Transcript

Defending Dan Brown with Chris Scanlon

Chris ScanlonChris Scanlon
c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I'll be your host, Matt Smith and I'm here with Dr. Chris Scanlon. Thanks for joining me Chris.

Chris Scanlon:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

You want to, in a roundabout way defend Dan Brown.

Chris Scanlon:

Absolutely.

Matt Smith:

For those people who have been living under a rock somewhere, Dan Brown is the author of popular books, such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” and now “The Lost Symbol."

Chris Scanlon:

“Digital Fortress” as well.

Matt Smith:

Oh, yes “Digital Fortress” being his first book.

Chris Scanlon:

I think that was the first one, yes.

Matt Smith:

OK. Well, defend, you have the podium.

Chris Scanlon:

Look, I wouldn't defend Dan Brown's writing. I think Dan Brown is, I think it's fair to say, a fairly mediocre writer, a fairly bland writer. But I would defend him on the basis that he's good for books overall. And the reason for that, well, there's a couple of things.

If you ask anyone who works in publishing, in a serious way, they're all looking for the next Dan Brown. Well, they all wish they had Dan Brown on their books and they don't necessarily like his books. They don't necessarily read his books, but they think he's absolutely fantastic for the rest of the books they do publish.

The reason for that is that Dan Brown generates a lot of money for publishers which is then, some proportion, not a huge proportion, I don't want to suggest that every writer is going away with million dollar advances because of Dan Brown. But because of that, the money that is generated by Dan Brown's books, there is more money in publishing to publish more books with greater literary merit. So, he's good for the economics of books.

Matt Smith:

For the economic side, but how does an author like Dan Brown and his books, I mean, really I suppose if we're going to say that we don't like Dan Brown's books, that's a personal opinion on my behalf and a personal opinion on your behalf. The general audience says he's a bad writer. How can a person like that sell that many books?

Chris Scanlon:

I don't know that the general consensus is that Dan Brown is a bad writer. I think if you ask most people who have read and liked his books, and I think that's most people, they will actually say, “Well, I think he's a fantastic writer because he's exciting. He drags me through the book. I kind of want to know what happens in the next chapter.” And that's what people want from his books.

I think if you go to a Dan Brown book, looking for complex characters, looking for incredibly complex and convoluted plot points, if you're looking for experimental writing and literature, you're going to be very disappointed.

He gives you very one dimensional characters. They are typical characters. If you think about the “The Da Vinci Code,” the mega selling “The Da Vinci Code” you have a bullish French detective, a saucy French cryptographer, a queeny English art critic and all in amongst it all the sort of evil albino monk and you've got Robert Langdon.

Matt Smith:

He was kind of an empty suit.

Chris Scanlon:

Yeah, it's a very interesting American view, a clichéd American view of Europe as full of just these crazy characters. And it's kind of almost a cliché of an American too and the American abroad, you know. So, there are clichés all over the place. None of which are true of any of those places. But if you're going to that book and looking for really nuance plot development and nuance character development, you're going to be very disappointed.

If you're looking for something that's a good read quickly and it's kind of exciting and so it lends itself to kind of Hollywood kind of production values, it's fun. It's a lot of fun. And I think that, it should be taken for what it is. It's going to get people in.

The other thing is I think that's fantastic for books generally. That gets people into reading books. And I don't think it destroys or takes away from books which I would consider to have great literary merit.

I mean, I don't think anyone is going into a bookshop intending to buy, you know the next Margaret Atwood and coming out with Dan Brown. I think they're quite two different audiences, two different readerships.

And that Dan Brown, at the end of the day, to use a cliché worthy of Dan Brown himself, he actually expands the readership of books because his books are available in places that you normally wouldn't buy books.

And what that tells me is that people who would never step into a bookshop or would only rarely step into a bookshop, he's going to the supermarket or you know the 7-Eleven and they're picking up a Dan Brown. And that's expanding the readership of books.

Matt Smith:

You can practically pick up a Dan Brown book with your petrol these days. I think you can get coupons for it as well. This is my theory on why Dan Brown's books are popular. And mostly the “The Da Vinci Code” was the one that started it all. They didn't get really big until the “The Da Vinci Code” came out and that's because it is religiously controversial. What you want for a book to be popular is a banning from the pope. Then everybody gets curious as to what that book is about. Then lots of people start buying it and it goes from there because I think it's an action story, it's an action writer. Somebody like Matthew Reilly is a lot better at it and better at writing as well. But he doesn't have the religious controversy coming up that the “The Da Vinci Code” brought up which was, “Hey, look we found an heir to Jesus Christ.” Do you think that sort of thing in its own way helped?

Chris Scanlon:

Oh absolutely. I mean, Dan Brown might as well have commissioned the Vatican to be his PR marketing department. I mean, they did him a great favor in terms of adding to the sales of that book. But the other thing is if you kind of ask book sellers about the “The Da Vinci Code” and Dan Brown, there are stories I've heard from publishers saying that the book took about 9 months or even more in some cases to take off. It wasn't an instant bestseller.

