Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, May 06, 2011

A Response With Ponies

The Story So Far

Up to date? OK, so, taking Martin's comment in chunks:

On Dates and Debts

I don't think it is wrong (or even controversial) to suggest the relationship the between artist and consumer is far more transactional than that between potential sexual partners.

Not at all. That's why I'm cutting straight to the chase in terms of the intersection of commerce and leisure and talking about the sex industry -- so as to dispense with any sense of writerly preciousness about trade being tawdry or something. I genuinely reckon the comparison is fair; writing is an entertainment service that's immensely intimate, pleasure-oriented and capable of being anything from a cheap thrill to an actual -- albeit transactional -- relationship of sorts. With potential sex partners it's generally not transactional at all... until it is, that is, until it's offered as a service. At which point we're dealing with the same thing -- kicks for cash.

Am I (in the analogy) paying George RR Martin for sex or do I want him to be my boyfriend? I would say the former and if I'm paying for sex, you better believe that I want to orgasm.

What you're paying for is up to you. Some will go to sex workers for a basic blowjob. Some will go for a full fuck. And some will go for services which include companionship or kinks. Think of genres as particular kinks and subtlety, complexity, depth in fiction as intimacy. Judging from what I know of Martin's series, from word-of-mouth and the HBO show, going just for an orgasm would be daft. There's not a lot of eyeball kicks there, and precious little of the quick-thrill pandering of heroic monomyth wank-fantasy. No "orphan who's secretly a prince" there. No, Martin's a classy escort you want the full experience with. You want the conversation that is rich character interaction. You want to be seduced, romanced, even if at the end of the day, you're paying for it. Sure, you want a climax -- which, by the sounds of it, book four forestalls -- but what you're in it for, for the most part, is an escort on your arm for a whole night on the town and under the sheets, not just a quick hand shandy.

Somewhere in your analogy is an accusation of the classic "I bought you dinner and flowers therefore you owe me sex" sense of entitlement which I guess translates equally between hetro and homo culture. I hope I am not guilt of this even by analogy.

No, remember I'm talking about an ongoing transactional relationship, even if it is one where the john is looking to immerse themselves utterly in the intimate meeting of one and tother. So the dancing and romancing takes place, but it's for cold hard cash and a spout of cum at the end of the day, and as such your fake boyfriend only has the obligation to you they've explicitly agreed to. Not that a real boyfriend would be any more tacitly obliged to put out cause you're really in the mood, but the point is, this is a business arrangement, for all the artifice of personal connection, and if it's not bought yet, it isn't yours by right.

You can imagine they'll do anything for you, be entranced by their arts, but the escort cannot invest themselves in you like they would in an actual boyfriend, cause there's countless more of you out there. They can only develop their craftsmanship, find their own personal approach born of skills honed over time, and offer you -- in truth -- the exact same eight date ersatz relationship they're offering to every punter.

If, on the fourth date, they forestall the nookie till next time, you might well feel irate... if you reject the whole technique of the cliffhanger. I can't say the alleged lack of closure in Martin's fourth book makes me want to run out and buy the series, because I don't like cock-teases myself. But at the end of the day, as frustrating as that date might be for some, if the escort refuses to put out, that's as legitimate as a real boyfriend saying, "Not tonight." It's a whole lot less likely with an escort where, yeah, the orgasm at the end is likely understood as expected, but in this gnarly serial version, this full-on ersatz relationship, where the service offered is bonding as much as bondage? Well, practically speaking, in fiction you *can't* actually shove your way in their door and take what you're "owed." That would mean somehow forcing a writer to immediately rewrite book four with a climax. But bitchslapping for this "unpaid debt"? No, I think that's where it crosses the line into something akin to that "you owe me sex" entitlement.

If the book ends with a parrot instead of the pony you wanted, that doesn't mean you're owed one pony.

The Recourse of Reviewing

Still, unlike an actual relationship, the transactional quality here would certainly, I'd say, entitle you to the same recourse you have with fiction.

If I bought your book, didn't like it and then wrote up a bad review on the internet then that would just be par for the course. If I fucked you, thought you were crap and then wrote that up on the internet I would indeed be a contemptible cunt of a human being. So I think we only differ on how transactional that relationship is.

