Saturday, January 27, 2007

Chapter 12

"Tear him for his bad verses..."
Julius Caesar
, Act 3, Scene 3

I started this blog because I wanted to find out why TDVC is so popular; specifically, far more popular than books held to be "better" by people who claim to know what good writing is. There seemed to be a number of answers to this apparent paradox: the people who claim to know, don't know; the people who claim to know are right, but it doesn't matter; there are different types of good writing; the bad writing is part of the fun; shut up and enjoy the story.

I think it's important, because there seems to be the germ of a good book here. Yes the plot is far-fetched, but so is most of Dickens. Yes, the theology is suspect, but I've never seen the problem with challenging organised religion. They've got God on their side after all, so they should be able to handle it. The characters are pretty cardboard, but I've never held this to be the greatest of literary sins. Most of the people I know in real life are pretty cardboard.

The reason I keep coming back to the bad writing is that it gets in the way of the potentially enjoyable bits, like an off-key piccolo in a symphony orchestra. OK, maybe I'm too picky, too literary, not the target audience. Maybe Brown's readers don't mind about that sort of thing. Fine, I'm not here to start a culture war. But surely if Brown and/or his editors had purged the more grisly embarrassments from his prose, he would have been able to carry the literati along as well. I'm not talking about making it difficult, or high-faluting; I'm just talking about making it not bad, which would have won over a new group of readers, without alienating the base.* OK, there's a bigger market for genre fiction than for the literary stuff, but he could have sold five and a half million rather than five million, or whatever the figures are.

So why didn't he? The first, and most obvious answer is that he didn't because he can't, because he's a bad writer. Fair enough, that's what editors are for, to sort these things out. The fact that the combined minds of Doubleday didn't see fit to put things right this suggests either that they don't care, that they're as sub-literate as their author, or that this, specifically, is what the punters want. None of these possibilities fills me with joy.

Let's look at Chapter 12, then. It's a pretty important one, because it's the point at which Langdon's overriding emotion switches from puzzlement to fear.

Brown conveys this well enough, but for some of us, the howlers just get in the way. Just one example: "Sophie's olive gaze was keen." Now, we know that Sophie has green eyes, so presumably this is what Brown is getting at. But olives have other associations. Oil, for one. Oily eyes? If it is the greenness we're meant to infer, it's not a very pleasant green, is it? It's khaki green, putty green, babyshit green. And Sophie's meant to be attractive.

Also, to most readers, green olives are seldom seen without a little strip of red pimento inside. The image I can't get out of my head is that Sophie has green eyeballs, with protruberant red irises, a high-definition variant on Silas's pink globes. It's as if someone's told Brown about the art of elegant variation (try to avoid unnecessary reptetition of specific words and phrases - although he slips in the ugly "jacket's left pocket" twice in eight lines), so he's gone to a thesaurus, found "olive" as a synonym for "green" and bunged it in without thinking of how the reader might interpret it. That's not just bad writing, it's a more heinous crime - it's lazy writing.

The obvious retort to that is that I'm being too analytical, too academic, too literary. But all I'm doing is thinking about the words. I'm not searching for hidden meanings or neat parallels. I'm not invoking Marx or Freud, Leavis or Derrida. I'm just thinking about one word, and what it means, and why the writer might have chosen it. That's not analysis, that's just the normal process of reading, or should be. Anything else is lazy reading, although Brown seems to have set a precedent for that.

Maybe this is what beach reading really means. You just lie there, and let it wash over you.

* Of course, good writing can be as simple, direct and accessible as you like. A few years ago, I went for an interview for a job teaching literature at an English-speaking school in Bangkok. I was asked what I'd do with a disaffected 14-year-old who decided he didn't like books. I suggested showing him some Hemingway short stories. "Ah, but Hemingway's not on the curriculum," replied the interviewer. Fortunately, I didn't get the job.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Protruberant eyes with the green olive association.

I'm getting Popeye & Olive Oil.

5:15 pm  
Blogger Spinsterella said...

Well Tim, what did you expect?

One of the most fun things of this slow reading has been the highlighting of the terrible writing. Normally when I read trashy books I skim through them so quickly that I miss most of these highlights.

Please do keep it up.

7:52 pm  
Blogger Spinsterella said...

Why is it saying '0 comments' when there's been a couple on there for ages now? And the link to here on my blog isn't working. Stupid bloody Blogger

10:11 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Murph: Shelley Duvall as Sophie? Like it.

Spin: I like the concept of "slow reading". It's rather like that Italian (?) slow eating campaign, that campaigns for long lunch breaks, proper meals, etc. And I suppose the connection is that if you apply slow eating principles to bad food, you soon realise how bad it is. Ditto books???

Although since DB makes a virtue (the sole virtue?) of his narrative pace, maybe it's unfair to impose such a method...

6:53 am  
Anonymous Aysha Ngyan at The Open Critic said...

The Open Critic recently put up a review dealing with the issue you raise here. Our general take is that Angels and Demons is a great rendition of a great formula. More than anything else, Dan Brown has figured out how to apply the age old conventions of story telling.

The brilliance of it is that he's broken it into such small bits ... the quartered 24 hour day culminating in an apocalypse. All else, the bad writing, the quasi religion, the and all the other things folks take him task for pale beside it.

In any event, I hope you don't mind my leaving a link here for those who may wish to take a look in more detail.

Angels and Demons Reviewed at the Open Critic, http://theopencritic.com/?p=17

Many regards, Aysha Ngyan

5:16 pm  

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