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Brandon Sanderson, an immeasurable phenomenon of literary fantasy

The worldwide popularity of this prolific writer, known to some as the ‘21st century Tolkien,’ shows no sign of slowing down — and neither does he

Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson pictured in Madrid in 2019.Marta Fernández (Europa Press)

When he was hired as a night receptionist at the Best Western CottonTree hotel in Provo, Utah, a university town near Salt Lake City, Brandon Sanderson told his boss that he planned to spend all those nights writing while he worked at the front desk. His boss shrugged and replied that he could do whatever he wanted, as long as he took care of the customers. At least he wouldn’t be dozing off in one of the armchairs, like his predecessor did. The future creator of the Cosmere — a lucrative literary universe of global reach, the largest in terms of epic fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien conjured up his Middle-earth — wrote seven novels at that desk in the time he spent studying biochemistry, first, and then English at Brigham Young University, where he is a teacher today.

He found out that biochemistry was not his thing in Seoul, Korea, where he spent some time as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — because, like Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer, another pair of classics of the fantastic, Sanderson is a Mormon. Something that, however, has hardly had an impact on his status as a bestselling author, since, as an almost slave to his craft — he sees himself as a sort of worker in a factory that bears his name — Sanderson does nothing but write and talk about writing (on his podcast Writing Excuses, twice nominated for the Hugo Award). Still, despite his enormous popularity, there is not much action on his social media accounts, even though he shares every (literary) step he takes with his readers.

He writes tirelessly — never less than 3,000 words a day, a small monstrosity — and he works on more than one project at a time. For this reason, his website displays some percentage-based progress bars that show how far advanced some novels are. Right now there are four underway; two are finished, and the other two (the fifth installment in the Stormlight Archive saga and a new one, Skyward Legacy) were 52% and 25% complete, respectively, at the time of writing this article. There is even a bot on Twitter that reports these percentages. One of those that currently appear as finished is the final draft of his fourth secret novel, the latest in a parallel project that makes him deserving of the title “hybrid author” and which helped him raise a whopping $41 million on Kickstarter.

Those $41 million were a new record for these types of crowdfunding platforms, but they did not pose any kind of threat to the publishing sector. That is to say, Sanderson planned to self-publish those four secret books, but it was not his first time. His editor in Spain, Marta Rossich, from the Nova publishing house, explains: “There is respect for his status as a hybrid author — an author who is both published and self-published — in his American publishing house, Tor,” because they know that this is not some kind of maneuver. The same publisher releases those titles months after Sanderson publishes them. What the writer wants are carefully crafted editions. He remembers his first readings, and the maps and everything that grew around the novel’s universe. He wants everything to be perfect, and he can only make sure of that if he does it himself.

Sanderson published his first book, Elantris, in 2005. Currently, there are now more than twenty titles in circulation; more than 30 million copies have been sold worldwide. “It grows exponentially,” says Rossich, who considers it “a phenomenon of unknown dimensions,” because his universe “doesn’t even have a movie adaptation yet.” The reason is that Sanderson is very demanding: when one of his books is adapted, he says, it has to be exactly how he and his readers expect it to be. He is in no rush.

In the meantime, his own staff keeps growing. Up to 64 people already work directly for Sanderson, collaborating with those self-publishing projects that are driven by a single engine: the brain of an avid reader who fell in love with fantasy when he read Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane in high school, and who later decided that he was going to subvert the narrative pattern known as the hero’s journey, defined by Joseph Campbell. To Sanderson, if fantasy has become in any way stagnant, it is precisely because of this pattern and what he calls the Campbell Syndrome. He explains his way of getting rid of such a legendary constriction in Creative Writing Course, a manual from last year in which he details his writing process, much like he does in the classes he teaches at the university — biographical nuggets included.

“Among his readers there are many young people who started reading with his books and now are completely hooked,” says Rossich. His most recently published title, a young adult novel called The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England — his secret project number two — will appeal to readers of Terry Pratchett. However, his followers, in a multitude of websites devoted to the Cosmere, recommend starting with Mistborn, his second saga, partly because the first book, The Final Empire, is self-contained, but it leaves you wanting more. That way you can open the door and decide when to close it.

That creative voracity is what has placed Sanderson at the top of the podium in the realm of fantasy. Let’s not forget that George R.R. Martin, his main rival as Tolkien’s successor, is currently out of the picture — The Winds of Winter, the next installment in his series A Song of Ice and Fire, has been delayed for more than a decade. And that Patrick Rothfuss, who emerged at the same time as him, is now too many books behind: The Name of the Wind was actually better received than Sanderson’s first works, as well as its sequel, but no one has heard anything from Kvothe, its main character, since 2011. Meanwhile, without looking back or stopping to wonder when someone might dethrone him, Sanderson has promised to publish at least 19 more Cosmere titles — he has already published 21 — and to do it before he turns 70. Because what matters are the readers. And the readers, as his Spanish editor said, just keep increasing.

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