Lately, there's been a lot of talk about how Game of Thrones is diverging rapidly from the established continuity of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. The general consensus seems to be that this is a good thing — Martin's last couple of novels were not all that satisfying, and with the show's finale approaching in 2017 or 2018, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss need to come up with an endgame for their characters and storylines.
Martin, of course, has the luxury of figuring out where he wants his story to go for as long as he wants. Certainly, he's made it clear that no amount of pressure from fans will make the last two installments in the series come out any faster. It's entirely possible now, seeing as how the books will outlast the TV series, that ASOIAF could extend beyond seven parts. I'm sure lots of fans would welcome this development — even the "Finish The Book, George" contingent. And certainly GRRM's agent, editor, publishers, and retailers would be happy, too. But is this really a desirable thing?
I had a conversation with a friend last week about long-running series — particularly long series consisting of long novels — and we both agreed that most forms of entertainment have a built-in quality limit. A lot of what makes LotR so wonderful is that it's all self-contained. Sure, there are a ton of companion books, most of them released posthumously, but if you pick up the single-volume trade paperback of Tolkien's novel (which was never intended to be a trilogy), you get a whole story, with a beginning, middle, and definitive ending. Today, a typical installment in a fantasy epic is the same thousand-page length, but it's open-ended. You don't know when the next volume's coming out, or how the story's going to end. ASOIAF started out as a trilogy, then as the story expanded, became a tetralogy, a quintet, and now a septet — though it wouldn't have to stop there.
But, as most GRRM fans will point out, the last couple of books weren't that super. A Feast For Crows felt like a collection of subplots and cliffhangers that failed to resolve into anything satisfactory, while A Dance With Dragons often felt like a good book trapped inside an indulgence of details. In the first three books, though, stuff happens — characters are killed, allegiances are forged or betrayed, battles are fought, and worlds — both private and political — are irrevocably changed. In Feast and Dance, however, stuff might be about to happen, or could happen, or might have happened without our knowing about it — we'd have to wait for the next book to find out. And since Books 4 and 5 are largely contemporaneous, that often meant that we'd have to wait another two books to learn what happened next. Back in the days when Martin was cranking out a new installment every couple of years, this wasn't such a big deal. But when the gaps between volumes began to take up the better parts of decades, it became agonizing — and the lack of resolution in the story when the books finally did come out made it all the more frustrating.
It often feels as if Martin really doesn't know how the books will end, or that, for a variety of reasons, he's forestalling events that should have occurred by now. But what if he doesn't want them to end? I never read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, and probably never will. But reading about the history of those books, I see some disturbing parallels: Most Jordan fans agree that the first three or four novels are great, and then over time the series fell into an endless muddle of circular subplots and repetitive storytelling — the literary equivalent of grinding in an MMORPG. Eventually WoT outlived its creator, who died in 2007 of cardiac amyloidosis, and the series was completed in 2013 by Brandon Sanderson, who wrote most of the last three of the fourteen volumes. Clearly, this is a worst-case scenario for Martin's fans, though he has stressed that in the event of his untimely death ASOIAF will remain unfinished.
But as Feast and Dance's mixed reception demonstrate, are long series really worth the trouble? Most forms of entertainment have a built-in limit in quality. Movie franchises are often good for only a couple of sequels before they go south. TV shows can have longer Golden Ages, sometimes as long as four or five years, but ultimately even a great show like The X-Files or The Simpsons starts to show signs of creative fatigue. Book series can vary in quality, often depending on length or genre. Some mystery authors write their best work later in their careers, even if they're still working on the same characters; some SF/fantasy writers can still crank out quality work even if their universes don't feel quite so fresh. But even then, such fictional worlds have their inevitable ebbs and flows. You might really love the X-Men, but for all but the most devoted fan, reading the entire franchise from 1963 to the present would probably be a masochistic slog.
I can understand why people love writing and reading (or watching) longform stories. It's fun to get to know all the idiosyncrasies of fictional characters and their worlds, and emotionally involving to see them change and grow over time. There's something deeply reassuring about knowing that somewhere in the future, there's another adventure about Arya Stark, Lestat, or Harry Bosch waiting for you. But it often feels like the entertainment value declines in inverse proportion to the length of the saga, and often the reader is just cruising on the gas fumes of nostalgia. And the authors, too. It's been nearly a quarter-century since George R.R. Martin wrote what would become the first scene in his saga; at that time, he was only 43, and had dozens of other stories and novels he planned to write that didn't involve Westeros. You have to wonder if sometimes he doesn't imagine how differently things might have turned out.