Not only is Brandon Sanderson a best-selling fantasy writer and a two-time Campbell Award nominee, the man is also the first (and, likely, only) winner of The Scalzi Award, which of course makes it one of the most exclusive awards in science fiction and fantasy, like, ever. So bow down to the man, why don’t you. Brandon is now stretching his authorial legs and stepping into the Young Adult field, and his debut there, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, is a bunch of fun and garnered a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Readers whose sense of humor runs toward the subversive will be instantly captivated”). And, you know, look: it’s got evil librarians. Which are the best kind of librarians there are, after the sexy ones that look like Lisa Loeb.
For this Month of Writers installment, Brandon turns his eye to look at another writer for young adults, Philip Pullman, and some of the controversy surrounding his books. Given that the movie version of The Golden Compass opens today, this essay of Brandon’s is all the more timely. Enjoy.
BRANDON SANDERSON: On Pullman and Censorship
To whom it may concern,
Let me introduce myself. My name is Brandon Sanderson. I have a Master’s Degree in English from BYU, where I now teach creative writing. I’m a practicing member of the LDS church, and am a best-selling fantasy novelist.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email regarding the movie “The Golden Compass,” a movie which is being released this Christmas. The email was very critical of the movie and the books it is based on, warning people NOT to go see the movie or read the books because of their anti-religious content. They explained that Philip Pullman, the author of these books, is an atheist, and–with these books–is trying to convert our children away from the worship of God. At the same time, I’ve heard of local libraries and schools being asked to remove these books from their shelves.
When I got that email, it bothered me quite a bit, though at first I couldn’t decide why. I’ve read the Pullman books, and–indeed–there are some philosophies expressed in the books which deal with atheism and the dangers of religious totalitarianism. The later books go so far as to be rather anti-religion. So, the email is correct on that point. I also don’t mind if parents are warned about this content, as it may influence how they react to the movie or how they respond to questions their children might have. It may even make them decide not to let their children see the movie, which is their right. I have no problem with the email being sent in any of these regards
What bothered me, then, was the tone of the email. It didn’t seem informative–but COUNTER-informative. It didn’t try to explain ideas, but instead tried to get people to avoid listening to those ideas. In short, it didn’t seek to promote understanding or learning, but instead promoted exclusivist and censorship. There is a difference between 1) acknowledging and arguing against content you might disagree with and 2) attempting to suppress that content.
THE POWER OF FICTION
As an author, I think one of the greatest things that fiction can do is let us see through the eyes of other people. When you read a book–particularly, in my opinion, a fantasy book–it allows you to experience things you’d never otherwise be able to experience. Part of that is the ability to see through the eyes of characters who are radically different from yourself. One of the benefits of this is that, in my opinion, you become more understanding of those around you. Perhaps, to use a Christian term, you more charitable toward others, since you’ve experienced life through the eyes of a variety of people struggling with a variety of problems you haven’t encountered.
I had this experience. When I read DRAGONSBANE by Barbara Hambly as a teenage boy, I had very little experience with the fantasy genre. At that point in my life, actually, I didn’t enjoy reading. A wise teacher handed me this book, and I read it. It filled me with wonder at the epic scope and fantastical worlds. At the same time, it presented a main character who was a middle-aged woman. She had chosen to raise a family instead of studying her magical powers in their fullest.
Through the course of the book, she struggled with her decision, feeling guilty for giving up on her magical potential–which she could never truly realize, since she’d devoted herself to her children. Yet, at the same time, she loved her family, and didn’t regret the time she’d invested in them.
At that time in my life, I knew that my mother had given up a very valuable scholarship which would have trained her to become a CPA. She had instead moved with my father to Nebraska and had chosen to bear and raise me, her eldest child. She still worked part-time as an accountant, but would speak wistfully of the career opportunities she has let pass her by.
After reading this book, I was stunned to realized that I understood my mother better. I felt like I KNEW what it was like to be a middle-aged woman struggling to balance family and career. And it all happened in the framework of a story that was exciting, fun, and imaginative.
This is what fiction does. How much better was it for me to read a story about someone DIFFERENT from myself? That is not to downplay stories which star teenagers like I was, but I feel that if every book we read is about people exactly like ourselves–and who believe exactly like we do–then we’re missing out on one of the great humanizing powers of fiction.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS
And so, this brings me to the works of Mr. Pullman. No, I don’t agree with his philosophy on life. However, I read these books and enjoyed them, and think that he was sincere in his beliefs. The religious themes are only a small part of the first book, and overall seemed less like a point that was being driven into my brain, and more like a ‘What if’ aspect to the world. The God he is trying to kill is not, by his own words, the creator–but a creature who represents all that is bad and evil in organized religion. (And, I’ll quickly admit that there is a lot to point a finger at. I place the blame for these atrocities in a different place, but the problems are there.)
I was intrigued by the ideas presented–not because they made me want to change my own beliefs, but because I felt I came to understand what it was like to go through life believing as he does about religion. The books are beautifully crafted, and deal with real and important issues–such as religious tyranny and Machiavellian thinking. They do not include mature content or anything else I would want to steer children away from.
I believe that Truth is eternal, and that sincere arguments against that Truth from well-meaning people are not a threat to us. It would be different if I saw a pernicious or two-faced attempt at spreading lies in these books. However, I see sincerity–misplaced sincerity, true, but that is beside the point.
Either way, I do not believe the correct response to different ideas is to censor or boycott them. This makes it seem like the ideas are a threat to our own ideas. Are your beliefs so weak that they cannot stand to listen to someone offering a different opinion? Are you afraid they might be right? If not, why are you so afraid–or angry–about these books?
I would find it a shame if people were to boycott and remove my books from schools because I speak of worlds where it’s implied that there IS a deity. My goal would be to let my books and his books sit on the shelves beside one another, and allow the people who read them to see both opinions and make their own decisions.
You may not want your children to read the books. That’s your right. (Personally, I think our children are not as stupid as you imply that they are. They will no sooner read these books and become atheists than they’ll read Harry Potter and become wizards.)
If you are worried about them reading these books, talk to them about the books. And, again, if you want to forbid your children from reading them, that is certainly your right as a parent. However, I have a problem with you trying to remove them from libraries or schools. That is where you stray into attempting to censor and ban ideas, suppressing them, instead of arguing against them.
I’m not trying to say that you should go see these movies or read these books. I’m not even trying to endorse them. I just believe that people should make their own decisions on this, and I respect the decisions you make–and, if your decision is to not see the movie, then I can understand why and part of me agrees with your moral stand. However, to imply that others shouldn’t see or read the books is, in my opinion, an attempt to foster ignorance.
As always, the best way to promote your ideas is to argue for them in an intelligent, respectful way–as opposed to trying to stamp out the other person’s ideas before others can hear them.
Sincerely, Brandon Sanderson
(Note: For background on why I wrote this, please read this blog post. Thanks.)