What Do Creators Owe Their Fans?
George R.R. Martin has not finished writing The Winds of Winter. We don’t know when he will do so or if he ever will. The book has a cover but no release date and there have been no new announcements from its publisher in quite some time. Fans of Martin and the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series are used to long waits between books, as are many readers of epic fantasy who wait years at a time for the next 900+ page installment of their beloved franchise. It’s now a running joke that Martin may never finish the books. He’s not the only author to have that kind of pressure surrounding him at all times, but he is the most prominent example of such, and also the one who faces the most public scrutiny for his seeming failure. Follow him on Twitter and the replies to any innocuous tweet he sends will inevitably be full of people demanding to know when The Winds of Winter will be released. There are plenty of more enthusiastic responses and those who support him taking his time. Then there are people telling him to ‘please hurry’ because their elderly grandmother doesn’t have much time left and wants to read the new book.
Plenty of people have written before about Martin’s plight and how fan entitlement has become increasingly toxic in relation to his work. Thinking about this particular example led me down a rabbit hole of fandom anticipation that revealed a pattern I was familiar with but remained incredibly disheartened by. Patrick Rothfuss, another popular fantasy author with a long-awaited final installment of a beloved series, faces similar levels of manipulation and hostility. The Goodreads page for Doors of Stone, the third book in the ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’ (the second book was published in 2011), is full of genuine fury at how long fans have had to wait. One user brags that he plans to pirate the book once it comes out because he’s so tired of the wait. Another writes that Rothfuss shouldn’t waste time attending conventions or writing other projects when he should be finishing this book. Some compare the length of time between him publishing books to other more prolific authors. In Rothfuss’s own jokey review of the book’s myriad ratings despite its non-existence, fans have called him everything from ‘shameful’ to likening him to an abusive spouse to the internet’s favourite new insult, ‘cuck’.
This is, of course, not a phenomenon limited to authors of hefty fantasy series with large time periods between publication. Follow any celebrity on social media and you’ll see similar conversations going on. Every few months or so, a tweet of a fan complaining about the object of their obsession not paying enough attention to them goes viral, thus reigniting those old conversations about the transactional relationship between creator and audience. We can all widely agree that treating people like sh*t is bad and that we shouldn’t do it, but there’s something about the dynamic of fans and creators that makes people take pause and start explaining their exceptions to the rule. It’s not that they’re entitled, you understand. It’s just that they’ve been patiently waiting for so long and it’s the creator’s job to fulfill their end of the bargain. Besides, without those passionate fans, they wouldn’t have a career. They just need to do what they’re paid to do, right?
Creating is hard and doing so as a full-time occupation can be a draining prospect. I write for a living — not fiction, obviously, but still thousands of words a week — and it seeps into every aspect of my life. I feel guilty when I’m not working and I don’t even face the pressure of foot-tapping fans checking their watches. The pressure to always be on the job, always creating, giving every aspect of yourself to that particular form of labour can be emotionally draining in ways that are tough to convey. Imagine being George RR Martin, just tweeting happily about sports or going to a nice restaurant and knowing that inevitably someone will chastise you for ‘wasting your time’ doing something that isn’t writing The Winds of Winter.
Part of this specific brand of fan entitlement comes from the notion that fans are the true owners of a particular piece of pop culture. It’s not Disney who owns Star Wars, it’s the fans. Martin doesn’t have the right to do what he wants with the world he created because it belongs to the fandom. To not give them what they want is tantamount to betrayal. This manifests in other ways beyond long waits for new content. Think of how certain subsets of the Star Wars fandom acted when the franchise introduced heroes who weren’t white dudes and how truly hysterical they became when The Last Jedi didn’t go in the direction they wanted. People received death threats over that! A property like Star Wars thrives from decades of near-obsessive fan devotion. That’s part of the reason it became so inescapable and influential, even with decades between new installments. Treating your fanbase well is one thing, but acts like this and the normalizing of frenzied hostilities is something altogether more worrying.
We’re now in an age of influencers and instant connections, and in many ways, this has made the relationship between creators and their fans more beneficial than ever. You can find someone whose work you adore and directly support them through sites like Patreon, thus ensuring they can make a decent living or at least be properly compensated for their labour in a way they couldn’t previously do with such a small audience. The transactional dynamic becomes more obvious than ever under such circumstances. The emotional and professional downsides of this are also clear, and at a time when we’re all keenly aware of online scams, Kickstarter failures and the like, it doesn’t take much for the internet to spin itself into a tizzy over perceived slights of fandom or alleged promises broken.
We are societally encouraged to invest our personal and emotional well-being in pop culture. It can be a salve to our ills and a life-changing force for the better, although it’s become increasingly difficult to avoid how commercial structures thrive from the most unhealthy aspects of this dynamic. It’s not enough to be a fan in this system: now you have to define your entire life and personality by the things you buy and the pop culture you consume. It’s become all the more heightened in a cultural context where every corporate Twitter account tries to be your BFF and half the work in being a fan of a multi-billion dollar establishment is in brand loyalty. Amid this are the people doing the work of creating, and they’re the ones who bear the brunt of the fury when things go wrong or the realities of artistic labour become more evident.
By and large, my philosophy is that creators don’t owe their fans anything. Writers are not under a contractual obligation to their fans to write books as they demand them. Whatever deals they have with their publishers and the mandates they must meet for them are completely different from fan demand. There is undoubtedly an implicit promise between fans and creators when, say, they announce plans for a six-book series but get stuck around book four. That can make it difficult when real life rears its ugly head or burnout hits, exacerbated by those increasingly loud voices calling you lazy, spoiled, and bratty for not doing things fast enough. You paying your $20 or whatever for one book does not come with a receipt that gives you the right to berate an old man online or express your ‘concerns’ that he’s going to die on you.
It’s a touch idealistic to say that I’d rather have art made by happy and content creators because that’s not how capitalism works, alas, but I would certainly prefer a system where the boundaries between creators and fandom are defined clearly enough to ensure that everyone involved in that relationship knows their place and what is expected of them. Besides, if your beloved series never gets finished, that’s what fanfiction is for.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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