Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ooh, thank God, I thought he was about to say 'Zeitgeist' in a non-ironic manner

Mangonel makes a sound point re yesterday's post, but it applies to the whole blog:

"But is DB noticeably worse than anyone else? I'm not in a position to say. Airport fiction is truly not a genre I've explored much. At all, actually. Maybe I'm being an intellectual fascist here, but I've been assuming he writes no worse than any other of his kidney. I was hoping to explore why his book is the runaway best seller, and not any of the other readily available crap."

Maybe this is an inherent flaw in this blog. Lots of people who wouldn't normally read airport fiction have read The Da Vinci Code simply because it's such a massive phenomenon, and they feel they ought to be able to discuss the phenomenon from a position of knowlege. Similarly, many people watched Dallas or Big Brother or bought the second Oasis album, even if they wouldn't normally watch populist TV, or listen to pop music, simply because they needed to be able to say something at dinner parties (even if that something was "it's not very good".)

The problem with this is that no art exists in a vacuum. Context is all. Or, if not all, then quite a lot. You can hold an opinion about the second Oasis album, but without a passing acquaintance with, say, the Stone Roses, the Smiths, the Jam, the Sex Pistols, Slade and the Beatles, your opinion could be considered a tad under-informed.

So, as Mangonel suggests, is it pretty much pointless to consider The Da Vinci Code unless one is at least vaguely familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum and the like? If so, this probably disqualifies me from carrying on. (I've never considered my tastes particularly highbrow, but I'm going away next week and I'm wondering whether to pack a Ballard or a DeLillo, or both. Where does that pitch me? Middle? Middle/high? I dunno.)

I'd hoped that by starting this blog, I'd come to some blinding revelation of what makes Dan Brown so successful. I've only just started (five chapters out of 105) but I'm already finding it much harder work than I was expecting. It's easy to flip through each chapter, pick out a couple of choice nuggets of "bad writing" (maybe I should have put that between a few more layers of quote marks), much more difficult to spot some kind of magic formula that marks DB out as the special one. And practically impossible to make a decision on the thing that was really occupying my mind at the beginning: do people like this book because of the bad writing; in spite of it; or is it an irrelevance?

So, should I stop the blog? Put it on hold, go off and read some different crap by different crap authors, and come back when I understand the genre? Or just plough on, like Robert Langdon himself, striving for meaning in a world of albino anagrams and spiky thighs, with Small Boo acting as my faithful Sophie? (She read three pages of TDVC before deciding that life's too short. "But you like Paul Auster," I said. "He writes mysteries. Sorta." She gave me one of her looks.)

Let me know what you think. Back with Chapter 6 tomorrow, unless critical consensus demands otherwise. And critical consensus is where this all started, really, isn't it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd apprechiate it if you'd continue, I've been enjoying this readalong, and am now surprisingly hooked on the book. Although, to me, this is less of a book and more of a computer game, you know, Monkey Island or some such.
PS isn't cruciform an adjective?

12:26 pm  
Blogger Billy said...

Do continue, I have the book out and I'm reading a chapter a day. It's nice to cast a critical eye over it.

12:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I sympathise...but there has to be some price to pay for being able to piss standing up doesn't there?

I suspect that you (and we) will run out of useful things to say about this before the hundred days are up so I would suggest a time limit on the blog and if we (and you) haven't reached any conclusions by your deadline then we're just a bunch of miserable failures.

By the way Tim, can I recommend you take 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon on yer hols if you haven't read it already. Some critics have put it in the same 'genre' as tdvc but it's in a different class altogether as far as quality interesting comparison anyway.

2:14 pm  
Blogger Mangonel said...

Okay. First off, no please can we go on - it's fun to be a part of this.

Now - zeitgeist. Thing is, it isn't DB who is that successful. It's this particular book which outstrips everything he's ever - well everything really. I don't think it's a literature thing, I think it's socio-political. (I confine the following remarks to Europe and America. And 'church' refers mostly to the RC and CofE variants.)

These days, while a small minority actually attend church, many many more people describe themselves as Christian, or profess a belief in God, or feel themselves at least 'spiritual' (*snort*!). The church is a big presence in modern life, if not in ways it would like.

However, the church has been convulsing strongly over the last few years. In the CofE the issue of female and homosexual priests, and in the RC paedophilia within the ranks have led to some spectacularly public displays of hypocrisy, bigotry, mean-spiritedness, and general unChristian behaviour. This has compromised its authority and dignity in a way I don't think we have ever seen before.

I also have a feeling, totally unsubstantiated, mind you, that punditry is being appropriated by the people. Quacks and shamen have never gone out of style, but the bases for their authority seem to me to be increasingly specious. Paul McKenna? GIllian McThing? Victoria Beckham as style guru for pete's sake? Experts are devalued, and The People won't be told. But give them the internet, and a place to stand, and suddenly everyone's an expert.

And into this fertile soil comes this book, telling the world that this hypocritical, bigoted church is built on sand, and has spent two thousand years shoring up a fatally flawed edifice. No wonder the people loved it! And priests fulminating from pulpits across the land - well, in the immortal (paraphrased) words of Mandy Rhys-Davies, they would, wouldn't they? I think the church could usefully ask itself why this book has done what it did.

