Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Over at this blog's mothership, Cultural Snow, I've discussed a persistent problem that writers face, in a post-canonical universe: how high or low should they pitch their work? Take too much for granted, and readers will feel out of their depth; go in the opposite direction, and they'll feel as if you're insulting their intelligence. Essentially, everyone has their own safety zone, where they feel that they understand what's going on, but they're not being spoon-fed. And, even before the action gets going, The Da Vinci Code falls below my bottom line.

"Louvre Museum, Paris". As distinct from the Louvre in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, you mean? This is the "brain-teasing adventure" that we've been promised, is it? The "blockbuster with brains", as heralded by the Ottawa Citizen? Still, at least he didn't put "Paris, France".

Anyway, we're here now, after 16 pages of background and backslapping. And, like Steve Harmison, Dan Brown screws up with his very first delivery.

"Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery."

There's a pretty good rule of thumb for writers of fiction: where possible, don't tell us, show us. Unless you want to be an omnipresent narrator, hovering over the action like a metafictional Santa, dividing the characters into naughty and nice, just show us what happens, and leave us to infer the value judgements for ourselves. But, no, if we can't be expected to know that the Louvre is in Paris, how can we be trusted to work out that a character is renowned? Or, indeed, a curator? Incidentally, at least two more of Brown's novels introduce a character with the job-name formula, although physicist Leonardo Vetra (Angels and Demons) and geologist Charles Brophy (Deception Point) have to manage without renown. They are, however, murdered in creative and unpleasant manners. Not that Brown is formulaic in any way?

It gets worse. Dear God, does nobody edit anything any more? "A thundering iron gate..." How does a gate thunder, precisely? "A voice spoke..." Voices don't speak, people do. "The mountainous silhouette of his attacker... with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils." If he's a silhouette, you wouldn't be able to see what colour his skin or hair or eyes are, surely? This is dark and stormy night stuff, clunky and inept. And we're still on the first page.

Stylistic and logical quibbles aside, it's a good, arresting start. An old man being pursued through the Louvre by a gun-toting albino monk. Different, to say the least. And we're not handed everything on a plate. What's the lie that Saunière recites? More importantly, what's thr truth it conceals? Who are the sénéchaux that protect it? There's enough to be getting on with, at least until Chapter 1.

But the imbecility of the writing just lumbers on. "The gun roared..." Do pistols really roar? Cannons roar, but pistols? "...his thoughts a swirling tempest of fear and regret." Jesus. "The curator's eyes flew open." Flew? "...smirking calmly..." Is that physically possible? "A collection of the world's most famous paintings seemed to smile down on him like old friends." What the hell does that mean? And, if the poor, stupid reader isn't expected to know where the Louvre is, how is s/he supposed to know what la Guerre d'Algérie might be about? I do like "Pain is good, monsieur", though. Like an albino Gordon Gekko. Intriguing.

Already, a pattern seems to be emerging. Brown has some unusual, interesting ideas. He has the notion of a good story developing. However, he has the writing skills of an enthusiastic twelve-year-old who's read a couple of Harry Potters and thought, "I can do that."

Anyway, let's leave the renowned curator drowning in his own stomach acid with only Caravaggio and that pesky secret to console him. Our hero awaits.


Blogger Spinsterella said...

'mountanious silhouette' gave me a laugh as well.

But isn't the clunky writing part of the whole thriller/popular fiction genre?

After watching (and loving) The Silence of the Lambs when I was about 15 I read the book. I couldn't believe how badly written it was.

Is it fair to say that DVC is a good (entertaining) bad (ly written) book?

It's certainly much more enjoyable than Steppenwolf which I'm nearly finished - which I reckon is a particularly bad 'good' book.

10:58 am  
Blogger Billy said...

I have to agree, the Silence of the Lambs book sucks big style. Mind you, they managed a decent film out of it...

12:13 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

OK then, look at it another way - does genre fiction have to be badly written? Will readers get put off by prose that doesn't clunk?

Or is that they just don't care - in which case, why not just write the stuff well in the first place? Surely it doesn't take that much effort?

Can anyone recommend a huge-selling author (on the level of Brown, Grisham, etc) who can actually write without causing the alert reader to eat his/her own eyes in embarrassment?

1:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh but we should be grateful for small mercies. At least he spared us the sex scenes...Sophie cryptically arching her back and moaning surreptitiously as Roberts electric hands explored her petalous, yet symmetrical, but somehow majestical.......

1:57 pm  
Blogger patroclus said...


I see there isn't an adverb in the first sentence after all. It must have been the reference to Sauniere that caused me to roll my eyes in despair.

Maybe it's only people who think a lot about the English language that are sensitive to the awfulness of Dan Brown's prose.

In fact, yes, the people who enjoyed TDVC as a reading experience probably didn't think at all about the way it's written; most likely they just took the words for granted and read it for the plot, or the (god help us) characterisation, or most likely the 'mystery'. People who like conspiracy theories aren't people who are generally concerned about mixed or inappropriate metaphors, because if they were, it would mean they had elevated critical faculties, which in turn would mean they would be able to see right through conspiracy theories.

So...Brown might just have used clunky sensationalist language because he knows that's the best way to appeal to people who like conspiracy theories.

Or he might just be a semi-literate twat.

2:10 pm  
Blogger patroclus said...

Clodhopper: Good point. If I had electric hands I wouldn't be wanting to put them anywhere near anything wet.

2:13 pm  
Blogger Spinsterella said...

I'd heard that Elmore Loenard was at the top of his crime-fiction tree so I read a couple of his books. Nope - rubbish.

I must agree with Clodhopper about the lack of sex scenes though. Blessed relief we didn't have to suffer any of those.

2:30 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Dickens, fair point, P. He does pretty much contradict every notion of a high/low divide, doesn't he? Although Leavis didn't rate him much.

"People who like conspiracy theories aren't people who are generally concerned about mixed or inappropriate metaphors, because if they were, it would mean they had elevated critical faculties, which in turn would mean they would be able to see right through conspiracy theories." Bugger. Should I just kick the whole blog into touch here and now? Although the notion of "elevated critical faculties" deserves a little conceptual prodding, maybe.

Re: sex. Since Brown clearly identifies with his hero (see the next post), he might feel distinctly uncomfortable about writing sex scenes.

Spin: I've been meaning to dip a toe into Elmore Leonard for ages. Not worth it? OK.

2:53 pm  
Blogger james henry said...

Nooo, I like Elmore Leonard a lot - he's churned out a few potboilers, but he's well worth a proper investigation. I'd give 'Get Shorty' a go, although if you've seen the film you might want to try something else, maybe 'Killshot'?

I've always been a fan of Stephen King's short stories, as he seems to have the ability to write superlative descriptive sequences in a very simple manner. There's an elegance to his writing that tends to get overlooked because of the subject matter, I think, although I'm not a fan of his longer books particularly.

Dan Brown, it seems to me, writes in a manner that seems highly stylised, although in fact he just doesn't know any other way to write. I suspect the reason he's popular with people who don't usually read very much is because (as you pointed out) he constantly tells rather than shows: not leaving any work for his readers to do for themselves, something which should be a substantial part of the reading experience. His writing is the equivalent of a Boyzone song, or one of those Mariah Carey singalikes, who sob out and overplay out every single note of a song, and simultaneously shred the piece of any original meaning, spoonfeeding it to the audience who can move onto something else the second it's over.

3:40 pm  
Blogger james henry said...

I might have overcooked the simile a bit with that last sentence.

4:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"While at Phillips Exeter and Amherst College, I pursued advanced writing courses and was published in school literary magazines. At Exeter, I chose "creative writing" as my senior project. At Amherst, I applied for and was accepted to a special writing course with visiting novelist Alan Lelchuk."

Words should be dan's babies too then. They're not mine.....I do plants, but even as a tiller of the earth I would be ashamed to publish stuff this bad...wouldn't you?

Might be worth reading the witness statement melud.

5:23 pm  
Anonymous patroclus said...

Re. 'elevated critical faculties' - yes, there's a hell of a lot of conceptual prodding to do there, mainly invoking Pierre Bourdieu - do you want me to start invoking?

5:49 pm  
Blogger Spinsterella said...

Before we get down to conceptual prodding (cos I'm not going to understand that bit), can I just suggest that people who like shite books also like shite music?

Sorry, when I say shite, I mean mass-market.

People like Dan Brown stuff because it's everywhere, because everyone they know has read it and told them that it's great. The same applies to Robbie Williams, say.


5:55 pm  
Blogger Tamburlaine said...

