Scoffing at Dan Brown’s “Literary Success,” Or: A Shameless Plug For My New Book

51i1GQblq4LMay 14, 2013 marks another momentous day in the annals of literary history. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the new Dan Brown novel, Inferno, has arrived. No doubt many of you have marked your calendars; some of you may already be reading Brown’s latest thriller. Or have downloaded it to your Kindle or Nook or whatever e-book reading devices you fancy.

If you are, then you and I shouldn’t be friends.

Why am I talking about Dan Brown? Because a few years back, during the release of his last novel, The Lost Symbol, I wrote a piece called “Scoffing at Dan Brown’s ‘Literary Success’,” summarizing my immense dislike for Dan Brown’s writing. I take that back: his lack of writing.

I’m also taking this opportunity to shamelessly promote my new book, Out Where the Buses Don’t Run, now available in both paperback and Kindle edition on Amazon, because, not so coincidentally, that very same piece I was just talking about appears in the book.

But enough of me shamelessly plugging my new book – which you should read, by the way – because this isn’t about my book, it’s about Dan Brown’s new book, which will no doubt rocket to the top of the best-seller lists, and be savagely eviscerated by literary snobs everywhere; in fact, Flavorwire has an early list of some of the funniest and most vicious takedowns on Inferno so far. Inferno will sell very well. And then you’ll see hundreds of copies available at your local used book store, sitting there forlorn, waiting to be bought at a heavily discounted price. But what the hell does it matter? Dan Brown’s got your filthy money, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

That fucker.

Oh well. Screw him. I am going to peddle my book a little harder now. Here now is the piece I wrote about Mr. Brown and his shitty writing, which, once again, is featured in my new book…okay, seriously, if you don’t know what’s it’s called by now, then I really haven’t been talking much about then?

Alright, read on then.

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Scoffing at Dan Brown’s “Literary Success” 

 

September 23, 2009

  

You’ve all no doubt have heard that Margaret Atwood, highly-honored author of such literary masterworks as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, has a new novel out called The Year of the Flood…right? You’ve also heard that Joyce Carol Oates, prolific super-author of such literary masterworks as Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? and We Were the Mulvaneys, has a new novel called Little Bird of Heaven…right? You’re all aware that Thomas Pynchon, reclusive superstar of postmodern fiction and the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, has a new novel called Inherent Vice…right?

No?

Okay. You’re all aware Dan Brown has a new novel called The Lost Symbol, his follow-up to his phenomenally successful The DaVinci Code, right? Of course you know this. You can’t go anywhere without reading about how expectations are high for Brown’s new novel, and you’ve seen him interviewed on everything from The Today Show to Funny Car Weekly. And, most tellingly, The Lost Symbol sold an astonishing 2 million copies in the first week of its’ release.

2 million copies sold is pretty impressive when you consider what an astonishingly bad writer Dan Brown truly is. The consensus among the literary snobberati is works like The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons are spurred on by a decent story (conspiracies abound!), but buried under an avalanche of utterly clumsy writing. Reading The DaVinci Code, I wondered, what editor wouldn’t have been tempted to take a red pen all over his manuscript? Or, better yet, does Dan Brown have a clause in his contract that excludes him from any copy editors desecrating his manuscripts? This sentence is my favorite awful Dan Brown sentence, from The DaVinci Code, one that, were I a copy editor, would correct:

 

“The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. ‘SmartCar,’ she said. “A hundred kilometers to the liter.”

 

“Easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen”? How do we know that car was “easily?” Was there a previous mention to some of the smaller cars Langdon had ever seen? Take out the first sentence – “The vehicle was blah blah blah – and the sentence isn’t weighed by exposition and adverb. But, since Brown seems to be paid by the word…

Criticizing Dan Brown’s writing has become a cottage industry of sorts. The majority of people I’ve met who’ve read any of Brown’s work all agree his writing sucks a wet one. Me, I have a way to gauge a bad novel; if it takes me about 2-3 days to read it without stopping to reflect on a passage or pause to think about what the writer is saying or where the story goes, then the novel really hasn’t engaged me at all. The DaVinci Code was like that for me, something that took me 2 days to read in its’ entirety and leaving me perplexed as to why so many millions of readers were actually reading this junk.       

I would be tempted to be ultra-critical of those who read and actual enjoy Dan Brown’s work, just like people flock to see the mind-numbing mediocrity of Michael Bay’s films, or swoon to the news of the return of Creed as a performing act. The collected works of Brown, Bay and Creed represent something completely foreign to me or others who prefer their arts with more substance than the aforementioned trio are willing or capable of providing. So what is it, then, that’s driving readers to buy The Lost Symbol in such record numbers?

First, I think it’s wise to break down the numbers posted: of the 2 million people who have purchased a copy each – and I’m assuming there are relatively few who’ve bought 20 copies of The Lost Symbol and are planning to give those as unwelcome gifts – let’s say half of those are actually fans of Brown’s work. Of the million remaining, let’s say half of those are casual readers who don’t mind The Lost Symbol taking up some of their time as a quick summer read. Of the 500,000 remaining, who knows? Maybe they’re vociferous anti-Brownists who bought the book out of spite and are going to spend the next few weeks grinding their teeth and taking a red pen to every page in the book. Granted, my numerical analysis makes little sense to you, and even to me, but it’s helping me try to understand Dan Brown’s success.

