Who do you write for? Martin's lesson

Halt. Stop. Hold on a minute, that's what George RR Martin seems to be saying. There's been a small tempest of dismay over the recent announcement, by Martin's publishers, that the latest installment of his Ice and Fire saga won't appear in 2015.

Items in Forbes from Erik Kain and Paul Tassi have framed the situation and some shocking alternative scenarios. You can read them for yourself by going here.

Fans and TV viewers are upset because, with the publisher's announcement, it looks like the popular HBO "Game of Thrones" series will certainly soon outstrip Martin's unfinished multi-book story. What do you do with a popular, massively-profitable series that depends on a work in progress?

I've been thinking a lot about the time it takes to produce just a single book (see my previous post), and that makes me very sympathetic to Martin -- even though I worry like other fans that George isn't getting any younger and all those books are very big ones.

But the notion offered by some of the pundits, that HBO should just go forward with the story without waiting for Martin, is like going to hear a Journey concert without Steve Perry. Yeah, the songs sound pretty good, and the guy they found to replace him has a great voice, but it's still not the same guy.

Those complaining about the delays have an exaggerated sense of their relevance to Martin's work. Here's what I say to them: It's great that you love the stories and are eager to see more, but, I hate to break it to you, your voices don't matter.

I know that sounds very elitist, but I also know that many of you, my dear friends, understand what I'm getting at. Writing is a privileged form of creation, and when you turn your back on the world -- or someone like Martin turns a cold shoulder to the might of HBO and millions of fans -- it's to hear one's own voice, which was the point in the first place.

For my fellow working writers, I hope Martin's heroic example inspires.

Don't even publish your book: Tolkien's option

With my recent conversation with Jim Rossi about self-publishing in mind, I turn again to J.R.R. Tolkien, whom I've been reading lately because of the publication of his Beowulf translation in May. tolkien-associated-pressHe published The Hobbit and LOTR, and more besides these, but his translation of Beowulf never saw the light of publication in his lifetime.

Though complete, and though he generated a vast set of notes to go with it, it went into a file cabinet or a desk drawer.

It's an extraordinary translation. We're so lucky to have it.

So why the heck didn't he publish it?

There are at least three theories that different critics (including his son Christopher) have suggested:

1) his family's life was disrupted by his taking a post at Oxford just as he was finishing it 2) he became too engrossed in the writing of The Hobbit and didn't think about it anymore 3) his relationship to Beowulf was so special, and secret, that he didn't want to pollute it with publication

The first two make little sense to me. Few writers have disruption-free lives, right? And his Beowulf was done by the time he started The Hobbit. So reason 2 doesn't work either. All he needed was a brown paper package and some postage stamps to send it off.

But the third reason ...

... now that's appealing. The New Yorker's Joan Acocella offers this explanation near the end of her splendid recent piece about the translation. She describes Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf as "a secret love" that fed his imagination. It was so special to him that he kept it only for himself.

Can you imagine any writer today who'd spend enormous time and energy on a manuscript only to consign it to their files?


And incredibly brave.

I like Acocella's theory though I think another factor was behind it, too   -- something that his son understood as he prepared the poem for publication.

Christopher Tolkien writes, in the recently published edition, that he worked from a clean typescript that was all marked up by his father's margin notes about alternative phrasings and other ideas. His father never stopped tinkering with the poem. He was never satisfied with it.

Even though the text is complete -- to us -- for Tolkien it wasn't finished.

That's less romantic than Acocella's idea, I know, but for me it underscores how devilishly hard the craft of writing is.

As you fumble around with your own manuscripts, my friends, and as you feel discouragement, take heart. Tolkien experienced frustrations like yours. He understood, like you, why writing sometimes feels like this picture:




But he learned a lesson, which those marginal scribblings and tinkerings clearly suggest: You just have to keep going.

Keep that ball rolling.



Reading now: Tolkien's Beowulf

In the years since Hemingway's death, many books have been found among his papers and published so that it feels like he's never left us. The only other writer who impresses me more with his posthumous prolificity is Tolkien. Of course he's had some help from his son Christopher, who's served as an astounding guardian and editor of his father's work (I've got to devote some blog space to that), but that doesn't detract from the accomplishment.

Case in point: Beowulf. Yesterday's mail brought yet another work by Tolkien that's never been published before -- his own rendering of the Anglo-Saxon epic that has tortured most high schoolers for eons. Visit here to read more from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt about the book's release.

I'm so excited about it, and I'm not the only one -- Slate offers an expected comparison in a new article (which is better, the version by Heaney or Tolkien?); while the Christian Science Monitor reserves judgment, simply noting its arrival and summarizing some of the reactions, which are surprising.

One scholar says Tolkien would have tossed it into a shredder if he'd known it would be published. (Really?) Christopher Tolkien is quoted in a way that oddly makes him sound like he's against the publication even though he's the one who made it possible.


Whether or not it ranks as Tolkien's "best" work, does it really matter? It's a contribution to scholarship, and to our curiosity -- maybe in the same vein as C.S. Lewis' "Aeneid" translation.

I'll give you a report soon, my friends. Reading now.