And in some cases, I've heard where book retailers were actually sending it back to the publisher just because they couldn't sell it. So, they're actually returning the stock.

And then it was a lot of hands selling by those independent bookstores that actually made Dan Brown. People read it. It kind of got you know the earlier doctors to use that word. The book, I was read it, put it in people's hands and said, “You know, in the shops, I think you'll like this book,” you know.

And that's kind of where Dan Brown really started to get momentum and then you kind of got all these people connecting up at some point and so people by word of mouth, and that's really what sells books and they just kind of you know advise their friends, told their friends and say “You'll love this book.” And that's really what made Dan Brown.

So, he wasn't this sort of mega success. It was initially you know the banning from the Vatican and the controversy that sold the book. There was a lot of people who just liking the book for what it was and telling their friends to do it. And then of course, once you get the religious controversy, that all help things along as well. Because suddenly people who are normally not interested in this kind of book suddenly want to know what all the fuss is about. At that point, the book really becomes, you know huge.

Matt Smith:

So, who were the people who don't like it then? If the vast majority of the audience thinks that he's the best writer ever, then wouldn't they by extension of that be correct and he is a really good author? Who are the people who don't like the book?

Chris Scanlon:

It depends on how you see it literally merit. And who's deciding that and then how you see a book, what you want from a book. I mean, if you kind of just want a fast pace action book with intrigue involving powerful institutions and sort of a mystical kind of code then kind of you know that's great and that's a great book.

If you're looking for complex characters, complex narratives, interesting use of language then you're going to say that Dan Brown is a terrible writer. I think that's a fair assessment. But Dan Brown himself probably wouldn't say, “Hey, I'm not trying to reinvent literature here. I'm just trying to pump out a fast pace book that people are going to like and enjoy. And I'm not trying to do anything more than that.”

I think that's kind of, it's fair to say that most academics and people who are interested in literature, they're going to say Dan Brown is terrible. And they're right too because there's a different criteria they're applying and then you can have an argument about which criteria should apply and that's fair enough. And people have different views on that as well.

Matt Smith:

Do you know what Dan Brown thinks of himself, by any chance?

Chris Scanlon:

No, I don't.

Matt Smith:

You got to kind of wonder. I just want to know who would think that this is a good sentence because I couldn't get past the first page for about a year after I was given the “The Da Vinci Code” by my mother for my birthday.

“Renowned curator insert French name here staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's grand gallery.” Why do we need to know in the first sentence, crowbarred in there ,that he's a renowned curator?

Chris Scanlon:

Oh because that adds authority instantly. This is why you're interested in this guy. It's a terrible sentence but I'm not defending anything. Actually there is an article in “The Times of London” recently which actually called out “Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences” and there's some absolutely howlers in there.

I mean, just awful writing and the thing is that you just, you would think that his editor would have picked up. You know, presumably his editor is someone is interested in language and interested in writing.

Matt Smith:

His editor would have too hard a job to take care of it all. Why do we need to know he's a renowned Chris? He's renowned!

Chris Scanlon:

It would be interesting to actually know what does Dan Brown's writing look before it hits the editor though because…

Matt Smith:

It makes a “Cat in the Hat” look like a masterpiece I'm sure.

Chris Scanlon:

Well, it is a masterpiece. Dr. Seuss is brilliant! The other thing I would say about Dan Brown in these kinds of books, I mean, you know mega selling authors is that I'd argue that they're are gateway drug, you know in a sense. There are ways of getting people to read, who normally wouldn't read.

And I know myself, you know when I was 10 age boy, I wasn't interested in reading up until I found and discovered “Jaws” by Peter Benchley which actually is not a bad book in the scheme of things. But then I sort of you know went on to read pulp fiction like Tom Clancy, like Dean Koontz, Steven King who I defend as a slightly better writer. But you know sort of in that kind of schlock-horror kind of action genre. I got into reading via that pathway.

That was my gateway drug. Now, I don't read those books anymore and I, you know I struggle to go back and read them. I just think this is terrible, you know this is just full of cliché, stereotypes. It's formulaic. I can see the formula.

But at that time, it was fantastic. It was just what I wanted. And I've you know, absolutely gone on to read what I think is you know much better books. But if it wasn't for these kinds of authors and particularly teenage boys are a hard audience to actually reach.

Well, if the first thing they're reading is Dan Brown, I reckon that's a good thing. There's potential there that they can go on to read more and then develop a love of reading and a love of writing. And I think that's all to the good. That's another thing I would defend these authors as gateway drugs.

Matt Smith:

True. They're getting people to read. That can never be a bad thing.

Chris Scanlon:

Absolutely.

Matt Smith:

Chris Scanlon, thank you for your time.

Chris Scanlon:

Thank you.