A Month of Writers, Day Seven: Brandon Sanderson
Posted on December 7, 2007 Posted by John Scalzi 32 Comments
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.)
I wish there were more people like you, Brandon Sanderson, and I’m going to look for your books.
Thank you Brandon for this. I would just like to add that every time there is a religious controversy regarding a movie, the strongest advocates for boycotting the film have invariably never even seen it.
And another thanks for Elantris, a thoroughly engaging and original work.
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.)
Y’know, it’s funny you say that, because it makes me notice something in my own experience that I probably knew but hadn’t highlighted.
Back when I was a wee lad, I had an enormous obsession with comic books and refused to read anything else. Hence my displeasure when my parents (and my father isn’t especially religious and my mother isn’t especially observant) insisted on buying me a copy of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe instead of the Ghost Rider comic book I really, really wanted. (It’s a testament to how badly I wanted it that I can remember this at all.)
So I read their stupid book. I could read it, and hate it, and maybe they’d know better and buy me the damn comic I wanted next time.
Except, of course, what actually happened was that I fell in love. I devoured the rest of the Chronicles Of Narnia as fast as I could get my hands on them, moved on to Tolkien and The Hobbit, and thus began a lifelong love; of fantasy and then science fiction, first, then a broader love of literature. I want to say I was maybe five when my parents thwarted me, I may have been seven–I can’t remember if it was “before Star Wars” or “after Star Wars,” 1977 being the other seminal event from my early childhood that sticks out–but I’ve been reading so long I can’t remember not reading, aside from remembering I wanted a Ghost Rider comic for some reason.
But here’s the real point (finally!)–I’m an atheist, and have been probably since I was around 15 or so.
C.S. Lewis tried to indoctrinate me in Christianity when I was a little kid, and it flew right over my head. What stuck wasn’t his horrible, ridiculous, absurd theological “insight” but the images of eternal winter and talking beavers serving supper. Surely, if children are so impressionable and at risk of being seduced, if J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman are such threats to youth, then surely I should be some kind of Episcopalian. Right?
(You know what made me an atheist? Greco-Roman mythology. No lie. You’d have to read these old myths in junior high school Language Arts, 6th-8th grade, so you’d have that context for your subsequent introduction to Shakespeare, etc.. And I was an avid D&D player, so there was an interest in mythology from that end. And at some point along the line, as I was reading these things, I said to myself, “Waitaminute, people used to believe this horseshit–” Contemporary religions all slid downhill from there for me, after that. Skepticism was followed by agnosticism and then atheism in short order.)
Anyway, the point is–the biggest danger Pullman poses to kids these days is that maybe they’ll be SF&F geeks when they grow up. I’m more than happy to welcome them to the tribe.
Concerning the Scalzi Award, you don’t happen to remember what bookstore in Utah the perpetrators operated, do you? I live in northern Utah, and would patronize their place if I knew which place it is.
Brandon would know (of course). If he pops by, I’ll let him answer.
Thanks for posting that essay, Mr. Scalzi. It is without a doubt the most balanced thing I have read from either side of this “debate” thus far. As always I find Mr. Sanderson’s thoughts refreshing and enlightening. Good stuff. I’ve passed this excellent link on to others.
“Personally, I think our children are not as stupid as you imply that they are.”
Great piece. I think I’ll hop on over to his site and tell him so.
Ah! No comments on his page.
Thanks Brandon for that rational perspective.
I think I am an example of there being no such thing as bad publicity.
Not having any children, nor really being plugged into what out there in the F & SF realm, I had not heard of Bill Pullman nor his “Dark Materials” trilogy. The first I had heard of it was when I read a story about a local Catholic School board pulling the book from their shelves; this being Ontario, it was a publically funded school board.
I got interested and then started reading that many folks, including adults, liked the work.
I have already ordered the book from Chapters (our online bookseller).
Pullman should really send a small donation to Bill Donohue and the catholic league for the publicity. Teehee!
We’ve been getting several of those “Save your children from the evil movie” emails lately. I’ve been wanting to respond, but my wife is afraid I will say something offensive (and honestly, I just might). But just clicking ‘delete’ and ignoring the fact that someone is telling me what I should or should not let my kids watch doesn’t sit well with me either. Now, however, I can send them the link to this excellent essay. Thank you, Brandon.
