Brandon Sanderson and the Success of the BYU Writing Program

Does anyone else here absolutely hates Brandon Sanderson? I feel like he is the most unoriginal and most risk averse author I've ever come across in my life.

I'll start by saying that I agree with the general sentiment that seems to run under a lot of your criticism: Brandon Sanderson is, to put it succinctly, bland. His books have a very "paint by numbers" feel about them: they all feel very similar (though Sanderson is hardly the only fantasy author guilty of this).

Brandon Sanderson is the perfect example of an author who is "corporate safe" (or as you put it, "risk averse"). You can give his books to your 12-year-old Mormon niece and rest assured that she's not going to encounter anything more offensive than a "damn" or "hell." He is the opposite of "edgy:" even the most evil villains have all of the rough edges sanded off and are just kind of generically bad; Sanderson kind of gestures at suffering and leaves it to you to infer the specifics. His books come out on a regular schedule that's as predictable as the beat of a drum, somehow in the process of writing 400,000 word books he never encounters any creative difficulties that throw a wrench in that release schedule (which is probably due to the fact that he doesn't creatively challenge himself).

Everything in the above paragraph can be taken as a criticism, but I think it's also an articulation of what his fans like about him. Brandon Sanderson relentlessly releases books on schedule (and, in order to achieve this, probably doesn't aim to produce anything transcendent or make anything that would creatively challenge himself too much). Consider the alternative: Patrick Rothfuss's fans have been waiting eight years for him to finish the Kingkiller trilogy. George RR Martin fans have gotten one ASoIaF novel in the past 14 years. Sanderson, meanwhile, has released eleven Cosmere novels in that time, in addition to also publishing a YA superhero trilogy, three Wheel of Time novels, and a Magic: The Gathering novel. (He's averaging more than 1 novel per year, an impressive release schedule considering that a single Sanderson novel can exceed the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in word count. And that's not mentioning all of the novellas and short stories he puts out.)

Importantly, as you note, Sanderson is exceptionally good at pacing. He is good at delivering a constant sense of progress. You never feel mired in a character arc or a subplot that doesn't feel like it's progressing the story. The highs might not be as high as you want, but he's good at avoiding the lows that can really interrupt the flow of a book. If you pick up a Sanderson novel, it's very easy to finish it, and once you've finished it, the next one will be there waiting to be read.

Brandon Sanderson is the literary equivalent of a Cracker Barrel: it's bland, but the portions are generous, and some people are more concerned with feeling full than getting something exceptionally delicious, while also being confident that the establishment won't offend their bland white-bread vaguely-Christian sensibilities. Brandon Sanderson is comfort food: it's accessible, and whenever you get a hankering for it, it'll be there waiting for you.

In short, Sanderson is the fantasy literary equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, Martin Scorsese can shake his fist and claim that it's not "real cinema," but the masses love it and the factory is good at churning out consistently adequate content that they happily lap up as it rolls off the assembly line. And indeed, why shouldn't they? For many people, these books/movies are not merely "good enough;" many people don't want an entertainment experience that is going to be challenging. Some people would rather have cool fight scenes than something that is going to raise uncomfortable questions and topics.

If you don't want writing that looks like it came off an assembly line, maybe you should try fantasy from one of the many myriad fantasy authors that doesn't release multiple novels every year. Lots of movies come out every year, you have lots of options besides Marvel.

Any time he has to resolve something, it's almost always done with some weird magic quirk instead of actual plot resolution.

Brandon Sanderson has written an essay about what humbly calls "Sanderson's first law: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.

So yes, Brandon Sanderson is willing to use magic to solve things using magic, provided that he's sufficiently explained that magic. This is the entire plot of Mistborn: The Final Empire. The big conflict is, "Lord Ruler is very strong because of his magic, which is somehow different from the magic of a normal mistborn." The protagonist spends the entire plot learning about magic, and she wins when she figures out how the Lord Ruler's magic works and uses that understanding of magic to defeat him. Magic can be a part of the plot.

As far as the culture war angle goes, he is the inverse of politics being shoehorned into the plot. When I watch new TV shows or movies where you can't help but roll your eyes at how hamfisted left wing politics are being pushed into the story, I feel the same way about how he leaves all of that out. He writes 800 pages of a book that pretty much has absolutely nothing deep to say about anything.

Sanderson doesn't really take the time to ever say anything deep, but it's not as if "themes" are something that is wholly absent from his work. Mistborn is a series about how it's harder to build an empire than to stage a revolution, and that revolutionaries often have work and cooperate with institutions that were part of the government that they overthrew.

Yet this guy is celebrated like he is an amazing author in the genre.

Obviously the cultural ubiquity of Sanderson (and the kind of cultural space you get to occupy when you consistently put out a large volume of work and really reward your fans for being fans) has a lot to do with this. However, it's worth mentioning that Sanderson is part of the David Farland lineage and has essentially been anointed as his successor.

David Farland, if you haven't heard of him, is a fantasy author. But perhaps more importantly, he was a writing instructor at BYU in Salt Lake City. This is significant because Utah is one of the biggest states in terms of output of fantasy authors, right behind New York (home of the publishing industry) and California (home of a large number of people). Farland's students include multiple New York Times Bestelling authors, including Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), Jessica Day George (Castle Glower, Rose Legacy), Brandon Mull (Fablehaven), Eric Flint (1632), and many, many others, including Brandon Sanderson. Whether it's David Farland's tutelage, or something in the water of Salt Lake City (or maybe the Mormon faith of many of these authors), a lot of fantasy authors came from that BYU writing program.

To give a bit more perspective on what kind of guy Farland is: his real name is David Wolverton, but he noticed that bookstores shelve books alphabetically, and decided that using David Farland as a pen name would make his books more likely to appear closer to eye-level on the shelf at bookstores, leading to more sales. He's the kind of person who takes that kind of optimized approach to his writing career. One of the things he seems proudest of is that he essentially gave Stephanie Meyer the template that she followed when writing Twilight, a series of novels that went on to be immensely commercially successful. (He talks about his relationship with the Twilight series in a tone that almost borders on boastful.) Farland is very concerned with giving practical advice to writers that will help them sell their books to publishers and readers, and this often includes writing stories that are "good," but you might take umbrage with him for the same reason that some people take umbrage with Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, the book about Hollywood scriptwriting that people blame for making every blockbuster movie feel same-y and formulaic.

Sanderson has followed in Farland's foosteps by teaching a class at BYU every year (with lectures posted online so that anyone anywhere in the world may audit the class), and since 2008 he has also hosted Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast that gives authors advice on how to improve their writing, how to pitch to agents, and other things related to the world of publishing. That podcast has won a Hugo award (and been nominated a total of 4 times) and won multiple Parsec Awards. So Sanderson is renowned not only within the world of fantasy literature, but also gets a lot of appreciation within the world of fantasy authors. Many current fantasy authors studied under his tutelage (if not directly at BYU, then by listening to his podcast or watching his lectures). Sanderson is not a brooding creative who waits for the muse to strike; he is a man who is interested in understanding where his ideas come from and then formalizing that knowledge in a way that allows other writers to learn from his successes. He takes a craftsman's approach to creativity, and attributes his success to practice (something that other writers can replicate) rather than inspiration (something mysterious that can't be reproduced). In that sense, Sanderson is "an author's author." The people who vote for awards like the Hugo and Nebula are other authors. So it shouldn't come as any great surprise that Sanderson's work is frequently nominated for these types of awards, and in fact he is among the few who have the elite distinction of winning both the Nebula and Hugo award for a single work (The Emperor's Soul in 2013).