In Defence Of Dan Brown

Good Lord, Dan Brown gets a lot of stick.

To hear people talking about him you’d think he wrote books like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons by scrawling them in crayon on a big sheet of orange paper.

But I’m betting that he didn’t.

The Da Vinci Code (I haven’t read any of his others) is an incredibly pacey thriller that has sold over eighty million copies and counting. Writing a book that is enjoyed by that many people is not just difficult, it’s about as close as you can get to impossible. Only six works of fiction have sold more copies, and they’ve all had decades-long head starts on TDVC.

Cervantes, he ain’t, though. As the book’s Wikipedia entry states:
“The novel has also attracted criticism in literary circles for its alleged lack of artistic or literary merit and its allegedly stereotyped portrayal of British and French characters.
Salman Rushdie claimed during a lecture, “Do not start me on ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.”
Stephen Fry has referred to Brown’s writings as “complete loose stool-water” and “arse gravy of the worst kind.”
In his 2005 University of Maine Commencement Address, best-selling author Stephen King put Dan Brown’s work and “Jokes for the John” on the same level, calling such literature the “intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.”

I’d suggest that this opprobrium is only considered reasonable because the book has been so successful. People feel they can take pot-shots at Dan and his ‘crappy’ effort because he can hide behind all his royalties, deflecting criticism with piles of gold coins. But I’m not sure that makes it all fair.

It is not easy to point 100,000 words in the same direction. Producing a coherent plot that lasts the length of a novel takes a lot of effort, and it’s just possible that you might achieve that aim without managing to to make all your sentences as elegant as the petal of a snowdrop swooping and diving on a spring breeze. You might neglect (or be unable) to make all your characters resonate with the depth of Magwitch or Atticus Finch. You might sacrifice brilliance of metaphor for coherence of plot.

In the end, most authors seem to be missing some part of the full arsenal. I know of one recent Booker nominee who told me that he’d love Michael Crichton’s sales. Well, to get them, you need to produce work that is as widely appealing as Crichton’s. He’s not necessarily as successful as he is because he’s less ‘good’, but he’s chosen to write the kind of book that millions wish to read, and that is rarely the kind of thing that gets a Booker nomination.

Are the two mutually exclusive? Not entirely, but the exceptions seem to be limited to Ian MacEwan. Otherwise, Terry Pratchett won’t be winning the Nobel anytime soon, and VS Naipaul is unlikely to knock John Grisham off the top of the bestsellers chart.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the popular books take any less effort.

Writing a book is, in my experience both difficult and hard work. I may like some more than others, but that doesn’t mean the ones I dislike should be kicked to death.

(This is the point where I would normally point this post in the direction of advertising, but look at the sentence under the blog’s title at the top of the page. I don’t have to do shit.)