Everything is Story: On a Hit Piece on Brandon Sanderson

I’m usually not into keeping up with current events, but a recent article from Wired has set the fantasy nerd world on fire.

A recent article by Jason Kehe is what can only be described as a hit piece. While this is not good journalism, and I would expect better of a publication like Wired, the worst aspects of the article are when it takes shots at the fantasy community and enters into a long-running conversation he is either ignorant of or foolishly brash in his derision.

You can read the entire article by Kehe here. The response from Sanderson himself is here. (TLDR? Here is a short video instead.)

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Everyone Has an Opinion

Reviews on writing aren’t new. Near as I can tell, as long as there has been writing, there have been people who want to debate its merits (or lack thereof).

This article, from the outset, is not necessarily supposed to be a review of Sanderson’s writing. Even if it were, debating the craft is something that happens. Not everyone’s writing is everyone’s cup of tea. One of my favorite English teachers used to say, “You can be the juiciest peach and there will still be the people who don’t like peaches.”

I don’t like peaches, so this saying stuck with me.

There are plenty of people I know who don’t necessarily like Sanderson’s writing. That’s fine. There are the people who love it. I generally like Sanderson novels— but this post, and the article it’s about, isn’t about Sanderson’s writing.

The article’s title is “Brandon Sanderson is Your God.” The subheading, “He’s the biggest fantasy writer in the world. He’s also very Mormon. These things are profoundly related.” Oof. Already you can tell this article is going to be more about demonizing Sanderson’s faith than his actual writing.

Taking Shots at Sanderson’s Religion

Religion. Thankfully no one has ever argued over matters of faith.

Oh wait. Just Googled it. A lot of fighting. A lot.

Let me start by saying I am not Mormon. As an Anglican, I disagree with Sanderson’s faith on many points. (I’m not even going to attempt to get into here and now.) However, I don’t approve of it being used as a mark against him. Kehe practically takes an approach of, “He’s a Mormon who writes poorly.”

I wish I were kidding, but, in Kehe’s own words:

Then let’s talk about Mormonism in another way. Let’s talk about it as it relates to fantasy. Because it’s no secret: Mormonism is the fantasy of religion. “The science-fiction edition of Christianity,” I’ve heard it called, with its angels and alternative histories, embodied gods, visions and plates made of gold. I ask Sanderson if I’ve got the ultimate promise of the religion right—the ultimate promise being, as I understand it, that we humans will, if we’re good, and marry well, and memorize the passcodes, eventually pass into the highest kingdom and come into our divine inheritance. We’ll become gods, in other words, and get our own planets.

And, at a Con focused on his works with his fans asks,

Still, I can’t help but try to trip them up. Surely he’s not a great writer? I prod. Polite, embarrassed smiles. They’re suspicious of me, I can tell.

Of course they’re suspicious of you. You’ve come to the Con and (though you state elsewhere that you’re a sci-fi and fantasy reader too) are poking at them. Hard.

Somewhat ironically, considering Kehe’s attack on his religion, I think it’s Sanderson’s faith that informs his more-than-generous response. Instead of asking for everyone to write Wired and ask for Kehe to be fired for what borders on bullying, he calls for people to be calm and SPECIFICALLY to not go after Kehe.

In that same spirit, I want to remind readers to think of the personhood of Kehe and to leave him be. Feel free to go after the work though, which is what I’m doing.

A Hit Piece without Merit is Bad Journalism

Content is hard to create. Even as I try to work on my novel and create blog posts a few times a month, especially content designed for other people to take in, is something that can really wrack the brain and leave you feeling creatively dry. Or that may just be me.

In general, the Kehe article reads like someone who went with an axe to grind anyway and who, not finding anything particularly interesting to grind his axe against, decided to hack away anyway.

Perhaps most frustrating is how Kehe even describes generally being treated very well by a friendly man and his family. And then he is generally uncharitable and smug.

I don’t know about anyone else, maybe it’s the ideals around hospitality I’ve been raised with, but this is half of what really grates at me when I read this article.

Now, I’m not a journalist. I don’t know if stories can just be killed because, well, they’re not stories, but when you have lines like,

In fact, at that first dinner, over flopsy Utah Chinese—this being days before I’d meet his extended family, and attend his fan convention, and take his son to a theme park, and cry in his basement—I find Sanderson depressingly, story-killingly lame.

maybe… just maybe… you should stop writing trash and not publish it? If I wrote a story and I wasn’t sure about it (let alone if I thought it was bad), and one of my close friends who always read my stuff said “this is bad,” like an editor should do, maybe it shouldn’t go to print?

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A Bully, a Nerd, and a Long-running Conversation

I think I can speak for most nerds of my generation when I say that what makes the article most indefensible is when it goes after the nerd community like a— well, like a bully. If you were wondering what the other half of my irritation with the Kehe article is, it’s the parts where I feel like he is being an absolute jerk to people like me.

Sanderson is obviously a nerd. He dresses not unlike how I dress. The cover image of the article includes him with a big sword (possibly from Lord of the Rings?). Another picture is of his Magic: The Gathering cards in piles on a table.

And, to be fair, there’s even a possibility Kehe didn’t realize he was being as offensive as he was. I read most of the article as someone being a little too smug and unkind, not out-and-out hateful. (Like the one friend who says, “Oh, you read them? They’re not even a good writer.” And then adds, “And they’re a Mormon.”

But the community picked up on the derision. And Sanderson did too— not just about himself, but of all nerds like us, stating in a Reddit post:

As has been happening to fantasy fans for years, the general attitude of anyone writing about us is that we should be ashamed for enjoying what we enjoy. In that, the tone feels like it was written during the 80s. “Look at these silly nerds, liking things! How dare they like things! Don’t they know the thing they like is dumb?”

And we have all heard that before. And we’re not happy with hearing it anymore. It reminds me, as it reminds Sanderson and I’m sure it reminds others, of people telling me that I’m going to hell for play Pokémon. Or making fun of me for liking Star Wars. Or any of the other nerdy reasons I was bullied.

And that’s a life-long conversation I’ve had as a nerd with the world around me. And it’s a life-long conversation other nerds have had with the world around them. And it’s a decades-long conversation generations of nerds have been in.

I wonder whether Kehe is looking at all the responses I’ve seen, reactions against the article, and just sits there aghast— because he was ignorant of how he might be perceived as attacking nerdy-ness itself— or if he knew and is still surprised because he didn’t realize there would be a backlash.

And there are definitely places where nerd culture can be overly sensitive— but let’s not forget that’s because these wounds are still healing.

This story did not have be framed in some snide, malicious way. It could have been a simple piece: There’s a fantasy writer who writes a lot and makes a lot of money. He lives a simple life with his family and friends– including a writing group from college that still meets. He is a nerdy guy– but, then again, he writes fantasy. Even the “Brandon Sanderson is your god” push at the end is poorly understood from even what Sanderson is quoted in the piece– if Brandon Sanderson is living out a dream of “being a godhead,” it’s not over his readers, it’s over his fantastical worlds. And a person with some understanding of how fantasy and sci-fi works should understand that.

But the backlash is because Kehe entered this conversation with the brashness of a popular kid making fun of a nerdy kid’s outfit, religion, writing, personality, friends, and family. And that ought to get him sent to the principal’s office. But, I’m happy that the community isn’t happy about being portrayed this way anymore.

Thank you for reading!

Did you read the article? What are your thoughts? Leave them in a comment below! Want to support me and my writing? Hit the payment button to donate any amount– even just a dollar helps support this nerd’s dream of writing.

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