But in order to truly understand the extraordinary success of Dan Brown’s literary output, it helps to realize that Dan Brown’s novels are a sign of our times. In this day and age when so many of us are consumed with thoughts of nefarious conspiracies in place – the Bildebergs, the Illuminate, Opus Dei, the faked Lunar Landing, 9/11 Was An Inside Job, Obama is a Muslim Nazi Communist, etc. – Brown’s captured the collective zeitgeist and crafted novels that both entertain and look into our conspiratorial fears. I’m reminded of the success Tom Clancy enjoyed a decade or two ago. Clancy, another writer who brained you to death with his encyclopedic knowledge of the minutae of Soviet-era nuclear submarines but couldn’t fashion two coherent sentences together, played brilliantly upon our fears of constantly being on the brink of war with the Soviets. When the Cold War came to an end, Clancy quickly shifted those fears to other not-so-imagined enemies – terrorists, drug cartels and global criminal organizations. Again, like Brown, Clancy’s novels served to entertain. Could either author’s output be deemed worthy of the utmost critical respect? Hell no. Both Clancy and Brown mastered the art of butchering the written word while making millions.

And if you’ll read some of the more positive reviews of The Lost Symbol or any of Dan Brown’s previous works, the positive reviewers don’t seem to mind the bad writing, as long as there’s more conspiracies to read about. So maybe 2 million book buyers can’t be wrong, can they?

I don’t know. The truth is, I’m ambivalent about Brown’s books themselves. They’re crap, let’s just leave it at that. If my neighbors prefer to read The Lost Symbol to Thomas Pynchon’s newest novel, so be it. The people have spoken, just like when they spoke about Ruben Studdard or George W. Bush, and there’s not a damned thing any of us can do about it. And there’s not a damned thing you and I can do about Dan Brown’s success.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not resentful as fuck about Dan Brown or his success. He can shrug his shoulders or smugly suggest that all he does is write books people like, but the fact that he writes as if he couldn’t be bothered with the basics of grammar and the proper basics of fiction writing irk the living shit out of me to no end. I’ve gone through one writing class after another. I wrote a 350+ page manuscript that, thankfully, will never see the light of day (as I set fire to it one day in a massive fit of anger) as long as I live. I’ve subscribed to literary journals and paid attention to the rhythm and cadences of every writer I’ve read. But if Dan Brown can’t be bothered to write one fucking decent sentence, then I can’t be fucking bothered to give Brown any respect, no less be bothered with reading the idiotic conspiracy yarns he spins.

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20 thoughts on “Scoffing at Dan Brown’s “Literary Success,” Or: A Shameless Plug For My New Book

  1. I have a confession: I actually enjoyed Angels and Demons… Though admittedly I was a bit younger…
    I read some of Brown’s other work afterward and found that it’s incessantly formulaic, but also that Brown has a knack for generating a tension which causes people to not want to stop reading.

    Because I enjoyed Demons I bought Lost Symbol and found it to be utter crap with a concept more overwrought than a campy sci-fi movie and absolutely nothing at stake to drive the story. He also failed to provide characterization for anyone.

    I’m going to review Inferno in my usual style because shit though it may be, when Brown gets it right it’s fun, and it is sometimes nice not to think too much about words after a long day of self editing.

    Another confession: Yes, I got Inferno.
    …And I pirated the fuck out of it!

    • His work would be more enjoyable if he weren’t so in love with beating the reader to death with endless exposition and colossally wooden characters. His Robert Langdon is such a Mary Sue that you have zero reason to get behind the guy. Ho-hum.

      Enjoy your pirated copy of Inferno. And piracy is bad…says the guy who lives on Pirate Bay.

  2. I managed to finish “The Of Vinci Code” (I know what I said) only by trapping myself on a long-haul aircraft. It was either read it or eat airline food. I’ve waxed lyrically about Brown’s colossal literary ineptitude over on my blog, along with his colossal research ineptitude. But what I cannot fault is his mastery of the hook – of pace, and of his unerring ability to find the right subject to capture the biggest audience. Does the structure and topic make up for his breathtaking research lapses, his gob-smacking grammatical clangers? His bizarre cardboard characters? Uh…no.

    • That’s the rub on Brown: awful writing, but he does suck you in with the story. But it’s hard for me, and a lot of people, to get past the truly dire writing.

  3. I have a “writer” friend who sells good. Okay, better with her dozen or so yarns than I do with my one measly book. I’ve come to believe that even if we didn’t clean up her grammar and appalling punctuation, she would still sell. Why? Because she tells a bang-up story. When we argued about good versus bad writing, I finally realized she had no idea what I meant — “good” writing to her is a good story, “bad” writing is a dull boring story. Period. Am I the one who’s wrong? I’ve given up trying for an answer. And I’m trying to put more story in my next book! I read “The DaVinci Code” in one sitting, rather like eating a slice of cake. After a swallow of milk, I can’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember enjoying it. I may go back for another. But I’ll wait until it’s at the thrift store.