Actually, if that fuck was for money, as a service, I'd say that sex review would be wholly valid. And damn straight, you could sound off about how that no-orgasm fourth date bit the big one. (Or didn't, rather, didn't munch down on the mighty one at all.) Another reviewer with a certain kinda kink might well rave about the cock-tease of it, cause that's totally their thing. Neither of you would be out of order. The only thing that would be dodgy, in my book, is claiming that you had an unwritten agreement that was reneged on, that you were rooked, cause no one in the world has *ever* ended an instalment of a series on a cliffhanger, so that filthy boy-whore had no fucking *right* to do that to you. That's just letting your frustration lead you to false accusations, umbrage taken to unreason.

Cliffhangers are hardly rare in serials, so if you revile them, the rational attitude is your own -- to wait until the series is complete. Otherwise... it's like raging that this week's episode of Generic TV Show ended with "To be continued," that this is *so* wholly unconventional it's an unpardonable transgression, that you have an "unwritten contract" with Mister Showrunner forbidding two-parters. For sure, with novels it's a gnarlier issue because of the scale, but ultimately in the serial form such a reaction is pretty unsound, I'd say. And if the reviewer genuinely starts talking in terms of "moral obligation" and "tacit agreement" that's entering into a self-serving fantasy of their personal expectations as ethical obligations.

But this isn't about reviewing anyway. And the big grievance is the delay. So...

On Waiters and Wankers

For me, A Song Of Ice And Fire is not a series of novels but rather a single novel served in individual chunks so I don't see that the analogy of a series of dinner dates holds (in the same way that it might for, say, Iain M Banks's Culture series).

The semantics of how we define a "proper novel" don't matter. The service still comes in individual chunks, with each serving being paid for as and when it comes. Like a series of dinners in the same restaurant.

Martin has offered a multi-course tasting menu... and is taking a bloody long time between courses.

I'm stripping out those assumptions of intent for now because Martin's motivations are sheer projection on your part and utterly irrelevant. Magically mindread motivations have no bearing on the point at hand -- to wit, the delay as breach of some imaginary contract. So... a multi-course tasting menu with a massive delay before Course #5?

Again, the service still comes in individual chunks, with each serving *being paid for as and when it comes*. So, no, that analogy doesn't play. If it did, man, that would be even worse. You'd have readers sitting through four courses of a meal for free, then haranguing the staff about how they're "owed" the rest, when they've paid for *none of it* so far. They'd be perfectly able (and customarily entitled) to walk out in outrage, with what they did eat most likely comp'ed, but instead they'd be cursing out their serving staff for not delivering food they claim as their right by dint of the menu on the door having piqued their interest. And they'd be basing their outrage in part on how amazing those first four dishes were. How dare the chef do that to them, give them such exquisite enjoyment, then keep them waiting *a whole half-hour* for a course that's gone all wrong!

That's not a random figure, by the way. I mean, eight courses is one every half hour for a four hour meal. Allowing twenty five minutes to eat a course, we're talking a five minute wait between courses as the target. Four or five times the expected delivery time is actually not even 30 minutes, but hey, let's throw in an extra cycle or two to round it up. A whole half-hour wait for Course #5! Out-fucking-rageous! Yeah, next time I'm in my local gastro pub and I have to wait half an hour for the cheese board, I must remember to berate that minion maitre'd for betraying the unwritten contract. Investment? I've been going there since the first day it opened, fifteen years ago. So I'll give him twenty minutes then start calling him a chiselling motherfucker for reneging on his tacit agreement.

Or not.

For all that I've spent more time and money in that place than I care to think about, somehow I don't feel it's a reasonable response to spit in the face of my waiting staff like a complete wanker, no matter how horrendously they've fucked up. Fifteen years and they still don't owe me a pony.

PonyFest at the GRRM Bistro

But anyway, as I say, that multi-course taster isn't actually a legitimate comparison.

If the courses are paid for separately that's a honking big clue to the fact that they're discrete meals. They're discrete meals that are paid for separately because you *can't* get the next as soon as the last is finished, like fricking clockwork, and pay it all up at the end -- not as they're being invented. You can't get the pony carpaccio and the pony steak tartare and the pony a l'orange, one after the other after the other, because the chef can only start properly inventing (or at least perfecting) each individual course once the latest is served. And that takes, let's say, a culinary day as a stand-in for a literary year... give or take.

So, it's not a one-night-only multi-course menu. No, it's PonyFest at the GRRM Bistro, a new special dish every day or thereabouts, and each from a different national cuisine. Go every day and you'll complete the full "Pony Trek Tour of the Culinary World." You'll kinda need to taste all of them in order to get the proper experience, but they're all gonna stay on the menu after PonyFest is over, so if you really want your multi-course taster, actually, all you gotta do is wait. (Again, your own approach, which seems quite sensible to me.)

