May 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.
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.
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?
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.