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Why writers should leave Dan Brown alone

As you may or may not know, there’s a link to an article called ‘Dan Brown’s worst 20 sentences’ doing the rounds. Elsewhere, someone’s posted a Reader’s Guide (as in sarcastic commentary) to his latest book, The Lost Symbol, on their journal. I checked them both out, but you won’t get a link to either of those web pages from here.  


Honest criticism is one thing, but these two pieces aren’t looking to be helpful, they’re designed to encourage other people to make snide remarks and join in the laughter at Dan Brown’s expense. The ‘worst twenty sentences’ article tries to dress itself up as a serious critique, but one look at the title tells you the writer’s real intention.


According to the list, Dan Brown’s most heinous crime was choosing to call his novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’, because, as every smart person knows, Leonardo Da Vinci, actually means ‘Leonardo of Vinci’. 


So what? Before the book came out, if you’d asked just about anybody in the western world if they knew who ‘Da Vinci’ was, I guarantee you the vast majority would NOT have said, “Oh, hah, hah! You poor, cretinous fool, there’s no such person as OF Vinci.”    


I don’t understand why some people feel the need to play this ‘Bash the successful author, because we’re so clever and he’s so stupid’ game. If you don’t like a book, by all means say so, but the moment you invite others to join in with the public mockery, you’ve crossed the line as far as I’m concerned.


“Yeah, but he’s a famous author,” they, and a big chunk of their followers say. “He’s not supposed to write crappy sentences.”


Really?   Can any of us, with hand on heart, claim that we’ve never submitted something to an agent/editor/publisher that, when we look back on it later, didn’t contain a single ill-turned phrase? I know I can’t. 


Along with millions of others, I read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it. I also read Angels & Demons (which I preferred). I’m about sixty pages into The Lost Symbol, and so far, I like that too. 


If the people who try to pull other writers down spent more time trying to improve their own work, and less time demonstrating their complete lack of class to the rest of the world, maybe they’d have a better chance of ending up as successful as Dan Brown one day. Of course, before that can happen, they’d need to grow up. I hope they do.


What do you guys think?


Am I being unfair? Are famous authors fair game for ridicule, or should we focus on improving our own work?


As for me, I continue to pursue my dream of becoming a successful writer, derided for my lack of talent.  I'm already halfway there, now all I need is a best-seller.

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Sep. 26th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
I understand your point of view and you make a cogent argument. From my own perspective the real crime is how mediocrity often passes as art, or is viewed as art, or elevated to art status, by publishers, readers and especially other writers who should know better.

I remember when The Bridges of Madison County came out and everyone was hyping it. Being a writer, and figuring I was missing out on something, I read the novel. I thought it was absolutely awful for no other reason than it was so stupefyingly mediocre and formulaic. And yet people were latching onto it like it was the best thing since sliced bread.

I've been writing professionally long enough to know there's no telling what people will like. And that's fine because it allows us a choice. But as my own person I do not have to recognize mediocrity or help elevate it in any way. I put Brown in that category because, let's be frank, his writing is pretty bad. Along with a whole host of others like Meyer, Auel, King, Rice, Collins...the list goes on. I mean, these are supposed to be the literary giants of today? C'mon.
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)
I guess that's fair enough, but shouldn't the derision be saved for the people who claim that these guys are literary giants, not the writers themselves?
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:12 pm (UTC)
I think that depends on how the writers take it. Criticism of Meyer's writing brought out the very worst in her, which is, in turn, worthy of mockery. And then it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

Writing is a tough one. Look at an analogy - If you bought, say, a lawnmower that broke or did not function as it was supposed to, would you be right in criticizing the company that made it for poor production? I think most people would say yes, yes you are. The thing that people forget is that we, the readers, pay for books. If I buy a book and it's bad, why can't I criticize it like anything else? I wasted money. I wasted my time. I have a right - nay, perhaps a duty - to warn others.

Though perhaps with a caveat that this is a taste issue. Do I think people who like Twilight are idiots? No. Do I think people who will argue to their last breath that Twilight is a wonderfully written book are idiots? Well, yes. Look, I wouldn't saw JKR is great writing, but I enjoyed Harry Potter. There is a difference.

I do not believe in the 'cult of nice'. If I don't like something, I'm under no moral obligation to just shut it, especially if I, a consumer, paid for it.

Now, that being said, there's a line. I can say whatever derisive thing I want about the book. That doesn't mean I can say horrid things about the author. Critique the writing, not the writer.

And it's not sour grapes, as so many people are quick to jump on. Not every criticism is borne out of jealousy, and I get real tired real fast of the 'you're just jealous of me' mantra (hang around some LJ comms and you'll see that overused - if you criticize a person's lack of capitalization or apostrophe abuse you're 'just jealous'). I'm sorry, I *can* write as well as Stephanie Meyer. I can, in fact, write better. I'm willing to bet a great deal of the population does. Am I jealous about her windfall? Perhaps, though perhaps more saddened that there are a lot of more worthy authors that didn't get the chance. I suppose I'm also 'jealous' that I didn't invent Post-Its or White-Out or a million other multi-million dollar products out there. Still doesn't mean I'm not perfectly right and justified criticizing those products when they malfunction or are poorly made.

