Sometimes bad writing is good writing...
Who is no great gift to English prose?
This week, Wired writer Jason Kehe wrote a profile of fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson that Sanderson’s fans really didn’t like. Kehe was criticised for making cruel jokes. Ben Sixsmith wrote a partial defence of Kehe that “you can’t have an essay without a perspective.” Ben makes a good argument that Kehe was in fact fairly balanced. I think Kehe’s perspective is seen as meretricious because it’s so shallowly high-brow. At the risk of writing about Ben writing about Kehe writing about Sanderson, let me explain.
Kehe contends Sanderson isn’t a good writer. “At the sentence level, he is no great gift to English prose.” That assumes good writing has to operate at the sentence level. True, it’s an assumption Kehe partly revises, but it’s a high-brow-school-teacher-ish belief that is just as clichéd and as much of an assumption as the thing it criticises.
Kehe mocks Sanderson for writing “just for the story and the ending” and for his clunky generic sentences. But Kehe himself writes under similar constraints. Here’s the opening of one section of Kehe’s piece:
TEN SECONDS TO go until the launch. The lights are flashing, the music thumping. “This is siiick,” someone whispers behind me, as a Cosmere’s worth of nerds count down the remaining seconds. At zero, an enormous applause. Then the VP of merchandising and events walks out.
This is entirely standard writing of its sort. So much up-market non-fiction relies on this sort of dropped-in description. What is it that separates “The lights are flashing, the music thumping” from Sanderson’s generic world-building? They are describing different worlds, but the technique’s all one. Kehe is more highbrow—magazine clichés are high status; best-selling, large-volume, epic-fantasy clichés are not—but he surely doesn’t pass his own “gift to the English language” test. Isn’t that the worst cliche of them all?
Relying on these assumptions, while breaching them himself, explains why fans saw the piece as meretricious. It’s a little high and mighty to say Sanderson’s readers may one day “graduate” to Tolkien when you are elsewhere making quips about body-odour. Kehe almost comes to see that Sanderson writes well for his genre but doesn’t ever explain Sanderson. He retains the bemused air of the critics who used to think Dickens a bad writer for not being George Eliot. Sanderson, on the other hand, wrote an excellent response.
Kehe’s essay could have explained the way in which using clichés is one quite skilful way of writing—as his own genre demonstrates. Instead, he seems to believe in Orwell’s rather silly rule. Kehe concludes that Sanderson writes the way he does because of Mormonism. That would have been a better starting point, to then explain how Sanderson’s writing works. This is the first time a major media outlet like Wired has covered Sanderson. Kehe notes in passing that Sanderson’s story is all over the internet, perhaps a better sort of fame for a writer like Sanderson. The clash of genres was most apparent when Kehe wrote: “Sanderson talks a lot, but almost none of it is usable, quotable.” Well, it’s quotable to all those people online.
Sometimes bad writing is good writing. And vice versa.
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