What Do Artists Owe Their Fans?

I brought this up in my newsletter, but the fallout I have witnessed from the final season of Game of Thrones has been fairly interesting. This isn’t a show that I watched at all (I do not watch much television and my interest in the series had already been lost as a result of the slow release of the books), so I got to see this as a mostly peripheral observer. As I write stories myself, it should come as no surprise that what I see had given me quite a bit to think about.

There is a LOT of ground to cover, and more I will leave uncovered, because this is already too long. I sort of rolled up most of the questions I ended up thinking about (concerning GoT) into a single post to keep this contained. Also decided to focus on the show in particular as much as possible.

Woah boy. Better get started.

Understanding Fan Backlash

One thing I think we need to address straight off is that Fan Backlash like this always comes from somewhere; it cannot happen in a vacuum. People do not go from loving something to being upset and hating it for no reason. That isn’t the way things work, there needs to be a catalyst. We can argue if the catalyst is a valid reason for being upset all you want, but it does exist. Not only does it exist, the people involved in the backlash feel strongly enough about it that they are having the reaction seen.

The next vital thing to understand is that fan backlash happens because the people involved care. I’ve often heard it said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it is indifference. Both loving and hating something require a certain level of passion. Passion can be either positive or negative, but regardless of which happens to be the case, a person who loves or hates something cares about it.

So, when you have someone that likes something enough to be a fan of it, and then that thing changes in ways they dislike it is very difficult (I would say practically impossible) for them to simply shrug it off. Remember, they loved it. They care. That they end up reacting negatively is only logical, anything else would mean they didn’t care to begin with.

This is something I feel the backlash against Game of Thrones embodies very clearly. It is important to remember what the series meant to people who were fans of it. Every single time the story killed off a main character that fans loved, even if it did so in an ignominious manner, it was making a statement. The show was telling fans that in its story a character’s decisions and actions have logical consequences and that they would not be protected from those consequences regardless of who they are.

Despite being a good, honorable person who many considered the main character, Ned Stark dies. Robb Stark, who largely filled the role his father did, makes similar mistakes and likewise ends up dead in short order, reinforcing the message. A lot of people talk about how they love this because it is gritty and realistic, but I think what they really mean is that the story is brutally honest. Some have mistakenly said this handling subverts expectations, which is only true because stories so often have outcomes that go against the odds. Game of Thrones, by contrast, nearly always went with what seemed fairly likely. Characters are forced to live with the consequences of their decisions, regardless of if that means having a hand cut off, getting thrown from a balcony, or being burned alive.

And because of this, characters are put under tremendous pressure that ends ultimately reveals who they really are. Some are cold and calculating. Some are breathtakingly intelligent. Some are painfully naive. The thing is, fans got to know every single one by watching their trials and how they coped with them. Then, at the very end of the series, the show turned around and began to ignore all of this.

Actions no longer seemed to lead to logical consequences. Maybe this was done in a mistaken attempt to recapture the initial sense of subverted expectations, or maybe there was another reason. It didn’t matter, it signaled to fans that the show had changed. Characters started behaving in ways that seemed contrary to their established traits, clashing with what the fans knew about the individuals they were watching. Important characters became immune to death unless in a confrontation with other important characters.

In effect, the series went against everything it originally stood for. The reason why this happened doesn’t particularly matter. Regardless of if the writers weren’t up to the task of continuing the story without GRR’s writing to fall back on or if they simply rushed through to the end, the result is the same. Fans saw a show they love discard everything they loved about it in the span of a few episodes.

They cared deeply about it.

So they hated it.

Falling Short

Thus the reality is that the Game of Thrones writers failed to measure up to their fans’ expectations. If they managed to meet those expectations, the backlash would not have happened (or would at least be contained to a smaller subset of the fandom). So that means that this is all very simple, right? An artist is under the burden to meet the expectations that they build their fans up to. Easy!

Well, maybe not.

This is where things get more tricky. Let me lay out a few different theoretical situations:

One. An artist is doing good work and then gets into a horrible accident in the middle of a larger project. Everyone agrees the work they do after the accident is of lesser quality (be it due to the lingering trauma of having lived through the accident, or because they were injured in some way that has compromised their talent).

Two. An artist is adapting some work from one form of media to another but they are not as innately skilled as the individual who created the source material. They are, however, very good at adaptations and by falling back on the original artist’s source material can create something wonderful. Then they reach the end of what has been created and find that what they produce on their own is far inferior.

Three. An artist is doing a lot of work to produce something that everyone agrees is amazing. Over time, they lose interest in the project for one reason or another and begin to devote less and less time to it, ultimately resulting in an inferior product (or something that is left unfinished).

Four. An artist is producing a work that becomes critically acclaimed. As a result of success, they become lazy and begin working on it less often. This results in things being released more slowly, possibly to the point that progress stops entirely, and the quality as a whole takes a dive.

As you can see, there are a lot of reasons that an artist’s quality may go down. I think few would argue that you could blame the artist in example 1, and would likely also forgive the artist in example 2. After all, you can hardly blame someone for things that happen to them outside their control, and it is likewise unfair to get angry at someone who is doing their best and simply cannot measure up (assuming, of course, that they are not trying to convince everyone of the opposite and actively building hype).

Personally, I even have a problem with blaming the artist in example 3. There is an argument to be made that if you are no longer invested in a project, then perhaps the best thing to do is hand it off to someone else (although this also often comes with a measure of fan backlash and predictions of doom). I don’t think people understand how difficult that step is for an artist to take, however. Big projects end up becoming something akin to a child. Trusting someone else enough to hand that child off to them is not easy. I would say that, so long as the artist is still making a genuine effort and being honest with their audience, there is no problem here. Disappointment is understandable, but to expect more is akin to saying that the artist is a slave to their audience. I’m very uncomfortable taking things that far, and not just because I write books.

Example four is the only one that I feel puts the artist in the wrong. The deciding factor, in my mind, is that examples 1-3 always have the artist trying. Trying and failing perhaps, but they are putting forth a genuine effort. You cannot really get angry at them if they fail any more than you might get angry at them for being unable to stop a bullet by standing in front of a gun. Everyone has limitations, and occasionally those make us stumble and fall. Trying to push those limits is perhaps the most admirable thing a human can do, provided they are not doing so in a way that isn’t actively reckless.

By contrast, the artist in example four is capable of doing good work. They have proved it. However they have gotten comfortable in their success, maybe made enough money that they no longer feel the same drive they once did, and no longer put forth an honest effort. This isn’t to say that artists need to suffer to produce good art. Maybe they just got bored and stopped trying. Or maybe there is another reason. The key here is they are capable of doing good work but do not apply themselves to see it through.

So there is a sticking point: what was the ultimate cause. Sometimes this is obvious, but usually, the situation is less clear. I have no clue what triggered the drop in quality that was seen in Game of Thrones. I wasn’t present as it was being worked on. That said, I have some suspicions.

It is no secret that HBO effectively gave the writers behind the TV Series a blank check to have as many seasons as they wanted. There has also been word about them getting a spot to work on a new Star Wars film. Since the final books of the series have run out as well, I suspect that some combination of example 2 and 3 (possibly with a touch of example 4) were the cause. The exact breakdown is not something I feel competent to determine, but that is ultimately my read.

So did the writers behind GoT owe something to their fans? Perhaps a little, but who can say how much?