It has to be one of the greatest mysteries of our age. Ignoring the Harry Potter series, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has sold more than 80 million copies and yet there are many who will say that it is a “bad book”.
How can a bad book be so successful?
As an aspiring author, I wish my books were that “bad”. Honestly. I would cheerfully accept the criticisms of my peers with one hand if it meant receiving a very large cheque with the other.
So what is the secret? Has Dan Brown somehow hoodwinked 80 million people to buy a book that they didn’t enjoy? Is it all done with smoke and mirrors?
After quite a bit of debate on the internet – some sensible and some silly – I think I’ve worked out the answer. As a piece of magic, I can do it with one word. Well, a discussion about one word.
To start with, we ought to go back to one of Dan Brown’s fiercest critics – Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum. Professor Pullum sounds like someone who would commit a murder in Cluedo. I accuse Professor Pullum in the library with a fountain pen. But, no, nothing so exciting. He is a professor of linguistics.
He has said many choice things about the Da Vinci Code, which are frequently quoted when a journalist wants to pick holes in Dan Brown’s writing:
Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.
… this piece of garbage …
… total stylistic cluelessness …
… one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature …
Ouch. Very ouch, baby. That fountain pen is sharp and dipped in bile.
So what exactly was it that so annoyed the grumpy professor? Sentences like these – the first three sentences of Da Vinci Code:
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.
Professor Pullum takes a particular issue with the very first word “Renowned”.
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.
If I put my author’s hat on (the floppy felt trilby with peacock feather rampant), I think I know what the prof means. You just don’t say “renowned curator”. It’s a clumsy hack of a sentence, an awkward splodge. It looks wrong.
Newbie authors like to stuff lots of description into their writing, as if every new adjective and adverb makes the text sparkle just that little bit more than it did before. They don’t just want to say “the curator”. They feel the irresistible need to add something. “Grey-haired”, perhaps. “Steely eyed” … that’s a good one. “Renowned” – yup, that hits the jackpot.
More advanced writers know better than this. Allegedly. They know that less is more. That we should show, not tell. In other words, show the curator doing something splendid instead of telling the reader that the curator is wonderful.
Good writers know this. I am sure that Dan Brown’s editors know this, even if Dan Brown doesn’t.
And yet here we have the very first sentence of one of the most successful books in recent times, and it totally disobeys this rule. What is more, Dan Brown keeps on breaking this rule. For page after page, sentence after sentence, he carries on slipping in unwanted and clunky descriptions. We get cliché after cliché. Purple prose. No noun goes unqualified.
Or as Prof Plum would say “putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions”.
There’s more. The current perceived wisdom is that dialogue should be tagged with the word “said” or nothing at all. We should avoid alternatives for said such as “whispered”, “shouted” or that Sherlockian masterpiece “ejaculated”. And we shouldn’t say “said, softly” or “said anything elsely”.
All that is bad. Naughty. Verboten. Taboo.
And yet this is what we get from the first page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
… he grunted …
… said Mr Dursley loudly …
… she said sharply …
… Mr Dursely mumbled …
… snapped Mrs Dursely …
… said Mrs Dursely stiffly …
That’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, the most successful book in recent times with over 107 million sales. Breaking all the rules.
I had an epiphany a few years ago. I found myself teaching business writing to groups of civil servants. To illustrate the theme of “don’t cram too many ideas into one sentence” I gave these besuited pen-pushers this sentence:
“Average in height, strong as an ox, dark haired, swarthy Setau the snake charmer was making love to his lissom Nubian wife, Lotus, whose slender curves kept him constantly on the brink of arousal.”
For me that is one of the worst sentences ever committed to paper. I laughed out loud the first time I read it. Too many clauses, too many clichés, too all-round purple. I was expecting a similar reaction from the people I was teaching.
But no. I must have shown that passage to more than a hundred people. Their reactions took me by surprise. One or two people would laugh out loud, just as I had. The majority would shrug and say that it was perfectly okay. A fair few people would actually like that sentence and want to know which book it came from.
“Ramses: the Temple of a Million Years” by Christian Jacq, if you really want to know.
Huh? Here was writing which was palpably “bad” and yet people liked it. Or didn’t care.
It was at this point that I could have launched into a professorial outrage. Are these people stupid? Can’t they see how bad this is? Heck, I might have even wibbled on about “total stylistic cluelessness”.
That’s when it struck me. Most readers don’t care about the minutiae of words. In fact, they quite like lots of information, thank you very much. They want plot and intrigue and characters. They don’t care two hoots about the rights and wrongs of putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions.
The Da Vinci Code is a success for many reasons. It appeals to our interest in conspiracy theories. It is a fast paced thriller. It is set in exotic locations. There are the classic elements of a thriller – a baddie, a car chase. There are hidden clues and puzzles.
All in all, it offers readers a chance to experience a glamorous fantasy world. So when professor Pullum rails against the phrase “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière …”, he is rather missing the point.
He sees a stylistic gaffe and reaches for his poison pen.
Dan Brown’s other 80 million readers see an exotic foreign person with an accent in the middle of their name – ooh, exciting foreign travel!
The readers see an interesting job (curator) that they know little about – ooh, Discovery Channel programmes about people with more interesting jobs than mine!
They see “renowned” – hey, this guy is good at his job!
Just at the point that Professor Pullum is switching off, 80 million readers are getting turned on.
Is Da Vinci Code a “bad” book? Not really. It breaks many of the rules of so-called good writing, but it carries it off because of its strengths. It gives its readers what they want.
Does that mean that everyone should start writing in purple prose, a la Dan Brown? No, no, no, a thousand times, no! Purple prose plus a weak plot is just about the worse combination that the written word can give us.
But there are times when purple prose suits a sensational plot. And that is something that Dan Brown understands better than Professor Plum.