I've come to this blog via Patroclus' post, and am interested to see you deconstruct The Da Vinci Code. It's a while since I read it.

I'm not accustomed to analysing prose, and can read bad English without flinching (I'm afraid), though I can recognise good writing when I see it.

I thought that the novel had an interesting plot, and things certainly happened very quickly. This kind of breathless storytelling can work very well in a thriller plot (for example, see any of Matthew Reilly's preposterous but entertaining thrillers), and I think Dan Brown achieved this well. It was only when I looked back on the book I had read (quickly) that the bad things about it annoyed me.

Other things... well, Opus Dei is not exactly a sinister sect, from what I've heard, but perhaps akin to the Freemasons, in that it's something like an old boys' network, only sinister when you're outside it.

Will you be mentioning the Americanisms which creep into the words of defiantly English Teabing?

10:34 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

James - you lost me - you want me to listen to Mariah Carey?

Clodhopper - is a "special writing course" like a special school?

Patroclus - consider Bourdieu to be unleashed. Deleuze is kicking at the stable door.

Spin - apart from the academic interest, plotting the overlaps of people's taste in music and literature would be marketing gold. Oooooh, the synergy.

Tamburlaine - I'm just drooling for Teabing's appearance. That, I think, was the moment for me when DVC stopped being just 'bad' and became deliriously preposterous.

2:15 am  
Blogger Valerie said...

KW Jeter's Dr. Adder, which was either edited dreadfully or not at all,
nevertheless forged (or gouged)-- new ground in SF. It was full
of new concepts. The writing was shit. Nevertheless the novel is

I question whether there are enough new concepts in Brown's novel to
justify the overwriting. That aside, there is something compelling about
it; is it the emotional manipulation? The sense you get when you are
watching a scary movie and realize that the music is the only thing
making a scene tense, that the dialogue is banal, the acting wooden,
the plot hopelessly trite?

Genre fiction does not, not have to be badly written. James Sallis. Gene
Wolfe. Kate Wilhelm (her SF only). Percival Everett. Though none
of those people (Wolfe possibly excepted) sell "hugely."

I can't agree with Patroclus' remark about people who like conspiracy
theories, since I myself am a conspiracy theorist. I believe huge
corporations are essentially engineering society. I believe George Bush is
in pocket of Saudi oil barons. I believe a small number of people with a
huge amount of money hold a hell of a lot of reins. Nevertheless, I did
think about the way TDVC was written (and it bothered me). So.. hmm.
I'm not sure I have elevated critical faculties, though, so maybe she has a point.

And this comment is overlong, sorry.

5:01 am  
Blogger Valerie said...

Oops. And sorry about the wacky line breaks.

5:02 am  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Wacky line breaks are cool. Maybe they have a hidden meaning.

I think it might be helpful if we define what we mean by a conspiracy theory. The GWB-Saudi thing is clearly important - full disclosure would probably result in the fall of the House of Saud and the US Republican party.

The sort of 'revelations' that Brown deals in, on the other hand, would be shocking only to the sort of people who were dumbfounded by the revelation of Freddie Mercury's sexuality.

7:07 am  
Blogger Valerie said...

"You don't mean he {gasp} liked boys?" (Though apparently Liberace's revelation surprised a lot of people too.. Ah, the innocent.)

So you're letting me off the hook by saying "but THOSE aren't conspiracy theories, Valerie. Those ones are real." Note that half the US apparently thinks they are only wacky theory. Though frankly, why would I be defending that half of the US population?

But I digress. It's 4 a.m. and I'm talking to myself, having been woken by the pager to fix a cranky customer's email. I think what I'm really trying to say is that I agree; there appear to be two kinds of 'revelations' in Brown's text, neither of which I believe counts as an authentic conspiracy theory:

1) Complete BS
2) The bloody obvious

The interesting question that you raise being did he do that deliberately, or in blissful ignorance?

I await your further insights.

12:14 pm  
Blogger Tim Footman said...

Just trying to distinguish the important conspiracies from those that are only important if you take old men in purple frocks to be the infallible word of God. It really depends on whether you believe the world is run by big business elites, or by 12-foot lizards.

1:17 pm  
Blogger GreatSheElephant said...

Dan Brown actually teaches creative writing, something I find incredibly distressing.

How about Le Carre? Len Deighton?

7:23 pm  

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