Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hating on Dan Brown

My mother has a habit of telling me what she is going to buy me for Christmas; or when asking me what I want she does so in such a way that makes it painfully obvious. ("What do you want for Christmas? "Ooh, what's that?" "Where can I find it?" "What was their address?") One day last fall I was sitting at this very computer when I had this conversation with her:

HER: Were you planning on reading that new book by that Dan Brown?
ME: Yeah, eventually.
HER: Well don't go and buy it. I'm going to get it for you for Christmas.
ME: Okay.

(About two weeks pass.)

HER: Here. (Places copy of The Lost Symbol on computer desk.) I decided I wanted to get you something else for Christmas.
ME: Okay. Thanks.

The book proceeded to sit on my desk until November when I finally decided to read it. The book suffers from the same formulaic plot that characterizes Dan Brown's other novels, so I need not describe it here.

However, I was amused by the following excerpt from the first chapter:

"I hate to embarrass you, Professor," the woman said, sounding sheepish, "but you are the Robert Langdon who writes books about symbols and religion, aren't you?"
Langdon hesitated and then nodded.
"I thought so!" she said, beaming. "My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused! You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!"

I can't decide if Mr. Brown is referencing the commotion created by The Da Vinci Code, giving a nod to his fans, stroking his own ego, or all three. If anything, it gives Robert Langdon the distinct flavour of Mary Sue.

But I don't want to talk about Dan Brown's books. I want to talk about Dan Brown.

It's not a well kept secret that many writers don't think fairly highly of Dan Brown's works. The same thing can be said about readers that care about their reading material. They don't think that someone with bad writing deserves to be as popular and successful as Dan Brown is. So do writers dislike Dan Brown because he's successful and they think his work is bad, or do they dislike Dan Brown because he's popular and they think his work is bad? I think it's both. (I know I've just conflated Dan Brown with his works, but give me a moment.)

But here's the point I want to make. Dan Brown is a popular author.

Popular. Author.

Dan Brown doesn't write for the sake of writing, he writes to make money. It's his job. To be successful he needs to know what his audience likes. His audience likes insipid action-mystery novels about controversial topics and secret societies. The masses are indeed asses.

I'd even wager that a lot of writers want to be Dan Brown. They want to do what they enjoy, entertain people, and make money doing it. They're just too full of themselves to admit it. It's easy to criticize the guy at the top when you're at the bottom.

Do I like Dan Brown's work? No. Do I think that he's rightly criticized for the quality of his writing? No. He's only doing his job.