The guy involved in the Scalzi award worked for Waldenbooks, but has now left them. We just call him “Not Bookstore Guy Anymore” as he kind of still identifies himself by his number of years working as a bookseller.
Sorry about the lack of comments on my blog. We have them enabled on my LJ, which mirrors the blog, but we haven’t gotten around to putting comments on the official blog yet. (Partially because they annoy my brother/webmaster.)
Anyway, thanks all for the comments here, and thanks to you John for the post.
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.
Yes. I do not find, as some argue, that Pullman is advocating for atheism.
In fact, at least His Dark Materials, feels vaguely Gnostic to me, much like the Matrix.
And perhaps this scares some people even more than atheism….
I’ve been considering buying and reading Alcatrez vs. the Evil Librarians lately. I don’t usually read either YA or Sci-Fi literature, but I’m been expanding my horizons lately. In any case, I say this all to say that after reading Sanderson’s well-reasoned, balanced, and sane comments on “The Golden Compass” controversy, my reading Alcatrez is a foregone conclusion.
I’m an agnostic who respects people’s beliefs and ideas (especially when they extend the same courtesy to me), but when people begin banning books and boycotting movies they’ve never even seen – well that smacks of anti-intellectualism and that I can not abide.
A couple of things:
1. Being the contrary school librarian that I am, after this controversy, I immediately went and pulled the book from where it was not being read and put it on display. It had not been checked out in 6 months. It has now been out 3 times in the last 3 weeks. I do so like when people point out such things.
2. Being the evil librarian that I am, I need to go out and purchase a copy of “Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians” for my library.
thanks for posting this- a brilliant, rational letter. it is a great salve to mindless debate, and i just love his deep belief in the power of ideas.
Tom Nixon @15
Greetings from a fellow evil librarian! In case you missed it, ‘Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians’ was featured in Unshelved earlier this week:
Brandon also has an excellent EUOlogy on Gay Dumbledore at:
Not only is he very nice in person (I met him at LAConIV) he’s a very talented writer. I make a point of buying his books in HB since reading his essay on why that’s important to a writer:
And he will get my nomination for the Campbell at Denvention.
He’s already been nominated twice for the Campbell; he can’t be nominated for it any more. Nominate him for the Hugo instead!
Zakur @ 17
Yes, I saw it. For us evil librarians, Unshelved is the happening comic!
Though I have not read Pullman’s works, I totally agree with Mr. Sanderson’s views on the controversy.
Readers of this post may also be interested in this review of the movie
I’m amused to see a link to the Disturber’s Lawrence Toppman–usually, when he pans a movie, all my friends and I start talking about seeing it. Vice versa if he loves a film. The man is an utterly terrible movie reviewer, has been since he took over the movie reviews back in, what, the ’80s, wasn’t it? Of course a broken watch is right twice a day, etc., I won’t say he’s never been right about a movie, it just seems that way. But I still don’t think I’ll be seeing Compass unless friends drag me–I don’t want the movie tainting my mental version.
To anyone who hasn’t heard today’s big news: Brandon has been chosen to finish A MEMORY OF LIGHT. http://www.dragonmount.com/News/?p=326
Excellent news, Peter.
I liked Brandon Sanderson’s comments so much, I posted them on my own blog. (Not that you’ll need to go there, since you just read Sanderson’s comments here, but to reference: http://ksrkingworth.com)
My daughter and I just got back from watching The Golden Compass. We talked more on the drive home than we have in a long time. What Pullman touches on is a great springboard for discussion.
Great blog, John! I’d like to invite you to take a look at the seven things I learned from Orson Scott Card. He’s writing a blurb on the back of my YA fantasy novel, Secret Speakers. http://golibro.com
Congrats, Mr. Sanderson, for being tapped to finish “A Memory of Light.”
As a deist, I have little sympathy for religious dogma, but I have to disagree with the piece; suppression/censorship of ideas via government force is a serious issue that every reasonable freedom-loving person should oppose, but there is nothing wrong with circulating an email telling people not to see something you don’t like or believe has a harmful message.
If you want to see real censorship, visit N Korea or Iran or Cuba and try passing out Orwell and Ayn Rand on the street. Assuming they don’t mistake “1984” for an instruction manual, you will be, ahem, discouraged.
Then the author says “people should make their own decisions on this.” Well, some people prefer not to see anti-Christian movies, and the email helps them make that decision. I don’t care myself, but the email is in fact helping better inform their choice, not making them ignorant.