    • Everyone has different ideas over what makes a good story. I don’t think your friend is in the wrong, and neither are you. But a lot of people can agree Dan Brown can’t write to save his life.

  4. Don’t know about Dan Brown, but your Blog made me laugh out loud. Very witty and honest. Why, you should write a book! 🙂 As for Mr Brown, I don’t like the genre he writes in, or so my prejudice tells me, not having read any. But, I don’t suppose he loses any sleep about any of us, quite frankly. Heard him in a BBC radio interview yesterday saying he didn’t quite get why the British reviewers were so hostile to his work. Apparently, he gets rave reviews over the pond . (?)

    • He gets lousy reviews everywhere, but since he lives in a castle (no, really) and his books earn him untold millions, he obviously doesn’t lose any sleep over being so universally reviled by book critics.

  5. Whilst I do not find any redeeming value in the works of Dan Brown, I find it very difficult to take seriously any linguistic criticism written by someone who consistently uses a nonexistent grammatical construction, “its’ ”.

    • By “consistently” you mean twice, then clearly you’re a nitpicker that needs to get over themselves. That’s like giving a meal a bad review because the fork was dirty.

      Thanks for stopping by, but your commentary was about as useful as a nun teaching me sex education. Now go away.

  6. I can’t really be bothered by Dan Brown. I do find him to be a very simplistic writer. Bad writer…well, I’ve read far worse, trust me! However, what irks me the most about him, is the fact that when he first came out with the Da Vinci Code that it was oh so revolutionary, new and edgy – according to the sheepople. Somehow everyone seemed to have forgotten that Nikos Kazantzakis did it first (in 1960 I believe) with, and with far more skill I might add, The Last Temptation of Christ (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8737.The_Last_Temptation_of_Christ).

    • Biggest difference here is Dan Brown’s book is simply disposable adventure, whereas Kazantzakis’ book is a masterful work that dares to humanize Christ, and is considered both revelatory and heretic. Guess which one would appeal more to the masses and would be less likely to displease the Church?

  7. Pingback: Guest Post: CONTEST! Who Will Write The Next ‘Robert Langdon’ Adventure? YOU! (By Ensis) | Out Where the Buses Don't Run

  8. I consumed The Da Vinci Code like a jug of cheap burgundy; bottle over my shoulder, head thrown back, mouth as wide open as I could get it, pouring it down my gullet as fast as it would flow. Now and then I sputtered, coughed and almost choked on some awkward syntax or 6th-grade vocabulary, but I kept on guzzling. My pupils dilated, I broke out in a sweat – what the fuck was that torture device the albino wore on his thigh? I was hoping the pilot might take a few more loops around the airport before landing so I could finish the damn thing, and when I did, I was out of breath, dizzy, couldn’t focus. I felt like I had just had a three hour go with a frisky French hooker. What a story, I thought.

    Within an hour I had forgotten everything about it, except for the vague headache and dry mouth I might have expected from drinking cheap rotgut. Well, I thought, that’s entertainment: take the proven recipe (in Brown’s case, suspense), change the ingredients and *presto* you have a platform for a half-dozen blockbusters.

    I guess I just have to keep reminding myself that the entertainment business and the art of writing memorable fiction are two very different things. Oh, and fuck Dan Brown.

    • That is just brilliant! The best explanation of the difference between MOST of the mega-selling commercial books and memorable literary fiction. Thing is you enjoyed the ride, even if you only recall the sensation. Dining at the fast rock cafe occasionally isn’t such a sin, is it?

  9. Okay, I have a very serious question. At the end of the day, does it it really matter if Dan Brown’s prose is “easy” to read, or if it isn’t particularly eloquent? For the life of me, I can never understand why people hate him so much. I as a reader enjoy his books because they draw me in, I don’t have to think very hard to enjoy the experience. I understand people bashing on the lack of historical facts and accuracy, that’s a personal thing (although for christ’s sake, it’s FICTION, who gives a shit if he made stuff up along the way) but I don’t think his aim is to be the next Hemingway or Charles Dickens. It’s to ENTERTAIN, however briefly. It’s a little disheartening to hear that if the prose in a novel is simple, or something a seventh grader could breeze through in a day, it’s considered bad writing. That isn’t fair, what if the writer enjoys that particular style? I will say that there were certain parts of Inferno where I did want to correct grammatical mistakes and fix certain things, but I think the hate he gets is a little unwarranted. He, as an author is at full liberty to write about whatever he wants, it doesn’t matter if people want to start a riot or if he chooses subject matter that may stir up the church. He can write about whatever he wants, that’s that. He is also free to pick his own writing style. If he wants it to be very very simple then he can, there is nothing wrong with that. An average joe isn’t gonna finish a book and be all like, “the story was meh but I just LOVED all the adverbs and word usage!” He’s gonna think back at the plot and the STORY as a whole. There is no doubt that story and prose go hand in hand, but prose style is up to the writer. He writes that way because HE wants to, it’s what appeals to him.

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