‘Do not start me on The Da Vinci Code. A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name’. That’s how Salman Rushdie described Dan Brown’s 2003 blockbuster in an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World in 2005.

Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer watch for the imminent arrival of another awful Dan Brown sentence.

Rushdie isn’t alone in his unflattering assessment of Dan Brown’s writing. More recently, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, Geoffrey Pullum told the Daily Telegraph that ‘Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad’.

And Pullum isn’t just being a high-minded literary snob, either; the professor has a point. To illustrate his case, Pullum cites a passage from Angels and Demons in which the lead female character hears about the death of her scientist father. ‘Genius, she thought. My father . . . Dad. Dead’ writes Brown.

One conclusion to draw from this passage is that the woman is a cyborg and has the emotional responses to match, in which case, it’s terribly remiss of Brown not to have made this clear from the outset. The other possibility is that Dan Brown is a cyborg, which can’t be ruled out at this stage.

Whatever the critics might say about Brown’s writing, his fans don’t care. The Lost Symbol, the follow-up to The Da Vinci Code is reported to have sold more than a million copies in the US, UK and Canada twenty four hours after its release. Brown’s North American publishers, Knopf are planning to print 600,000 more copies on top of the first print run of 5 million. 

It’s not just Dan Brown who should be happy with these figures. Even those of us who smirk at his lifeless prose should be silently thanking Brown. Without the sales generated by Brown and other mega-seller authors who have been criticised for wooden dialogue, one-dimensional characters and plodding plots — including JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer —  many other books, with far greater literary merit, would never reach readers.

Of course, the success of these authors is a double-edged sword. The enormous sums spent on advances and marketing for the handful of mega-selling authors might be better spent on advances of more modest sums to new and emerging writers.

Moreover, the mega-selling authors tend to crowd out the market. Research conducted by the UK-based magazine The Bookseller suggests that the more Dan Brown sells in a given year, the worse the market is for any author who doesn’t happen to be Dan Brown — although The Bookseller’s research isn’t particularly conclusive or consistent. Last year, for example, both Dan Brown and overall sales were down.

Even still, there is reason to be thankful to Dan Brown because, for the most part, his books don’t compete with literary writers. It’s not as if anyone ever went into a bookshop intending to buy a David Foster-Wallace or AS Byatt novel and came away with The Lost Symbol instead.

The mega-sellers also expand the total market for books. Just take a look at your local supermarket. If it’s is anything like my local Coles, you can pick up a copy of The Lost Symbol along with the weekly groceries. This suggests that people who would never walk into a bookshop — but who do have to get their groceries — are buying The Lost Symbol.

A small and completely unscientific straw poll of Melbourne’s independent bookstores that I conducted, suggests that even at the smaller bookstores, Dan Brown is selling — even with competition from the big discount stores. 

The end result is that publishers have more money to invest in producing other books with smaller readerships. In short, authors like Dan Brown keep editors, proofreaders, printers and — even in spite of heavy discounting by supermarkets and chain stores — booksellers and distributors in the black.

Not only that, some fraction of the profits they produce goes towards acquiring and promoting the work other, less established writers. This may be a pittance compared to what mega-selling authors earn, but it’s better than nothing.

If nothing else, Dan Brown expands the realms of potential readers. His books might be thought of as gateway drugs. They offer an easy access point to people — especially teens and young adults — to the world of reading.

I speak from experience. My teen years were spent consuming pulp fiction like Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz. While I can barely stand to read them anymore, they did open up a world of reading for me, which led to more interesting writers, including David Foster-Wallace and AS Byatt. If nothing else, wading through schlock like The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, reminds you what good writing is all about.

By all means laugh at Dan Brown, but if it wasn’t for authors like him, many writers would never be published or enjoy the community of readers they have – and that includes writers like Salman Rushdie.

Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is a co-founder of www.upstart.net.au

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16 comments

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    • Helen says:

      08:14am | 05/10/09

      Geoffrey Pullum is one of the writers on the blog “Language Log”. It’s one of the best blogs going. Google “Language Log” “Dan Brown” and enjoy.

    • TimT says:

      08:30am | 05/10/09

      Good post. Literature should be an inclusive club, anti-Dan Brown snobs are treating it as an exclusive one.

    • Zeta says:

      09:32am | 05/10/09

      Actually, literature is an exclusive club, and for a long time the only people allowed in were good writers. Now it’s like one of those almost bankrupt gentlemen’s clubs that has to start giving out memberships to female CEOs and catering for bucks nights because the proles just don’t show that much interest in life’s finer things. Sadly, it’s doomed to be closed down and converted into a franchise cafe.

