The Apocalypse has transpired. The End of the World is nigh. The West has fallen. Again.
Or, to put it into Brownian prose (granted, I'm not a best-selling novelist, so bear with me, fair critics):
Alright, alright, enough good, clean "literary" fun. I simply wanted to give a proper introduction to this subhead from an article, "The key to Dan Brown's success," in The Times (ht: Mark Shea): "As the clock ticks down to Dan Brown’s latest opus, we unlock the mystery of how an Elton John wannabe became the defining author of our time." More on that sentence in a moment, but first this:
Viewed through the prism of the media, his record-breakingly popular novels are universally condemned as dishonest tat.
This is fascinating. Years ago, when the Coded Craziness was just beginning to flood the thirsty fields of popular culture, Mr. Brown stated, "Since the beginning of recorded time, history has been written by the 'winners' (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived)." In which case, does this mean that the critics of The Da Vinci Code have "won"?
Because when the novel first appeared, critics working for major newspaper (The New York Times, The Boston Globe, etc.) and reporters working for major television networks couldn't say enough good, grand, and glorious things about the novel and how well-researched, well-written, ingeniously constructed, elaborately plotted, wonderfully puzzling, intellectually stimulating, and downright engrossing it was. The love fest was especially strong for the first, oh, year or so. And then articles, books, and documentaries began to shred the claims, "facts," and literary merits of the book. At first, many of these critics were dismissed as cranky religious zealots who were humorless, illiterate, fearful, and likely given to strapping barbed wired fences around their homes and their upper thighs while giving monosyllabic orders to their cowering, submissive wives.
But truth has a funny way of slipping in through the back door and even into the occasional press room, and I think there came a time when the fad began to fade and the facts became too obvious to be ignored. Brown avoided the public and press for the most part, perhaps realizing that trying to explain why he couldn't even give the correct sizes of famous paintings despite the widespread availability of books and the internet in New Hampshire wouldn't go or end well. Perhaps the big blow to the Coded Aura (if not to the Coded Cash Cow) was the cinematic version of the novel, which was dull, laughable, condescending, plodding, and painful. Some critics lamented that it lacked the flair and excitement of the novel, but others noticed the movie only highlighted how dull, laughable, condescending, plodding, and painful the novel really was.
Then came the little copyright infringement trial in London, brought on by authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, an obvious if non-credible source for many of Browns' "factual" assertions. Brown put some of the blame on his wife, who apparently supplied him with snippets from Holy Blood, Holy Grail and a few other wacky works of conspiracy theory (especially The Templar Revelation), titles duly noted within the novel itself. And so forth.
But—and it is a significant "but"—The Da Vinci Code has sold 81 million copies. Those are staggering, winning numbers. For many readers, The Times notes, the novel was a "literary guilty pleasure," the equivalent, it seems, of a one-night literary stand. And in that sense, Brown is the defining author of our time, providing cheap and tawdry thrills while promising a rich and meaningful relationship. Is that what readers want? Andrew Collins, who penned the piece in The Times, offers his take: "I’m not one for confessional journalism, but I admit I loved it. Any deficiencies in style or research went unnoticed as I raced for the finish. I promise you I am not an idiot, but I was so taken with it that I bought the special illustrated edition and the Rough Guide. The book’s runaway success may well simply be due to reader-rewarding short chapters. Equally, it could be code itself. After all, people love a puzzle..."
True enough, but it's not enough. In a piece I wrote over four years ago (how time flies!), "The 'It's Just Fiction!' Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci Code," I offered the following:
Interest in the Code has been explained well by one of its most public fans, Dan Burstein, editor of Secrets of the Code: An Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code (New York: CDS Books, 2004). Burstein, who runs a venture capital firm, is not shy about his obsession with Brown's novel, stating: "I was as intellectually challenged as I had been by any book I had read in a long time." He recounts making his way through "scores of books that had been mentioned or alluded to in The Da Vinci Code: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Templar Revelation, Gnostic Gospels, The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, The Nag Hammadi Library, and more." None of those books, of course, have anything to do with the art of creating characters, devising plot, or forming one's own unique voice as a novelist.
Burstein admits that the Code is not well-written, but explains that literary quality is beside the point: "Say what you will about some of the ham-fisted dialogue and improbably plot elements, Dan Brown has wrapped large complex ideas, as well as minute details and fragments of intriguing thoughts into his action-adventure-murder mystery." There you have it: "large complex ideas," "minute details," and "fragments of intriguing thoughts." Burstein is correct in stating that those are the main attractions of Brown's novel. And such ideas, details, and thoughts are not presented as "just fiction," nor are they taken as "just fiction" by a large number of readers.
Those ideas, of course, are primarily about religion, spirituality, and the Catholic Church. Brown's two technological thrillers (Digital Fortress and Deception Point) were filled with codes and puzzles and twisting plots, but sank like a torpedoes submarine until the Good Ship Da Vinci Code came along, reclaimed them, and turned them into best sellers. Ruth Gledhill, The Times religion correspondent, gets it partially right: “His critics feel that he has exploited Christianity to make a name for himself. I think that they’re making a big mistake — they have to look at how they could benefit from it." The two things are not, however, mutually exclusive, as I think the past four years have shown: criticizing Brown is not a mistake, but a necessary and important part of the "dialogue" and "debate" that Brown once claimed to be interested in creating and participating in. The winners might not always write a true or definitive history, but truth is always a winner, whether the topic is history, religion, the Church, or the size of Leonardo da Vinci's paintings.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
• Danned If You Do, Danned If You Don't | Carl E. Olson
• Meeting the Real Mary Magdalene | An Interview with Amy Welborn
• What Do Christians Know? Carl E. Olson
• The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine Carl E. Olson
• The Da Vinci Code's Sources | Carl E. Olson
• Dan Brown Reveals How Little He Really Knows | Sandra Miesel