(please chalk up any incoherence to the plague and resulting medication)
Sep. 26th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
Everyone has a right to their opinion, but to me, mocking another author's writing says more about mocker than the mockee.
Sep. 26th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Mocking or criticizing? There's a line there, too. And expressing your disgust (as is often the case in Twilight) is even another matter.

When is pointing out flaws 'mocking' and when is it just pointing out flaws? I've often found that distinction lies in the person receiving the comments. As in: "when I do it to you, it's constructive criticism, when you do it to me, you're a big fat mocking meanie".
Sep. 28th, 2009 04:05 pm (UTC)
You and I are on the same page. I'm so glad to see this kind of response, along with others that point out how we "elevate mediocrity."

In addition, Dan Brown's readers were, in some way, suckers if they thought Brown was really telling them something authentic and revelatory about art history or church history. That was a separate kind of crime.



Sep. 28th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Each to his own, I guess. For me, I just read it as a story, and liked it.

Thanks for sharing :)
Sep. 28th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
And I think that's fine, if it's just a fun story for you. There are plenty of people, though, who aren't well read enough in history to know when Brown is confabulating (and Brown himself may not know—I can't tell how bright he is, and his reliance on cliches in writing suggests he's not very clever). It is frustrating, too, when those of us who care about craftsmanship—in any field of endeavor—see someone have success despite his or her quite evident lack of craftsmanship. Are readers simply undiscerning? It's one thing to be aware of it and read it for what it is. It's another thing to think the endeavor is praiseworthy in any serious sense.


Sep. 28th, 2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
I have to say, whether or not it's praiseworthy isn't the issue. It's whether or not people (and by people I mean writers in particular) have the right to poke holes in someone else's work, just to show others how clever they are.

Who are we to tell someone whether or not they should enjoy another writer's book?
Sep. 28th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
A few things are being conflated here, it seems to me.

First, does anyone have the right to "poke holes" in the work of others? Well, why not? "Poke holes" suggests the deflation of something that calls for deflation. If we take human creative labor seriously, then it's good treat the mediocre work as mediocre as we struggle to find fine work. To do otherwise is to disrespect the very notion of creative work. "Poke holes" also suggests some kind of juvenile way of going about it. No, I don't think the "20 Bad Sentences" essay is the way to approach such things, but we're not dealing with the work of ordinary folks; we're dealing with a media creation that feeds on itself and has a multi-media presence. When writing is eye-rollingly bad, it's fair to roll one's eyes. To spend time going at in non-seriously, as that essay did, may make sense in such circumstances.

"Just to show how clever they are" is a separate issue, and a judgment call on your part. People are also throwing around the "jealous of Brown's success" concept. I find that a bogus claim. I'm pleased when fine work is praised. *I* don't have to have written it. That's silly. When mediocre work is lifted up (Flannery O'Connor said the way to success in the U.S. was to be truly mediocre), it's painful not because I wish I were in his place but because it's just plain sad.

Third, "telling someone what to enjoy" is, in a way, the nature of criticism, but also the nature of one's development as a reader (or viewer, listener . . . what have you). We often shake our heads at what we liked in the past. Our taste hadn't developed. We hadn't read enough to realize something had been done to death or done better. We grew. Criticism's aim is to help us grow in the light of considered judgment. This complaint sounds childish—and I think a childishness (not childlikeness, a wholly other thing) is at the heart of not just American entertainment but American culture. We have not grown up.
Sep. 28th, 2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
Looks like we'll have to agree to disagree, but thanks for sharing :)
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
I think the reason people like Brown or Meyer leave themselves open to such stinging ridicule and derision is because they so obviously refuse to grow AS a writer. Now, I freely admit that's just me. But I don't know any writer who isn't consciously trying to improve and grow both from a technical and a literary standpoint.

I remember something Truman Capote once said about a famous novel. His criticism was devastating. He said, to paraphrase, "That's not writing, that's typing." I have always made a conscious effort to do the former. I may not always succeed, but at least I try.

Just speaking for myself, but I can't get behind someone who doesn't even try, so, yeah, in that context they leave themselves open to derision. And I honestly don't believe it's a Snobbery vs. Popularity issue, though I know there are people who see it that way. I view it through a "Do you want to improve" lens.

But, again, that's just me. :P
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
I don't think even Dan Brown would claim his work as art. I, personally, believe his books do so well because they have a wider spectrum of possible readers. It's accessible, readable. They are the sorts of books that become cliches of themselves rather quickly--but cliches are catchy, which is why they're cliches to begin with. :) And there's something of truth to them that resounds in a universal way. Robert Langdon is the king of the dweebs. He's a prof. An egghead (to borrow from Nixon.)A symbols expert! Everyone's known a Robert Langdon at some point in their lives. He lends to the accessibility.
The flaws are easy to overlook because of the pacing. And, like a good lawyer, Brown talks a good game. His pacing and detail (whether real or made up) come barrelling at you so that it just gets absorbed as story--to make the story work. And the stories do work. Their details mesh to come to a satisfying conclusion. And, honestly, the pacing actually succeeded in turning off my internal editor (not an easy feat.)
Literary Art stands the test of time. Will Dan Brown? Doubtful. But as I recently read, his books get not-so-avid-readers to read. Like Stephanie Meyers' books do in the teen market. If 1/8 of those buying either of their books says, "Hey, reading's pretty fun. Maybe I'll go buy another book," we literary types score. :)

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