      The problem with Dan Brown is not that he’s an especially bad writer. Bad writing is subjective. The lazy sentence structure he employs is not too dissimilar to many other writers in the canon. Jack Kerouac has some real clangers as well, but we excuse them because he was an edgy, 1950s beat pioneer and when you write most of your work under the influence of benzodrine, you can be excused some dodgy prose.

      The problem with Dan Brown is that he’s bland. He manages to take interesting topics, like secret socieities, occultism, rosicrucian feminism, masonic symbolism, cryptgraphy, things that should be exciting, and he drains the fun out of them.

      His heroes are dry, and sexless, like something out of a Mormon drama. His heroines are naive, his villains are predictable, and the plots that keep his work turning are full of MacGuffins and loose ends that only serve to inform the reader how well-read the writer is. Which is redundant in the age of Wikipedia anyway.

      The worst offence of all though, is that he himself is boring. A turtleneck and tweed wearing bore. Who, through no fault of his own, makes the book trade more boring.

      Dan Brown novels don’t mean publishers will fund more Diablo Cody’s, or Augusten Burroughs, or any of the other young, legitimate authors out there. Dan Brown’s success means there will be more Dan Brown clones. Expect ‘The Mason’s Key’, ‘The Order’s Object’, ‘The Oddfellow’s Code’. And it will still be difficult for new authors to get a foothold in the industry unless they write uninteresting, populist pap.

      Dan Brown is not just a symptom of this trend, he’s actually one of the causes, and should not be defended.

    • Lenny J says:

      09:37am | 05/10/09

      History and jealousy can always be called upon to endlessly repeat themselves. What a bunch of whingers ‘authors’ can be, expecially when they see a colleague eminently more ‘cashed’ up than they are.

      The fact is that Dan brown’s novels are great fun to read, fast paced and are simply good story telling. Millions of sales attest to that. Don’t we want story tellers to tell a good story? Is that not their job? Dan Brown does just that. Literary merit? What on earth does that pointless phrase actually mean anyway. To me, it means if something has great ‘literary merit’ it is probably boring to read. Anyone offering a counter argument?

      Dan Brown was astute enough to include plot elements that strike a chord, especially the Catholic church history which is quite clearly full of lies, distortions, politics, jealousy, murder and hypocrisy. He appears to have researched his history and his technology thoroughly. BTW, I was brought up as a catholic and was fascinated by his Da Vinci ‘novel’.

      I do remember lots of promiment, successful authors being soundly criticised just as they started to gain some prominence. Like I said, jealousy repeating itself. The biggest critics of successful books are often those who did not have the imagination nor the ability to write something people actually want to read.

    • Pete says:

      09:55am | 05/10/09

      I will never refer to Dan Brown’s writing as literature but he definately has a place for my bookshelf.  Sometimes you just want want a fun read and writer’s like Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer (as mentioned) provide this.  Who could honestly read Hugo or Dickens everyday?  If it encourages people to read then the benefits outway any negatives.

    • regina says:

      10:13am | 05/10/09

      i tried reading dan brown to see what the fuss was all about but it left me cold. and i’m sure there are many terrific manuscripts that will never be published because publishers will always go the safe route with writers like dan brown who strike a popular formula then milk it for all it’s worth.

      oh and then there are the copycat books that this sort of writing spawns too ... gah!!  i wish i had a dollar for every one of those useless tomes littering bookshop shelves around the world!!

      as for encouraging people to read, i see that penguin are reissuing of 100s of their great titles. now there’s a good place to start.

    • Adele says:

      11:06am | 05/10/09

      Sure, he mightn’t be the best writer. But if the story hooks you in enough who really cares?

      Better than books that are written in such a complex way that you can’t enjoy the story properly.

    • Charles says:

      12:24pm | 05/10/09

      Bravo, Zeta.  The shame is that publishers are in business (BUSINESS) to to make a profit for their company & shareholders.  Much as I enjoyed your argument & prose I would offer that Brown’s books are to literature as Republic Pictures weekly serial movies are to plays - light weight, formulaic & generating a repeat audience.

      Let’s not get overworked about who, what and where these are being referred to as litereray works, as the test of the literary qualities will be judged by the durability of the authors, i.e. is it Brown or Fowles who will be on school reading lists in years to come.

      It is important that Publishers have their blockbusters in order that they remain viable businesses and continue to publish all manner of works whatever the individual merits of these works may be.  The alternative would be the demise of the publishing business much as we have seen in the newspaper sector.