Finally, telling people to ignore something is perfectly valid. If someone made a pro-KKK movie or one about how the Jews really deserved the Holocaust, would we have to refrain from telling people not to see it in order to prove we aren’t “anti-intellectual” or “fostering ignorance?” Do we need to “promote learning” about those viewpoints? Those are extreme examples, but some people feel that strongly about religion — and that’s their right. As long as they aren’t infringing on my rights I don’t care.
I haven’t seen the movie, but it looks fun. I’ll probably see it when it gets to DVD.
Pshaw! You want anti-religious? OK, they’re not in the sci-fi or fantasy genre, more like mainstream historical fiction, but they can out anti-religous anyone — Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy (The Winter King et. al.) and Saxon stories (The Last Kingdom & three others so far). Both series take place in the Dark Ages, Christianity’s formative centuries, and both tear it a new one.
TallDave, while I agree that an e-mail telling people not to go see a movie or read a book is not the same thing as government or institutional censorship of a book, movie, or other expression of ideas and thoughts, I think you might be overlooking some of the significance of letters like these (or maybe you’re not, and I’m just more worried about this than you are).
There’s a lot of political anti-intellectualism going around. Faith-based teaching and politics are feeding the public a lot of policies and ideas that don’t stand up to rigorous questioning (this probably isn’t the place to enumerate them). The only way faith-based politics work is for enough people not to question things.
I think campaigns like the anti-Pullman one draw from this ideology, and feed into it.
The people who write these e-mails often start campaigns to have books removed from library shelves. Once the book is removed from library shelves, that is, indeed, institutional censorship: it’s contents are no longer available to anyone else who wants to read the book, or who might happen on the book and benefit from it.
Furthermore, what I think Brandon is trying to point out is that while people might not want to read a book that calls elements of their faith into question, they and their faith might benefit from reading such a book, not because they’ll come around to the author’s way of thinking, but because they may better understand people around them, who have more in common with the author than they do.
Outside of school, it’s rare for people to be forced to read a given book, and I don’t think that Brandon was suggesting that anyone be compelled to read Pullman’s books, or tricked into doing so. What he seems to be warning against is the way the e-mails and letters (and even the Facebook group) simply tell people that the Pullman’s book (and the movie) are bad, that it celebrates atheism, and that Pullman is trying to convert their children. The people writing these e-mails don’t seem interested in engaging with the ideas. They simply call on their authority, and their readers’ insecurities, to promote the notion that faith and questioning are somehow opposed to each other. They feed into the false opposition of faith and intellectualism.
I think this is a dangerous trend, myself, and one that should be questioned. I think it has to be questioned by people of faith, because, well, in the eyes of most Christians, an athiest like me doesn’t hold much authority.
Well put Mr Sanderson. If a persons faith is so weak that a movie or book can shake it maybe they need to find something stronger to put their faith in. I am torn on the effectiveness of this sort of campaign. It seems to me that anyone who would read and follow this sort of advice is already an unthinking religious fanatic. Blindly allowing others to do all their hard thinking for them. Lets face it, having a fundamental belief attacked can be painful. It is much easier to stick with church authorized reading and entertainment that reinforces what you already believe. There is a line out there between telling people of the same faith that a book or movie should be avoided and telling the local library what they can put on thier shelves. I have no problem with them telling each other what they should and shouldn’t read. The problem starts when they try to control what books I can and can not read. I would never consider going to a Christian Science reading room and telling them they have to carry this or that book and I would also never tell them they can’t carry another. It is privately funded and they have paid for the right to to pick their own books. The local library on the other hand is funded by my tax dollars too and it is up to me to decide which books I want to read.
On a side note to Mr Scalzi. I just read your Site Disclaimer and Comment Policy. It is a thing of beauty. This is my soap box. If you don’t like it there is plenty of room on the net for you to build your own. Hehe. The only part I don’t like is that you can edit a post. I would rather be deleted then edited without consent or at least a note that the post had be changed from the original neurotic rambling. Ah well it is your bat and ball and if I don’t like the call I can get my own.
While I agree with the contents of Mr. Sanderson’s essay, I find the wording timid and apologetic. As a German I’m always taken aback by the appeasement toward Christian Fundamentalists, who are trying to turn the clocks backwards. Don’t make excuses for them, they are wrong – shout it out loud!