No, until PonyFest is over, you can't buy them all in a oner, because Chef Martin is not The Magic Jesus. He *hasn't* sold you a £100 ticket up-front for some one-off spectacle where he grabs a couple of carp and a ciabatta then magics perfect pony dishes out of thin air, laying each on your table the very instant you've finished the previous course. That is not the deal.

Rather, he's aiming to spend a day on perfecting that evening's dish, serving it up as an exciting new item on the menu that night, and charging customers for it as such. It's an ambitious project, PonyFest. He's aiming for it to all take place over a week and a day, but not being The Magic Jesus, that may actually be a miracle beyond this mere mortal. He's got the first dish perfected and a clear idea of how he'll tackle the rest, but if he doesn't want customers vomiting in the toilets and never coming back, trust me, he's taking a whole day to make sure Course #2 is all he wants it to be. Ditto Course #3 and Course #4.

So, yeah, the day after that is where it all goes tits-up. Shock, horror, you turn up for Course #5 and there's no chilli con pony on the menu. Something -- fuck knows what -- has gone wrong in the schedule. They cannot serve you that dish today. Turns out they cannot serve you tomorrow either. Or even the day after! First day or two, you ask why, and the waiter just shrugs his apologies. On the third day he says it's maybe gonna be ready tomorrow, but on the fifth it's just the same story with a mumbled "sorry." Of course, everyone sees Chef Martin, when they walk by his house at midnight, cooking his own dinner! He's even spotted filling in for the fry-cook at a café down the road for five minutes here and there! Hell, there's stuff coming from that kitchen that bears his mark... even if it's just the odd starter that can be whipped up in his ten minute breaks from working on that intransigent fiend of a Course #5. He might even have the radio on in the kitchen!

So, have you paid a hundred quid for a PonyFest ticket? If Chef Martin's grand plans have gone awry, if that week and a day of wild fusion cuisine covering every corner of the culinary globe has turned into four days and a long weekend of nothing new, have you actually ponied up for the pony that ain't up yet? Have you put down the dosh for the dish?


The Rhetoric of Entitlement

There are customers in any service industry who treat those who're serving them like shit. I appreciate the frustration and ire when service goes wrong, but there are certain behaviours and attitudes to people offering any sort of service, menial labour or skilled craft, that are just plain unconscionable. We've all seen that, surely. The only people I can imagine dismissing that reality are those obnoxious customers. And really it all boils down to harrying that service worker for not being fucking magical enough to bring them the pony they're owed NOW.

Obligations, contracts, duties -- the rhetoric of legal/ethical imperatives is ipso facto the rhetoric of entitlement, and the fucking *definition* of entitled asswipery is to claim that X owes you Y service for Z payback (guaranteed satisfaction for emotional investment, say,) when X never for a moment offered Y because it's a magic pony they *can't* promise, and when Z is actually an effect *you're* getting from the service X has *actually* agreed to give you for a straight-up fee in cold hard cash.

Ultimately,, my point is, yes, I make no bones about the relationship being transactional, but I am crystal fucking clear on what that transaction does and doesn't entail on my end, and on what I consider legitimate and illegitimate reimbursement from the reader. If you imagine that by writing a half dozen Scruffians stories with loose connections between them (in an online distribution experiment a while back,) I would or even *could* guarantee complete satisfaction for the readers who enjoyed them, in the form of the large narrative arc I can envision, at the moment, as... I dunno... maybe a novel, maybe a collection?... that's just plain wrong. I'd love to be able to promise that, but I can't guarantee it, so each story is offered as is, with its cohort of stories in the same mythos. And the only payback that matters to me as regards those stories is the Paypal donations of those readers, God bless em, who literally gave me money to eat with in direct exchange for them. Emotional investment is not cool because it's payback; it's cool because it's my service satisfying customers.