In the rash of 'debunk' telly that followed the book, my fondest memory is of Brian Sewell in front of the Last Supper, pointing out that all figures are grouped in threes, because it was painted in pieces in a smallish studio. The bits were assembled with no thought for the overall structure, hence the bloody great gap in the middle of it. Leonardo apparently painted it early on in his career, and as Sewell said, it just isn't very good!


ps Go with An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears.

2:19 pm  
Blogger patroclus said...

Tim, don't give up - I'm always happy to read anything of yours, regardless of subject matter, because it's so well written and because you give pointers to so many other things. And I tried to leave a long comment this morning, but Blogger ate it, and I didn't have time to write it again (massed crowd breathes sigh of relief).

Clodhopper: Wyndham did a lovely, if not exactly complimentary, review of that Zafon book.

2:47 pm  
Blogger Corey Redekop said...

Plow on, plow on.

Look, the argument that 'airport literature' is a lesser form of art is crap. Sure, they may be the fast food of the industry, but there are burgers, and there are burgers. Many pulp novelists are now considered icons, and simply because the topic and manner may be more lowbrow than, say, DeLillo (big fan here, by the way, Underworld was the novel of the '90s), doesn't negate their power.

As Roger Ebert put it, it's not the story, it's how you tell it. There's good storytelling, and bad storytelling. Stephen King? Good. Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard? Good. Dan Brown. Crap.

2:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On behalf of the lurkers I'd like to see some more please, although it may start to pall at some stage.

I think Mangonel is certainly homing in on the real reason for ringing till syndrome.

3:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd pitch in too...

Highlighting bad sentences or bad prose isn't enough to hang DB, there must be something more profound than to just say "he's wrong here" or "this doesn't make sense". Does he commit a crime against literature or merely a crime against taste?

I'd like to point out a good thing about DB's style: brevity. There may be over a hundred chapters but you know you could still read it all in a day if you wanted too. Perhaps it gives people who don't normally read a sense of achievement, like an accumulation of points. You can tell your husband/wife "I read 3 chapters on the way to work." and won't she be proud of you.

And talking about brevity, aren't blogs reducing all our attention spans? I've not done the numbers but I'm sure the average number of words in an online news article is much short that an old skool paper one.

Do other airport authors write loads of chapters too? Maybe we could re-name it fast forward fiction or something...

3:16 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

God, I hope nobody thinks I was fishing for moral support. I always wondered what would happen if James Brown did his big collapsing act at the end of a show, and nobody yelled for more...

OK, Clodhopper, Murph, I think you're right, this thing might come to a natural halt anyway before chapter 105. But I'll keep going for now.

Corey: I tend to agree with you that Brown's chosen genre doesn't justify his bad writing.

But I think Drake (who commented on yesterday's post) is onto a very good thing, which Mangonel also touches on. The problem is that Brown is using the genre of the airport thriller to deal with some potentially big, complex ideas. If this were a mindless shoot-'em-up (cf Andy McNab) his infelicities wouldn't matter. But there's a massive disconnect between the loftiness (pretentiousness?) of Brown's subject matter, and the mundanity of his writing. This, possibly, is the key to the whole thing, and why Brown's book has attracted so much opprobrium. He's not actually a worse writer than the others, but his delusions of grandeur make you feel that he ought to be better.

I really wish I'd seen the Sewell thing. I have a grudging admiration for him - however batty his views, he can express them clearly, succinctly and elegantly. (I think it's significant that he writes for a mid-market tabloid, not a posh paper.) Almost makes me wish he'd write some airport fiction...

3:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep it up. Maybe we can talk about pacing, plot/chapter structure, and the implications that something vastly secret is shortly to be revealed? I'm thinking that possibly the hook of the book lies in one or all of these.

4:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and now that I read the comments, I think Mangonel makes some good points about the draw. But I think that draw makes people pick up (and, probably, choose to review) the book. What keeps us reading it to the end? Probably some of what she says, but I think there is something inherent, and I am still curious about it.

My personal opinion is that this book could also have worked were it decently written. (I don't think it would have worked if it was really well written, on the order of a Jack O'Connell or James Sallis, only because it would be too 'hard' for some people to read.)

4:07 pm  
Blogger Joel said...

Keep going, M. Footman, at least until Loganoc realises that Monkey Island is infinitely superior.

5:52 pm  
Blogger Spinsterella said...

Unlike Tim, I have read lots of other rubbish books.

And in comparison, TDVS really ins't that bad. Really.

It's weird being in the position of defending such a woefully awful book, but, um, for some reason I jeep doing it.

There is soooo much more to come, don't worry, we'll have plenty more to discuss other then just 'this writing's shit, innit?'

8:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I always wondered what would happen if James Brown did his big collapsing act at the end of a show, and nobody yelled for more..."

Tim, every now and again I think I fall a little bit in love with you.

Anyway, oops, only just found this blog, after being all enthusiastic about it when you proposed it.

Like Spinsterella, I have read many rubbish books too, and TDVC is no worse than any of them. However, two factors just highlight its crappiness all the more:

a) The subjects it "deals with"—art history, religion etc—give it an air of super-duper intelligence (which any intelligent person can see through); and b) loads and loads and loads of people think it's really really really good. So it deserves to be picked apart.

I can see how this might end up being a bit tedious though. For you, I mean, more than us.

8:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh and by the way, I wrote a brief review of it way back when, here, in case you're keeping tabs on that kind of thing.

9:02 pm  

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