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Writers need to finish what they start

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22 2013 6:51 p.m. MDT

Best-selling author Neil Gaiman in his writing gazebo at his home in western Wisconsin.

Craig Lassig, AP

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“I’m looking for a good book. Any suggestions?”

I’ve seen variations on this theme countless times on Facebook or Twitter, and I make myself a hero by responding with a recommendation for “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s probably the best fantasy novel written in the past 20 years, and everyone who reads it ends up thanking me. (The one exception is my wife, who didn’t like it at all. Go figure.)

But things tend to go sour after that. The problem is that “The Name of the Wind” is the first book in a trilogy, and it leaves the main storyline largely unresolved. It was released in 2007. The next installment, “The Wise Man’s Fear,” didn’t come out until 2011, and it actually raised more questions than it answered, making it hard to believe that Rothfuss can wrap up his unwieldy tale in just one more book.

And, most frustrating of all, nobody has any idea when Book Three, tentatively titled “The Doors of Stone,” is going to hit the shelves. People have raised the question with Rothfuss repeatedly in interviews and online. Some queries are respectful, and some are rude, but nobody gets a satisfying answer. It’ll be done when it’s done, and you can’t rush genius, so just sit back and be patient.

Aaaargh!

The irony in this is that when “The Name of the Wind” was published, Rothfuss insisted that this wasn’t going to be a problem. “The next two books will come out in one-year intervals,” the author promised in a 2007 interview. Since he’d already written all three books, he’d be able to release them on an annual basis. But then he started revising the second book, and a few minor tweaks became major expansions, and one year became four years. Now as we are halfway through our third year in the wait for Book Three, we only have vague clues as to when to expect the conclusion. And readers like me are becoming increasingly anxious, while at the same time struggling with the best way to deal with the wait.

Famed fantasy author Neil Gaiman has offered a few suggestions. “(I)f you are waiting for a new book in a long ongoing series, whether from George (R.R. Martin), or from Pat Rothfuss or from someone else. … Wait. Read the original book again. Read something else. Get on with your life. Hope that the author is writing the book you want to read, and not dying, or something equally as dramatic. And if he paints the house, that's fine."

Gaiman is even more blunt on this subject elsewhere, using language unsuitable for a family newspaper. To summarize, his message is that writers don’t owe their readers anything, and that whiners demanding that long-running stories reach a conclusion ought to shut up and appreciate what they have.

Intellectually, I can acknowledge the soundness of that position, but experientially, I’m still having a hard time with it.

The fact is that the relationship between a good storyteller and his audience is more personal than that. Readers give a large chunk of time and energy to a writer’s make-believe world. They wouldn’t be willing to immerse themselves in a writer’s fantasies without faith that their investment would pay off with a satisfying ending.

When an author leaves the audience hanging, the reader feels betrayed. To turn around and say, “well, just be grateful that this writer deigned to give you anything at all” seems unnecessarily churlish. If you’re not prepared to finish what you start, then isn’t it cruel to lead us on?

Say, when is “The Doors of Stone” coming out, anyway?

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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