Those stories being available for free download now, anyone can grab them and read them. Should some passing non-donating reader spend however many hours reading them, getting so caught up in them they simply *must* read more, that's awesome. But as glad as I am for the stories to find an appreciative audience, that emotional investment is not a fricking payment to me. It is not that reader's side of a transaction obliging me to write what they're now "owed" in exchange for all that time and effort they've put into being entertained by my work. That's where I think your original comment goes completely wrong, where you say that embarking on an open-ended serial transforms a writer to a corporate machine contractually obliged to supply "subscribers" with timely returns on their investment. That's a nonsense that obfuscates the actual transaction, asserting a right to a wholly impractical extra service for *zero* additional investment... unless you go the whole hog and *really* piss on your service provider with the arrant cock-fluffery that your desire for more *is* the subscription fee, bestowed on the lowly serf in the form of their master's bounteous appreciation.

Which is just... so I owe you a pony NOW... in exchange for your appreciation of the three blowjobs you actually paid for?

Um, no.



Blogger Jack Crow said...

As a long reader of his work, I wish Martin would get to it, but the idea that he owes me a book is contemptibly foreign.

Hell, I wish Mieville would personally hand deliver me a new installment from New Crobuzon, but fuck me in the eye with a twenty pound typewriter if it ever occurs to me to think an artist owes entertainment to anyone, the least of whom, myself.

I cannot wrap my head around that shit. (I read to be surprised. I read because I don't believe in actual magic, and I'm impressed with anyone who can persuade me to suspend disbelief long enough to get lost in their gift.)

Thankfully, I don't have. HBO has done a bang up job with GoT. My wife - who doesn't like fantasy - is hooked. There's something there. I think.

3:55 pm  
Anonymous Paul F Cockburn said...

Clive Barker has been criticised by some folk for starting 'new series' and then having the gaul to start writing other projects that interest him more...

It's the sense of 'entitlement' that gets me - and I've seen it all too often, particularly in plenty of people in media fandom.

Absolutely, I'm with Neil Gaiman on this: George R R Martin (or, indeed, any creative individual whose work I love or admire) is not my bitch.

3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marting wrote the first three books about six years apart. Book 4 arrived six years later that Book 3, ditto for book 5.

Now, that *is* bothersome to some extent, but to me seems an unfair trade-off *at George Martin's expense*.

The HBO series, however good it is, will *not* attract a solid number of new readers, simply because that's not how it works. People watch the series, get their satisfaction from it and feel it unnecessary to go through books recounting the same basic story, cause hell, who has the time to read (fat!) books anyway.

I think that, if anything, he's lost some readership irrevocably because of the delays. And still there are some ... people who think he's doing it, somehow, for the money. And *because* he's doing it for the money and therefore his being a writer is a distant second to his being a morally despicable money-grubber, they have the right to behave just as despicably and bang his head against a wall in order to get what's theirs.

Fucking 'ell.

Great post, Hal. Love untangling your thought :)


9:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any of these cock hungry readers ever seen 'Misery'?

6:23 pm  
Anonymous Krystyna said...

There is one thing about this issue I really do not get. To be crystal clear on the subject: I think some fans really do take the sense of entitlement a bit too far, to the point of being counterproductive (like telling the author to "pull the typewriter out of his arse" is going to accomplish something; this sort of cheerleading could probably make any author contemplate prolonging the hiatus purely out of spite).

But the thing most advocates of Martin's approach usually do not acknowledge is the question: did the fans _really_ get their money's worth when they bought the previous four books? It wasn't a case of four books giving the reader an equal amount of gratification, but four subsequent chunks of the same book, which, while enjoyable in themselves, left the reader with a sense of unfulfillment, because the story wasn't wrapped up. To keep up with the dinner & date analogy: it wasn't a five-course menu, it was a string of tasty appetisers which left the reader hungry and impatient for the final big meal. It's an escort who keeps saying "not tonight, dear" for four dates straight and then disappears without a trace. The hiatus between individual books would be treated as normal, and expected, and nobody would raise a fuss if the writer kept a sort of "regular hours", and the harbinger of subsequent volumes would remain in sight.

As it is, the author himself seems somewhat tired of the series and prefers to pursue other venues instead (like conventions or film gigs, or Cthulhu knows what else, because I do not follow the whole thing that closely). I imagine it could make some fans bitter, because they feel they'd been tricked into investing their time and emotional attachment into the series, while the big finish is nowhere to be seen in a reasonably close future time-frame.

Yes, I do think their way of dealing with the inevitable frustration can be unreasonable at best and horrible at worst. But then again, who's being more unreasonable of the two - the fans expecting their favourite author to deliver subsequent volumes in a regular manner or the author who doesn't deliver and yet expects the fans to just bite down and endure it in placable silence? As the saying goes, if you want everybody to like you, you should play in a concert band.

5:08 pm  

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