelings on the topic than myself. Responding to these fans, in 2009 novelist Neal Gaiman published a famous essay that included the now-classic line, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” But, he kind of is. Martin created a need that only he can fill, with the implied promise to do so. Of course he’s as entitled to spend his time however he pleases, as much as any of us are, but…

When I was a girl, on Thursday evenings we always watched The Flip Wilson Show, and one week, Flip told us a long, convoluted story that just, abruptly, ended. My parents laughed and told me it was a “shaggy dog story.” That sort of thing can be amusing when it’s a 5- or 10-minute standup act, but not when you’ve invested dozens of hours in the story, over many years.

When we read a book – or watch a TV show or movie or play or sporting event, or listen to music – we experience suspense, which has two parts. First, there’s the anticipatory tension that builds over time; then, there’s the satisfying resolution of the suspense. We enjoy both the tension and its release. It’s hard-wired in us. Looking forward to a good meal when you’re hungry is one example of a biological drive that takes this form; I’m sure you can think of other examples. The problem, psychologically, is that we need the tension and the release to be in balance – all tension and no release makes us unhappy.

JheregAs a writer, I would never take on a huge, multivolume project like A Song of Ice and Fire – whatever the benefits of all the success Martin’s experienced, the flip side would be way too oppressive. Other authors have embarked on epic stories with different strategies. In Steven Brust’s Jhereg series about the sardonic assassin and mobster Vlad Taltos, a member of a lower-class species (humans) living among much more powerful and longer-lived Dragaerans, each book can stand alone, like episodes of a TV series with recurring characters. He’s telling a larger story, designed to take 19 books to finish, but cynical Vlad isn’t anticipating a resolution, and the readers aren’t either. We hope Brust will get there (and happy 65th birthday tomorrow, Mr. Brust!), but the suspense he’s creating is mostly within books, not between books. For contrast, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was clearly going somewhere specific from the beginning. Jordan had planned six books, but the story required fourteen to tell, and Jordan died (at age 58) without finishing it, 23 years after the first book debuted. He left copious notes, and his wife and editor hired Brandon Sanderson, an unusually prolific young writer, to finish the story. (Martin has said he’s not interested in this option.)

As everyone knows, HBO decided to televise A Game of Thrones, a project that lasted eight years. At first, fans were pleased that Martin would have a clear deadline to finish the story, then they were concerned that he was spending so much time on the TV series instead of writing the books. Finally, it was decided to complete the TV series in advance of the books.

Having one answer to his story out there takes some of the burden off Martin. I hope this means it will be easier for him to write the rest of his story now. And if he does write the books he’s planned, we can read them just for pleasure, not because we need a resolution of our built up need.

The thought I had today, that I wanted to share with you, is something of how this relates to the real world. First, though, I need to make a distinction between two types of works that people can write about things that have happened: a “history” and a “chronicle.” A “chronicle” is a description of many things that happened for a group of people over a certain span of time. It’s selective, in that it only includes what its writer considers important, but it’s not leading anywhere. There’s no larger meaning. (An “annal” is a chronicle that covers only one year.)

A “history,” on the other hand, has a general story form: a problem or category of problems, ways these problems were addressed, and some sort of resolution or closure. That is, it has an interpretive framework and the author is selective in what she or he chooses to tell about this story, emphasizing what fits into this framework.

When we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the wider world, our experience is much like a chronicle. Things happen, then more things happen, and sometimes we notice causal patterns, and sometimes things just seem random. But there are people who interpret it for us, using the very same type of frameworks that historians might use. Unlike most historians, however, these interpreters – often politicians and the leaders of social movements – are hoping that they can get us to share their vision, so they can get us caught up in suspense the same way storytellers do and harness our excitement to do what they think we should be doing – vote for them, or devote our lives to the goals we share with them, or join their faith, and so forth.

If we live in a totalitarian society, like the Soviet Union under Stalin or modern-day North Korea, the official story is the only story. Everyone’s life is supposed to serve that story. When enough people are disenchanted, the story fails, but until that happens, it is all powerful.

In a pluralistic society like ours, we can choose the story that makes the most sense for us. We’ll set our goals and hope they’ll be at least partially met, since they’re competing with the goals of the other party or parties, too. And we learn not to expect that the stories our leaders tell us can unfold as smoothly as a story in a book. It’s not realistic to expect resolution.

The reality is that there’s no one story that’s necessarily better than all the others. Our real history is the sum of all the parallel histories – it’s polyphonic, many voices singing different melodies at the same time, not just joining into one simple song.

The bottom line is: Sure, we can choose stories to live by, and our lives can be especially gratifying if we do so. But we should choose stories that don’t require a resolution to be worthwhile, and we should always be aware that we’re choosing a story and not just let it happen to us blindly. Full immersion in stories is best saved for recreation.

(Also, while writing this, I realized that I should try to teach myself to read each book in an ongoing epic fantasy series as a chronicle, not a history – if I can do that, I won’t have to wait 20 years to start Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive!)

That’s it for now. Whether or not you’re celebrating a holiday this week, please take care.


About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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1 Response to The burden of George R.R. Martin – and what suspense and its resolution mean for us in the real world

  1. Robin Turner says:

    “Full immersion in stories is best saved for recreation.” Nicely put!

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