I think that’s a good way of putting it.
An awful lot of the most successful SF/fantasy is pretty mindless/trope-y, or at least operates on two levels - a sort of obvious showy level with a ton of some combination of violence, superpowers, sex, mild horror and moderate intrigue, and either a lot of slightly pious talk about right and wrong (often without reaching a conclusion) or a lot grey/dark stuff (or both) and the odd PLOT TWIST, and then a higher, more thoughtful level, where more delicate/subtle/complex characterisation occurs, where more complex or strange ideas are considered, and so on.
Any book that goes heavy on the latter level tends to be well-regarded, but doesn’t seem to sell remotely as well, or become as well-known.
I know this probably sounds a bit snobby but I don’t really intend it that way as I definitely enjoy both levels, and have read and enjoyed many books which existed primarily or almost entirely on the “lower” level.
Vandermeer’s books, at least the ones I’ve read, definitely lean towards the second level, which I think leads a lot of people to regard them well, but don’t always recommend them as much or find them as easy to recommend because what makes them good is more subtle/complex, and it’s harder to predict whether people will enjoy that than whether they will enjoy some taught intrigue or cool superpowers or awesome worldbuilding or pulpy-but-cool action or the like.
Or maybe I’m just talking smack, it’s entirely possible.
But talking about The Martian and how successful it was, despite being like, really badly written on virtually every level beyond a very technical story of man vs nature makes me think there’s something to this. It’s really easy to recommend. You pretty much know who is going to enjoy/appreciate it, and it’s almost everyone, because who doesn’t like a story of “human using tools to survive”? It being written so simply (even if it’s purely a product of a lack of writing skill, which I believe it was) only helps it reach a larger audience.
Sanderson’s success is similar, for my money. That said, you can see him reaching, clawing at the higher level in the Stormlight Archives at least (you see flashes of it in almost all his work but it’s sort of becoming more common in the Stormlight books).
Which actually brings me to what I’m reading (or rather listening to) right now - Oathbringer still.
It is really interesting to see him address some kind of complex problems. And then often a little disappointing that he sort of acknowledge them and then rushes off into a super-power fight or whatever (though there has been WAY less action and way more thinking/talking in Oathbringer than the previous two), but then sometimes he circles back. I did appreciate him noting that a more technologically advanced culture was not necessarily a superior culture, which is kind of an obvious but I think noteworthy in this context, because the technologically advanced culture in question is the most “Western”-seeming culture in the setting, and the one which has had the most focus. He also pointed out that most of what they knew/thought, they nicked.
Oathbringer has also had some pretty genuinely surprising plot-twists. I do kind of have this underlying fear that a lot of people doing stupid/evil things will be excused as “Evil magic made me do it”, but he’s been undermining that a bit too, or at least seeming to, and we’ve seen some surprising character deaths (long may they continue - come on, whittle down a few more of these guys!). I’m not very sure about this idea, expressed at one point, that being too clever can make you evil, but I think that may be specific to one character.
Anyway I’m enjoying Oathbringer and a bit more than I did the previous two books, where part of the enjoyment was semi-ironic “This is bloody silly” stuff.
Part of it is that I read this ridiculous article which suggested all people writing fantasy needed to:
A) Avoid or make very minor any kind of “fantasy racism” or “fantasy sexism” or the like, unless it was absolutely key to the plot, because it was “distracting” and would “ruin” your book.
B) Avoid any kind of ridiculous dress codes or the like - despite history being full of them - because your audience would be too busy giggling at that and couldn’t take your book seriously.
And some other more or less silly stuff (like “All fantasy should have completely effective contraceptives” - It’s like, motherfucker, the REAL world doesn’t even have that, why should fantasy worlds?) which is less relevant.
And sadly MOST contemporary fantasy authors DO actually follow these rules, which has sort of homogenized a lot of fantasy and lead to it becoming very trope-y/predictable.
But Sanderson in Stormlight Archives is like “Fuck that noise!” (probably unconsiously), and his societies are absolutely CHOCK FULL of people in truly ridiculous outfits with ridiculous obsessions. For example, the “main” society in Stormlight insists women wear gloves, even mittens or sleeves covering gloves (to do otherwise is obscene), on their left hand and generally very prescriptive about dress for both genders. The same society also has very strict gender roles, which even the “good guy” characters from that society (like Adolin) are troubled by deviance from.
And it’s just really well handled and believable, and actually does the opposite of what the ridiculous article suggests, and draws you in to this society. Sure they’re idiots, but it helps make them real. And they have very realistic attitudes, like that they’re far less bothered by people from outside the society breaking those norms than people inside. For example, only women and holy people (monk/priest-equivalents) write actual words in that society (men use a vastly simplified representational “glyph” system), and there’s this charmingly idiotic bit where one of the main characters, a man of some intelligence but really a deeply a member of his culture, is like slightly put off by seeing a bunch of men from another culture writing stuff down, but sort of calms himself by thinking “Well all the men in this society are kind of like [monks/priests]”, which obviously they aren’t, but that’s what works for him.
Aaaaaanyway, still reading and enjoying Oathbringer.