The Big Read: Shackled to the Iron Throne
George RR Martin is my new favourite writer. That is quite a statement to make about someone I've never read.
George RR Martin - for this is a man who uses so many words that just the one middle initial simply won't do - is the bearded, railway-capped king of the fantasy nerds, and writes the series of novels, as broad as a sword and as interminable as the adolescence of a Tolkien fan, on which the Game of Thrones TV series is based. I like watching Game of Thrones (which in my house is subtitled "The Naked and the Dead") but I'm not one of the legions of earnest citizens who scour the internet each day in hope of catching word on the wind that the latest novel is nearly finished.
Mr Martin is in a predicament. He likes to write long books and he likes to rewrite them, and I have to assume he likes to spend some of his day sleeping and some of his waking day not writing, and all of that means his books take time to complete. Years, in fact. Some of his acolytes and apprentices have beards and ratty ponytails down to their waist that hadn't yet started sprouting when he sat down to write Winds of Winter, sixth of its line.
The pressure and expectation mounts by the day, especially because the TV series, which started many years after the first novels were published, has now caught up with them. The next season of Game of Thrones starts this year, and will be the first to move out ahead of the books. What do hardcore Throneheads do? Wait for the book before they watch Season 6? Impossible! Watch the series and then plod through the book with the pictures already in their head and knowing the plot twists ahead of time? Inconceivable!
Even worse, the only way that Martin could keep some measure of control of the fates and destinies of his own characters was to keep ahead of the television writing team. Then he could lead the way - now he's at the mercy of a bunch of twentysomething propellerheads in a writing room who are in it for the Emmys and the coke money. His only chance for publication ahead of broadcast was to deliver the manuscript to his publishers by the end of last month, slaving with bloody fingers over his keyboard, croaking like a raven while the rest of the world threw party streamers.
But the year ended and a new one dawned and unlike winter itself, Winds of Winter isn't coming any time soon. He gave a press conference, shamefaced, acknowledging that he'd let down his publishers and his fans and himself.
It's a dreadful situation, a morality tale to console losers like me. He's the writerly equivalent of those supermodels who can't find a date, or Lotto winners made miserable by their millions. Look - we lowly can say to ourselves - his success has become a trap. The poor guy. Maybe my own lack of achievement is a blessing in disguise.
And what a lesson in perspective. The worst part of writing is usually the loneliness of knowing that whatever torments you're enduring, no one has asked you to endure them. No one is waiting for your words, no one's day but your own will be ruined by not finishing that chapter. You could stop right now and no one else will care. It's a misery, but compare it with George RR Martin's life right now and it feels like the sweetest of liberations.
I've made myself fretful, thinking about him waking every day, wealthy and beloved, yet knowing not a moment's peace because each minute spent lingering over his breakfast is wrapped in a poisonous cloud of guilt. He can't take a stroll or chat with a friend or spend an afternoon at the cricket without knowing he should be somewhere else, at his desk, feeding the dragon of public expectation. It must be similar to the soul-eating pressure that JK Rowling surely felt, completing the final Harry Potter installation, knowing that a generation of young readers was anxiously awaiting the resolution of their childhoods.
How does he not throw his keyboard aside and abjure his arts and curse the gift that ever put him in this position? But he can't, because everyone's waiting for him. There was a thing he loved to do and now it has taken him over and spiked all his pleasures. I think of George RR Martin and his lonely slog till the next deadline, and the fans who hound him online and the heavy hand ever on his shoulder and I think that's as good a motto for 2016 as any: be careful what you wish for.