I am not a Dan Brown fan. I want to get that out of the way up front, before I get down to the business of defending him, or at least defending what he does. For the record, I purchased a copy of The Da Vinci code for my ex-wife many moons ago, back before anyone really knew who Dan Brown was or what his bestseller was really about. She enjoyed it immensely, and then proceeded to purchase a copy of every other book he’d published. Admittedly, I’d only read the back of the book when I decided to buy it for her and, as far as I could tell, it sounded somewhat intriguing. I’d read Holy Blood And Holy Grail some years earlier, and I recognized the plot when I read the novel’s back-cover summary. The ex-wife loved mysteries and conspiracies, so I just grabbed the book on a lark and gave it to her. I was, at the time, blissfully unaware of how offensively awful the book would actually be.
After she’d read the book, my ex tried to force it upon me time and again, until I eventually relented. I’d sampled the first pages of the book and knew from that one brief and bitter taste that Dan Brown was not going to be an author whose prose I would enjoy reading. Still, in the interest of matrimonial harmony and in an effort to get her to just shut up about it, I gave in to the pressure and allowed her to buy me the audiobook version. I don’t like driving long distances, and I reasoned that listening to any book would be better than simply staring at the road ahead. I could not have been more wrong.
After listening to one CD, I knew that I hated it. I hated the plot, I hated the characters, and I hated the writing. Above all else, I hated the writing. It was infantile and pretentious at the same time, somehow managing to talk down to the reader while also trying to insult him or her with flashes of higher-level (and often nonsensical) verbiage. Along with the cardboard characters and weakly epic plot, Brown inserted multiple flashes of bizarre and inaccurate technobabble, as if Michael Crichton had decided to write a children’s book but forgot who his audience was. (Ok, so that describes every Crichton book. Go with it; I’m trying to make a point.) The narrative was flooded with an unyielding tidal wave of unnecessary and often non-sequitur descriptions. It was, in essence, a train wreck that was both too gruesome to look at and too perversely fascinating to look away from.
It wasn’t until I began reading some of the recent commentaries on Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol
, that it occurred to me that Mr. Brown might not be the horrible, inept writer so many critics and intellectuals want to label him as. Instead, he may just be one of the craftiest, cleverest scribblers to ever set ink to paper. Ok, probably not – but it’s a possibility.
There is no question that, since the blockbuster success of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has become a very well-known and widely read author. He’s making a fortune off of the books he writes, even as academics and other writers do their best to discredit and destroy him. Part of this may be sour grapes and jealousy that they themselves are not as successful – and I’m sure an element of that is there – but I think their hatred and scorn have more to do with the state of contemporary fiction than it has to do with Mr. Brown directly. And, on this, the brainiacs have a point.
Dan Brown’s prose is clunky. It’s amateurish, it’s inept, and it’s just plain bad. There’s no doubt in any intelligent person’s mind that the books he’s written have been written poorly and are, in effect, a blight on the craft of writing itself. That said, I think there may be something more going on with his books than people are willing to give him credit for. Namely, I suspect that he may simply be pandering to the crowd and writing for his intended audience, but he’s going about it in his own unique way. His books are sunbathing fare, to be read and discarded after a weekend at the beach. There is a demand for these sorts of books, and there are a great many writers who step up to fill that need. Michael Crichton was certainly one of them, along with other writers such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and Nora Roberts. (Sorry, Brittany!) None of these writers are bad – they wouldn’t be bestselling authors if that were the case (and no, I’m not interested in the quantity vs. quality debate). It’s just that they aren’t writing books that are meant to be literature. None of them fancies themselves the next Tolstoy or Dickens. They simply write lightweight novels that are meant to entertain, not educate or inspire. There is nothing wrong with this.