    • Ian says:

      12:30pm | 05/10/09

      I read the Lost Symbol as soon as it was released. The best I can say about it was the cost - a cheap $19.00 on the internet. The plot is ludicrously thin. The symbolism arcane and the characters one dimensional and unbelievable. How can a man speak with a sense of rational within brief hours of having undergone extensive torture and having his hand cut off? The hero, if he can be described as such, is a mumbling disbelieving bumbling figure throughout the story, so is more pathetic than primo! Brown extends the tension by halting the action to have his characters ponder life, science, masonic knowledge and religion.  As a dish it has the texture of spagetti bolagnaise.

    • Dan says:

      12:57pm | 05/10/09

      JK Rowling is a fantastic writer, and can not be compared to Myer or Brown at all. Critics don’t love her because she’s ‘popular’ and writes genre fiction. Well, great writers can be popular and can be genre writers as well. Rowling is both.

    • Alex says:

      03:44pm | 05/10/09

      “Clumsy” is the best description I know for Brown’s writing.

      Most of the other arguments defending him are fair.  He writes the kind of books people want to read.  His plots might be ludicrous but they are fun.  And his language is not pretentious or deliberately obscure like many “literary” writers.  Fair enough: enjoy.

      I just wish the guy would take an elementary creative writing course.  His prose is terrible.  Really, hopelessly, embarrassingly bad.  He makes grammatical errors on every page.  The dialog is unbelievably awful.  And to call his characters one-dimensional is an insult to stick figures.  It’s like listening to music played by a beginner: every bad sentence and ridiculous line of dialog is like a bum note that makes you wince and fear the next one.

      Put his clever plot aside, and any self respecting teacher would give his writing the lowest of passing grades if it were submitted by a high school student.  (That he once was an English teacher only makes it worse).

      I don’t understand why he doesn’t just hire some better editors to patch it up and make himself look better.  It’s not like he can’t afford them.

      If you think I’m being pompous or overly critical, you probably haven’t read his work.

    • Ben says:

      05:45pm | 05/10/09

      Dan Brown’s work is escapist clap trap cleverly cashing in on people’s enduring fascination for the Christian story.
      So what? He is hardly the first successful writer to sell lots of books of dubious literary merit - does no one remember Enid Blyton?
      How many childhood literacy experts does it take to tell a literary critic that the quality of the writing is of considerably less importance than motivating children and young people to read? None, because they don’t listen!

    • Mattew says:

      08:28pm | 05/10/09

      Dan Brown sells books, a lot of books, this indicates he is a good writer. At least for those who read his books. One thing I have come to realize is that you can never listen to the “critical experts” they are generally boring whinges who always recommend stories and books that no one else wants to read. I must say that I am not a Dan Brown fan he confuses to many people about what is fact and fiction, which is why he is so popular, his stories sound so plausible, when they are obviously hogwash if you have studied elementary history. But whatever else can be said if you can get so many people to read your books you are doing something right.

    • Alison says:

      12:31am | 06/10/09

      @ Ben. Quite. My kids started reading (shudder) with Garfield, but I figured that was what they enjoyed, and that hasn’t stopped them enjoying Dostoevsky or Berger or Barthes now they’re older. (And, now you mention it, I read dozens of Enid Blytons between seven and ten, when I discovered - gasp - Hammond Innes and Agatha Christie.) My adult tastes are high literary, with a splash of genre. The point is that if reading is thought of as a pleasure, all else follows. And if for some people it remains merely a simple, rather than a difficult, pleasure, does it matter? I can still read the books I want to.

      Yes, Dan Brown is a truly awful writer, and for me that makes him boringly impossible to read. But if others enjoy him, it’s no skin off my nose. And it is possible to be both a good writer and a bestseller - Stephen King being a prime example.

    • Wayne Robinson says:

      11:40am | 08/10/09

      You would have to be an idiot to read any of Dan Brown’s books (I have read them all).  Amazon.com has a great review of “the Lost Symbol” (look for the one star reviews and the one by Valennin (or something similar).  It is hilarious; having read the book makes it much better.  I also wouldn’t include Dan Brown with JK Rowling (I think that she is much, much better).
      What I did want to mention, is that Amazon is shipping its Kindle ebook reader to Australia from October 17 (pre-orders are open).  I have had one for 3 months, and it is fantastic.  The tyranny of not being able to get virtually any book you want because your bookstore doesn’t stock it or the publisher hasn’t printed enough copies of it will be soon gone.  Good literature will be just as easy to get as “bad”.  And reading a book on the Kindle is easier than the printed version.

    • Treasure says:

      05:02am | 10/02/12

      Dan Brown’s books are great. I read the Da Vinci Code ...... I was hooked. Believed the whole story until I saw fiction. That’s to tell you how good he is. However, he cannot compare to J. K. Rowling. By the way, I’m a teenage writer/ author…

 

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