Brandon Sanderson is all the rage these days, with two profiles being written about him recently. I am not a fan of Sanderson’s writing. I have tried a couple of times to read his work and bounced off it each time. Whatever he has that speaks to so many fans, I cannot hear. And that is fine. Not everything is for everyone. Romeo and Juliet is terrible, Hemmingway is an awful writer, and if I had a time machine the second thing I would do, after killing Hitler, is somehow ensure Hawthorne never learned to read and write. I am not here to talk about Sanderson, but rather to talk about how people talk about Sanderson.
The Wired profile is … odd. The writer clearly does not like Sanderson on a personal level, calling him “lame” and lamenting how boring his life is. He doesn’t seem to like anything about Sanderson’s fans. He seems put off by Sanderson’s Mormonism and he is very clear that he doesn’t like anything about Sanderson’s writing. All of that would be fine, if there was some effort made to talk about any of it. That is what made the profile, I think, so weird: the writer doesn’t explore anything. He really just makes a series of assertions without any exploration of the ideas behind them or any attempt to defend them. They just are largely put on the page to linger, like the writer had transcribed a late-night bitch session he had about a particularly disliked classmate.
The criticisms of the writing received the most attention, but it’s hardly justified by the article. The profiler provides us with two lines and some snippets. They are bad lines, yes, but hardly worth the outrage the author pours out upon them, nor the weirdly passionate discussion about clean versus ornate writing the profile has triggered.
(Digression time: in my not so humble opinion, this is a fruitless argument. Clean prose is not the sign of a bad writer — it is merely someone who uses language that is so familiar, so adjacent to the familiar, or so instantly understandable that people grasp its meaning and can focus on the other aspects of the novel — ideas, characters, etc. that make a book worth reading. Sometimes that is good writing, sometimes it’s bad — familiar can also mean cliched, after all. If you are one of those people that insist a novel is only about sentence level construction, that it’s not good writing unless it needs to be read several times to truly understand its brilliance, well, you are wrong, but I doubt I am going to convince you otherwise. I would merely remind you that opaque does not mean good, it just means opaque. You can be an unoriginal twit with “clever” prose just as easily as you can be with cliched prose.)
And that I think illustrates the whole problem with the profile. It is not that it is mean. You can write well about a person and not be nice to them. But the profile doesn’t explore anything, really, about Sanderson. What makes him a bad writer compared to writers the author thinks are good? No idea — the profile doesn’t explore that. How does Sanderson’s Mormonism affect either his writing or his literary reputation? Dunno, the author can’t be arsed to explore it in any detail. If Sanderson is a terrible writer, why does he sell so much? Here the author does talk to some fans about what they perceive as Sanderson’s strengths as a writer but doesn’t interrogate those answers to any degree. He just moves right back to complaining that Sanderson is a bad writer. How does Sanderson’s Kickstarter success affect his place in the publishing world, or, indeed, what does it say about publishing in today’s world? No idea, the author barely mentions it.
All that the author of the Wired profile seems to care about is the fact that people read Sanderson’s book when he, personally, does not like Sanderson the person. There is a wealth of potential interesting topics in Sanderson’s professional life and the writer could not be bothered to talk about any of them. Instead, we just get thousands of words about how boring an unlikable a bad writer turns out to be. It is lazy and I am genuinely surprised anyone thought this was worth publishing. You don’t have to be nice, as I said, but you should at least strive to be curious and illuminating.
The Esquire profile was both of those. It is not a great profile, in my opinion — it tries to cover every potential controversy around Sanderson and thus doesn’t spend a lot of pixels on any one of them — but it at least tries. It talks about his Mormonism and how it has affected his writing and fandom. It talks about his massive Kickstarter and the criticisms it has received. It talks about the quality of his writing and discusses why his prose is not as important to his fans as other aspects of his novels. It attempts, in other words, to explore important and interesting questions that surround his professional life. It is curious about Sanderson and his work in a way that the Wired profile doesn’t attempt to be and is thus a much more interesting piece.
A profile writer doesn’t have any obligation to be nice to their subjects, as long as they are fair, and they don’t have any obligation to explore every aspect of their subject’s life. But shouldn’t they at least have an obligation to attempt to write a piece that talks about the subject rather than their own hangups? I don’t care if you are mean. I don’t care if you don’t like the subject. I do care of you are so incurious that all I learn about the subject is that you are mean and don’t like the subject. I don’t get anything out of that and if you do, it is likely because you are using your readers as a therapist. Next time, save the space for a writer with some curiosity and just schedule an extra therapy session.