If you’re a writer, critic or just a general cultural pundit, there are certain literary truths that you must accept… or else. Joyce was the greatest writer of the 20th century. Postmodernism isn’t stupid, it’s just that billions of people don’t get it. Rhyming poetry died with the dinosaurs.
And Dan Brown in history’s worst writer. He makes Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James look, respectively, like Shakespeare and Cervantes.
Since Classically Educated makes no pretense of being anything but unabashedly elitist, I suppose one would expect us join the choir in denouncing Brown’s crimes against literature. One would be wrong. We’re here to say reasonably nice things about his books.
Ah, I hear people say, a guilty pleasure. Er, no. Elitists don’t do guilt. We do pleasure and leave the guilt to the hand-wringing middle classes and insecure academics. I’m not looking to be forgiven for enjoying the Robert Langdon novels, but to try to analyze why I (and a lot of other people) enjoy them, despite the criticism of the limitations of the writing – which, to be fair, are pretty reasonable. There is a bit of lazy writing in there.
For starters, I’ll tell you about my introduction to Dan Brown. Like everyone else on the planet, my first contact with him came through The Da Vinci Code. I had badly miscalculated the number of books I needed to take with me on a trip to the Middle East in 2005 and found myself flying back to Argentina via Spain with precisely zero things to read. The one book that every single bookstore in the world–even in Spain–had on hand at that time was Brown’s, in English, in mass market paperback. I picked it up with some trepidation.
I was immediately hooked, read the thing without stopping (and made demonic at the nice people whose attempts to give me airplane food were interrupting my reading) and put it down wanting more. I don’t remember exactly, but I probably bought Angels and Demons immediately after the jet lag wore off.
Not once did I stop to criticize the prose. Stuff which, if discovered in my own writing would have made me blanche and question my right to continue living flew right by.
Your mileage may vary, but I think it was two things.
The first factor is an old cliché: pacing and suspense (yes, I know they’re two different things, but they work best when they work together). Simply stated, these novels keep you turning the pages because you want to know what happens next. Will the characters make it, what is the solution to this or that riddle, etc. There are things that keep you hooked both emotionally and intellectually.
Even better, is the fact that the pacing doesn’t bore you or make you wait. It gives the solution within a few pages, but by the time you have it, Brown has introduced another question or risk or riddle for you to agonize over. He does this extremely deftly, which ensures that absolutely no one (except perhaps a critic paid to look pretentious) is thinking about the man’s prose.
The second factor is the spectacular use of every conspiracy theory known to man. Brown does his research on them. Like the people trying to convince us that aliens have already landed and are in control, he uses just enough evidence to make a convincing, seemingly watertight, case, and leaves the deeper research–the stuff that puts the rest in context and makes it much less sinister–out. So his books have whatever it is that attracts humans to conspiracy theories.
Umberto Eco famously said that Dan Brown was one of his characters. He was, of course, referring to Casaubon in Foucalt’s Pendulum. We’ve spoken glowingly about that book here, mainly because all good elitists are either skeptics when it comes to conspiracy theories or members of the Illuminati pretending to be skeptics.
What he meant by that was that Brown seems to have read all the same books that Eco did, but Brown took them seriously while Eco has them in his famous collection of fakes and lies. He did clarify later that Brown was only using the same material for a different purpose and that he, Eco, had no evidence that Brown was a believer, but the glee he showed when throwing out the initial phrase means that we’ll take it as the true meaning.
I will postulate that Brown doesn’t use the old writings as a true believer does, but uses them as a good writer does – with the bottom line in mind. Cynicism aside for a second, the bottom line in this case isn’t money (OK it isn’t only money) but readability and page-turningness. In the case of his first two books, he realized that people love to read about dark plots within and around the Catholic Church and the New Testament.
For The Last Symbol, he spread his wings a bit and went after the Freemasons, which had the added benefit that he was able to set his novel in Washington DC, a place as rich in symbolism as any renaissance town – remember that Langdon solves these things in large part by interpreting symbols.
After that, he asked himself “What group of conspiracy theorists am I missing?” and decided to write Inferno, set it in Florence (another good choice) and write about a guy developing a super-germ to wipe out humanity. Also, he makes a brave choice with the ending… something that shows that story, to him, is more important than just printing unlimited amounts of money.
I still haven’t read Origin, but, so far, and to his everlasting credit, Brown has resisted the temptation to complete his conspiracy bingo card by adding aliens to the mix. There’s only so much we can defend here after all.
In the end, the books are widely read because of their strengths, not despite their weaknesses. In this context the weaknesses (aka uninspired writing), to a reader, become invisible. The story takes over and pulls you along, not accepting any excuses.
There. A critical apologism of Dan Brown and a call for his work to be appreciated. For my next trick, I may need to find arguments to show that Hitler was actually a perfectly nice guy if you got to know him or that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was well-intended but got a little out of hand.
Nah, that sounds like a lot of work; I’ll probably just do another movie review. Everyone likes those.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 200 stories published in seven languages (mostly in English). His latest novel, Incursion, sets new standards in throwing characters under the bus. His characters start the book thinking they’re on a suicide mission… and then it gets worse.