The Lone and Level Sands

St. Jerome Reading in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini, 1480
St. Jerome Reading in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini, 1480.

There have been two Brandon Sanderson profiles in mainstream media outlets in recent* weeks. Jason Kehe in Wired  and Adam Morgan in Esquire. The first begins by bemoaning the lack of mainstream literary attention paid to Sanderson and sets out to repair it; the second comments critically on the first, which was widely perceived as something of a hatchet job, though I didn’t think so. To me, both pieces read as positive overall, despite both containing criticisms. Kehe’s primary criticism is about Sanderson’s writing; Morgan’s is about Sanderson’s support, both moral and financial, for the homophobic Mormon Church. Both of these criticisms are undercut. Kehe comes around to the perspective that, while Sanderson writes bad sentences, this is fine because sentences don’t matter, only story does. What does it matter if someone is a bad writer, if writing itself is bad? Meanwhile, Morgan focuses on Sanderson’s commercial successes and how good he is as an entrepreneur and employer. What does it matter if someone materially supports homophobia, if they put queer representation in their books? 

Both profiles do make interesting points, as well, at least in the sense that it’s interesting to hear these claims made in this way, on these platforms. Kehe—who is obviously a fan, who else could read 17 to 20 novels by any given author and be familiar enough with the lore to claim bona fides—takes the criticism of Sanderson as a poor writer of prose to a very familiar place: story over sentences, worlds over writing. This is Asimov’s plateglassery combined with Tolkien’s celebration of worldbuilding; a conversation central to the genre for decades, in other words—this is what the New Wave was about. The disdain for ornate language, as I’ve written about before, has been a misguided literary commonplace for centuries, its roots in a combination of Christian denunciation of pagan excess and Orientalist denunciation of the florid East, now routinely presented as standard stylistic advice. Asimov’s essay on “plate glass” writing is only a minor variant of this tradition.

Tolkien, meanwhile, warrants special citation here because Kehe’s profile of Sanderson is quite reminiscent of the argument of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” Both represent a Christian-framed mythology of consolation (perhaps inevitably,  the first hit for Tolkien’s essay as of this writing is a PDF of the essay hosted on the website of an explicitly homophobic Christian  sect, Calvary Georgetown Divide. I have here linked to a different copy) that presents the fantasist as (sub)creator, a maker of worlds, as Tolkien argues and Kehe reaffirms on Sanderson’s behalf. “On Fairy Stories” is, I believe, the essay in which Tolkien originally coined the phrase “secondary world,” now as commonplace as a dead darling. The religious framing is not necessary for the eucatastrophic ending that Tolkien describes, though he does frame it that way, but in his concept of worldbuilding it is inescapable. There is creation, the primary world, authored by a  primary creator, belief in whom and in which is fundamental to proper  living. And then there is the subcreation, the secondary world, authored  in homage, in which belief is required for proper reading. As above, so below: belief is paramount in both cases, i.e., the suspension of disbelief. Worlds must be made with care, consistency, and coherence. Such is the  responsibility of a (sub)creator. Kehe’s argument on Sanderson is this, rehashed: that Sanderson is not (much of) a writer but a (great) worldbuilder, both on and off the page. Morgan extends the latter part of that argument with his comparison of Sanderson’s 64-person enterprise to an indie game studio, with employees to help with every aspect of production from continuity to merchandise to event management.

This is all very well for the entrepreneurial, the would-be heads of  their own production studios, the subcreators-in-waiting, the wiki-ready and metatronic  among us. But I think it would be uncontroversial to say that—while I’m sure anyone would be pleased to make vast sums of money—many novelists, perhaps most, have no desire whatsoever to build or run the kind of enterprise-grade apparatus that  Sanderson has and does. Most novelists are not, in my experience, desirous of becoming startup founders. But this is also why I think the distinction between writers and worldbuilders is meaningful. This distinction, too, has its own long history in the genre. In a way, this, too, is what the New Wave was about. Michael Moorcock has long cogently argued that “worldbuilding is a failure of literary sophistication,” that the pseudo-realism that requires the suspension of disbelief is not something to aspire to. Or M. John Harrison in his instantly-legendary notes on worldbuilding in 2007:

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.

In 2020, Helen Marshall published an excellent paper on this, called “A  flare of light or ‘the great clomping foot of nerdism?’: M John  Harrison’s radical poetics of worldbuilding” (full text available from here as a PDF), which contextualizes and comments on Harrison’s remarks in more detail and is well worth reading—among other things, it is a good counter to the contemporary ubiquity of the worldbuilding ideology among writers of fiction and critics alike, including the literary profile writers. 

Coming back to Christian symbolism of worldbuilding as a work of subcreation, Harrison had something to say about that, too

The whole idea of worldbuilding  is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.

This, I think, is the real danger of worldbuilding as a practice and a literary norm. This is the science-fictional root of longtermism, the clomping foot of the boy demiurges attempting to build a world of the world. As with the real homophobia behind representation on the page, this requires the suspension of disbelief. The world, to be built, must be made small. The technique requires the stripping away of complexities. It is not ambiguous that Eru Ilúvatar created the world. That is a simple fact, the kind of fact that is not only unavailable in what Tolkien called the primary world, not only ridiculous, dangerous and arrogant if treated as fact, not only contestable but with deep and consequential histories of contestation. It is common to describe worldbuilding projects as encyclopedic, but few worldbuilding projects have the space (or the interest) to investigate the depths of historical-psychological complexity, ambiguity, unknowability, and irreducibility that might be seen in the edit history of a single contested Wikipedia page—to say nothing of the epistemological failures of Wikipedia itself, its biases and overwhelmingly vast absences. Worldbuilding as a totalizing project cannot help but fail. My feeling is that “suspension of disbelief” and “secondary world” were not helpful ways to think about what is actually happening when we read a text, and yet they are tropes so influential and well-established that many of us take them as givens, as expectations of how we should read and what a fantastical text is supposedly doing.

Not everything that comes in the form of a  book is the same kind of object, even when they look vaguely similar. Some books are television—screenplays avant le deal memo. Some books are franchise tie-ins, in most cases anticipating the franchise. Some books are novels of one type or  another. It’s odd to see mainstream glossy magazine profiles unthinkingly—unknowingly?—reproduce arguments half a century old at minimum, but perhaps this is apposite. In my view, this is what Christopher Priest’s attempts to make slipstream a thing or Harrison’s own attempt to coin and claim New Weird was about: to carve out an acknowledged space for writing to be writing in all its slippery quiddity, the opposite of what Kehe claims for Sanderson—a place where the sentences matter, and are the whole of the matter. 

* This was written, and published on my Patreon, at the end of March. If you’d also like to see my essays and updates early, you can sign up at