In Dan Brown’s case, however, there is more at work than a simple case of playing to the crowd. He is a bit more calculated and sinister in his approach to the craft, choosing instead to try and straddle the line between dime novels and literature by blending into his low-grade
prose just enough glimpses of intelligence to be dangerous. He cleverly sprinkles a touch of higher level vocabulary in with high school verbiage to create a fiendishly crafted trap to ensnare low-level readers by making them feel more intelligent than they are. He plays to the crowd in his own way, by peppering his paragraphs with enough technobabble and multisyllabic words to lend an air of legitimacy to what he’s doing, and what the reader is reading. The latter may not understand the bigger words when they appear, but their meaning is often unneeded and tangential to the paragraph itself. The simpleton reader, rather than being made to feel inferior at the hands of a daunting vocabulary, is instead lured into a false sense of self-worth at having not been stuck on the big, scary word.
Why the snobbish and prudish crowd of the intelligentsia gets all upset by someone like Brown is a direct result of his attempting to straddle both worlds, with one foot in pop culture and the other in academia (even if the latter is only by a couple of toes). The people who love his books think he is brilliant and that they themselves are brilliant for having read them. Intellectuals hate false intelligence. Heck, I hate false intelligence. However, my beef isn’t with Dan Brown – he’s just exploiting the situation to make a ton of money, so more power to him. No, my anger is directed at the reading public at large, which includes far more non-Brown readers than not.
People are getting dumber and dumber and dumber. We are losing our ability to write, to read, and to imagine. Books with daunting vocabularies don’t sell. Novels with interesting and multi-faceted characters aren’t popular. Stories studying “the human heart in conflict with itself” don’t make the bestseller lists. Most writers of good fiction – real fiction, the stuff with meat and bone and gristle – don’t make a living by writing. Most have a bread-winning job that pays the bills and keeps food on the table, while the writing brings in a nice supplemental income, if that. The reason for this is not that the waterheaded masses of the country don’t want to read good books – it’s that they can’t. They are functionally illiterate, and we have made them this way.
As a nation, we don’t care about reading and writing anymore. In our school systems, education is a commodity to be traded on the open market, not a right to be demanded and enforced by all citizens. The sometimes good and sometimes evil specter of privatization sinked its teeth into the education system some years back, and the nationwide push for accountability and milestones and other buzzwords fancied by MBA-powered morons became the rule of law for our classrooms. Standardized testing was the yardstick used to measure progress, and flow charts and Power Point presentations grew to be more important than books and desks and teachers. Computers came along and messed everything up by demanding neat, digital input to process into data sheets and reports, and the tests reflect this. If a student’s mastery of a subject cannot be determined through multiple choice, then the subject isn’t worth teaching.
This left reading and writing in a precarious position of abandonment and neglect. Numbers became more important than words, and math and science (and, as always, sports) became the only subjects that matter in our schools. Along with the rise of media over-saturation in the form of cable and satellite television, blockbuster movies, reality teevee, video games, the Internet, cell phones and text messaging, there grew to be less and less of a need to understand the written word. Heck, I’ve written before about how we’ve now begun using computers to both teach and grade writing
, and nobody seems to get just how awful and damaging that sort of an idea truly is.
So it’s not really Dan Brown’s fault for writing as he does. If he wants to be successful – if he wants to make a living as a full-time writer – he almost has to. Then again, maybe he really is as inept and stupid as his critics make him out to be. I can’t really say with any authority one way or the other, since I never actually finished that audiobook of The Da Vinci Code
. It turned out that the copy my ex had purchased was somehow defective. We discovered this shortly after pulling away from a roadside gas station along our route, after we tried to start the last CD. For some reason, it refused to play and the radio kept insisting upon ejecting it. Somehow, the disc had been mysteriously damaged beyond repair.
We never did figure out what happened to it, exactly. All we know is that, at some point between the time that my ex-wife went inside to use the restroom and left me waiting alone in the car with nothing but that last CD and a pocket knife to keep me company, the disc was somehow scratched. Deeply. Very deeply.