Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Dan Brown’s Body

When I last wrote a post mentioning The Da Vinci Code I had not read the book or seen the film. I still haven’t, so remain unqualified to express any opinion about either. But I did enjoy reading in the magisterial Language Log some notes by Geoffrey K Pullum on Brown’s prose style, from which I extract:

I am still trying to come up with a fully convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically.

The Da Vinci Code may well be the only novel ever written that begins with the word renowned. Here is the paragraph with which the book opens. The scene (says a dateline under the chapter heading, 'Prologue') is the Louvre, late at night:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don't do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.

But Brown packs these details into the first two words of an action sequence—details of not only his protagonist's profession but also his prestige in the field. It doesn't work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance, of course, to what is being narrated (Saunière is fleeing an attacker and pulls down the painting to trigger the alarm system and the security gates). We could have deduced that he would be fairly well known in the museum trade from the fact that he was curating at the Louvre...

…Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better. Why did I keep reading? Because London Heathrow is a long way from San Francisco International, and airline magazines are thin, and two-month-old Hollywood drivel on a small screen hanging two seats in front of my row did not appeal, that's why.

… "Dan Brown has to be one of the best, smartest, and most accomplished writers in the country", said Nelson DeMille, a bestselling author who has himself hit the #1 spot in the New York Times list… And there are four other similar pieces of praise on the back cover. Together those blurbs convinced me to put this piece of garbage on the CostCo cart along with the the 72-pack of toilet rolls. Thriller writers must have a code of honor that requires that they all praise each other's new novels, a kind of omerta that enjoins them to silence about the fact that some fellow member of the guild has given evidence of total stylistic cluelessness. A fraternal code of silence. We could call it... the Da Vinci code; or the Dan Brown code.

The whole piece is well worth reading as a fund of lessons in how not to write; it also provides links to some other articles about Brown’s genius.


Pennyroyal said...


A very interesting post!

I haven't read the book either, but given its enormous success, see once again, how people would spend time reading such a book rather than an artistic masterpiece which would require a higher degree of intelligence/background knowledge to appreciate.

I realized that there was a redundant repetition of "rather" and since this is listed under your "literature" category, decided that I should make the correction :)

Tarun said...

i couldn't agree more with you. I have read this book and two other of his, and everytime, i can't help but feel he's overhyped. You have hit the nail on the head, describing his work as "ingeniously bad". The fact that he has such a huge fan following bears testimony to this.