Expectation and obligation

Some necessary background: George R.R. Martin is a science fiction and fantasy author who's been writing (and editing) in the field for quite a while. In 1996, he started a new epic fantasy series entitled The Song of Ice and Fire, a hugely complex and sprawling series telling the story of an entire medieval world, with four volumes published and something on the order of 19 viewpoint characters to date. The fourth and last book to date in the series was published in 2005. It contained only half the viewpoints expected (and in my opinion and that of at least some other readers, the least interesting half). There was an afterword saying basically that the book was cut somewhat artificially in half for length reasons (it was 753 hardcover pages for what was there), the next book would have the other viewpoints, and it was basically done.

Three years and some later, and after a few other optimistic updates, it's not yet done. Some of Martin's fans are increasingly getting antsy and sometimes abusive about this. This has increasingly been getting to Martin, and he's responded in various ways in his personal blog, most recently February 19th. See also John Scalzi and Charlie Stross reacting to his post.

Now, I'm not one of the people who is rabid about this series. I'm a little disappointed that I haven't gotten to read the next bits with the characters I really like in the series, and I didn't much care for A Feast for Crows because of how the book was split. But I have a thousand other books I want to read (literally — I've read less than half the books I own) and if I don't get to see more of the series, oh well. I am, however, very interested in the fan reaction to this delay and Martin's reaction to that, because it has started reminding me of similar things in my own life.

Some of the fans are just batshit insane, which is one of the things that happens to a best-selling author; I feel for Martin there but there isn't much anyone can really do about that. But among the sane people, there are a bunch who say something like "I understand why the constant nagging doesn't help, but on the other hand, when you start a big story with unresolved plots, you have an obligation to your readers to finish it."

I call bullshit on that.

This same effect happens in the free software world. If you write some program, you're perceived to have an obligation to support it, fix it, release new versions, and so forth. I've also had this happen in other volunteer contexts, such as Usenet. Often that obligation is based on some comments that one makes about future plans, things that will go into the next release, e-mail messages where you say that you'll look at something, and so forth. It's not entirely groundless, and it's not groundless with Martin either.

However.

As any software developer knows, time estimates for tasks are horribly difficult and almost always too short. This is clearly what happened to Martin, and bitching about the time estimates doesn't help at all. Some problems turn out to be so much harder than you expect that time estimates fail entirely. With creative work (including some programming) it's particularly hard to know how much work is remaining. You may know roughly how much you have left to write, but you don't know how hard each chunk will be until you start it, and sometimes until you finish it. With some projects, the only thing you can do is say "sorry, my estimates were completely off and I don't know how to estimate this" and then stop promising dates. Which Martin has already done. He was "wrong" in some sense for setting bad expectations, but estimation is insanely hard and the world usually doesn't let you get away with just refusing to estimate anything.

So much for time. What about whether Martin has an obligation to write the next book at all?

The equivalent question in the free software world is whether one can just walk away from a project, or away from a volunteer position, leaving a bunch of stuff undone that some people who were using the software were counting on having finished. It's a bit easier to deal with in free software, since usually just promises are at stake, whereas with Martin he's sold a commercial product and people get weird about money. There is a reasonable expectation that a series of this type will have a conclusion (although I'll point out that the SFF world is filled with unfinished series). Maybe you wouldn't have bought any of the series if you had known that it wouldn't end, so now you're out $100 for the hardcovers that you feel like you bought on false pretenses. Let's examine that.

First, I have a serious problem with people who use the economic transaction as leverage in this sort of argument. This is a really piddly amount of money for each individual person, generally less than I get paid for one hour of work. Writing a new novel is way, way more than one hour of work. Martin's fans are demanding that he do work that's worth many orders of magnitude more than they're conceivably out monetarily. (And the reactions are individual reactions of anger; the level of upsetness of each individual shouldn't change based on the total size of the fan base.) Furthermore, their economic transaction was with the publisher, and they had no control and no say over how Martin got paid. From multiple different directions, they're not his employer, have no contractual control over how he spends his time, and have no legitimate economic basis for asserting any such control. They can make a decision to not buy his future work because they're disappointed, and that's it.

Second, it is absolutely mandatory to give other people room to be wrong or change their mind. Human beings cannot keep every promise that they make. We fail at things that we fully intend to do, particularly around estimates, and particularly around one's dedication to decade-long major life projects. People are wrong about marriages and children, which involve far more serious consequences than a fiction series. I think it's a good reality check here to note that his fans are placing way more restrictions on what he can do with his life than would be legal for any employer.

Third, when someone doesn't meet your expectations, the response should be proportional and rational. This is the one that really gets to me. Choosing not to read the next book in the series because it's been too long is entirely reasonable. Trying to make Martin feel like crap is not. I would go further: nothing that an artist could promise to their general public could warrant intentionally making them feel like crap for failing to do it. That level of emotional consequence should be reserved for things like marriage, parenting, or life-long friendship, not disappointment that you didn't get to hear the end of a story you were enjoying. I speak from personal experience here: this type of punishment by guilt is a nasty, nasty business. It burns people out faster than any other possible reaction, it makes it much less likely that Martin will continue the series at all, and it's probably poisoning his feelings about the entire world. It's burning down the bridge you're standing on. It always hurts and never helps.

People already create feelings of obligation around things they've promised, implicitly or explicitly, to do, and generate plenty of their own guilt. That guilt is one of the major obstacles that one has to overcome to be productive; if you don't believe me, read any good productivity book, such as Allen's Getting Things Done, and notice how much it talks about getting past guilt. Intentionally going out of your way to contact someone you do not know personally and pile on more guilt is vicious, cruel, and tactically counterproductive. Trust me, Martin didn't fail to notice that he missed his own deadlines.

I think Martin's post and the subsequent discussion is a great opportunity for all of us who create or use creative and technical works to think about how we apply the Golden Rule. There's a natural tendency to hold people tightly to promises that we'll get something that we want. There's a natural tendency for all of us to make those promises, since people are grateful for them, and then pile guilt on ourselves for not meeting them. All of the emotion wrapped up in both sides of that tension of expectation and obligation can be exhausting and poisonous. It makes relationships brittle because we don't let people renegotiate. We don't let people say they were wrong. We don't let people change their minds. And we don't let ourselves change our minds.

Here's my promise: the next time someone doesn't meet an expectation I had, I will remember this discussion, give them space to be wrong, and not pile on more guilt. Like all promises, I'll try to keep it, but I might not be able to.

Posted: 2009-02-24 20:51 — Why no comments?

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04