In praise of Dan Brown

In praise of Dan Brown

05 Oct 2009

scanlon Dr Christopher Scanlon
Email: c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au

First published on The Punch on 5 October, 2009.

‘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.

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.

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