‘Bilge!’ mock critics as Dan Brown sales rocket

With his action-packed stories and intricate plotting, Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is more widely read than almost any writer alive. So why do critics greet his books with such contempt?

‘Bilge from beginning to end,’ announced the Daily Mail. ‘Where once he was abysmal,’ The Telegraph offered, ‘he is now just very poor’. But The Guardian’s review of Dan Brown’s latest novel was most scathing of all: Inferno, it concluded, offered little but ‘demented murk and noxious malarkey.’

Can any book survive such a colourful stream of criticism? One look at the charts reveals that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Inferno, a conspiracy-packed mystery thriller based on the 14th Century epic poem of the same name, entered Amazon’s bestseller list over 100 days before it was even published. It remains firmly lodged at number one today.

This is no fluke. Brown’s books have been consistently and mercilessly derided by critics. But they have simultaneously gone on to dominate book sales. Almost 100 million copies of his 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code are in circulation worldwide, and it tops the list of all-time UK bestsellers.

So why are literary critics so at odds with public opinion? Because the qualities each group look for in a novel are often very different.

Reviewers have three main criticisms. The first regards Brown’s prose style – repetitive and simplistic, with few original metaphors or clever flourishes. The second is that his characters are roughly sketched and barely develop as the plot progresses. Thirdly, despite Brown’s insistence that his stories are ‘based on fact’, his books often present a misleading version of history.

Yet for many readers, none of this is to the point. The writing might be clunky and the characters formulaic; but Brown’s novels are written as ‘thrillers’, and for many people they do indeed thrill. He is a master of puzzles and plot twists and a connoisseur of conspiracies, whose swashbuckling fantasies and breakneck narratives give his audience everything they look for in a novel.

Infernal?

Should an action-packed thriller like Inferno be valued less highly than more literary works?

Yes, say most critics – novels should offer something more than disposable entertainment. Great writers have pushed the boundaries of what language can achieve and provide profound and lasting insights to enhance our understanding of ourselves and the world. That is the benchmark by which books ought to be judged.

Who are these snobbish reviewers, ask Dan Brown fans, to decide what qualities a book ‘ought’ to have? Comparing Inferno to Ulysses is clearly absurd: it’s a different type of book with an entirely different purpose. Novelists who aim to entertain, and succeed as spectacularly as Brown, deserve as much praise as any time-honoured master – even Dante himself.

You Decide

  1. Does an entertaining thriller like Inferno deserve as much respect as the more literary books which you study in class?
  2. ‘The bestsellers list is a better guide to quality than any expert’s opinion.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Design a cover for your own favourite novel – can you produce something that will make it top the charts?
  2. Write a short mystery story involving a surprising plot twist.

Some People Say...

“A well-written sentence is simply one that makes sense.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I love Dan Brown! Can you recommend any similar books?
Try Dante’s original Inferno for a start – it might be very old, but it’s also lively and full of juicy descriptions of hell. Or if it’s the conspiracies and secret societies that grip you, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and the mysteries of Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins are both great places to start.
Talking of conspiracies – are Dan Brown’s novels really based on the truth?
It depends what you mean by ‘based on’. The artwork and events he describes are real enough (although he has been criticised for making some errors) but don’t be fooled by the conspiracy theories he paints: the secret links and meanings behind the history are pure invention.

Word Watch

Noxious malarkey
Noxious means ‘harmful or poisonous’, and is often used to describe things that have a negative effect on people’s minds. ‘Malarkey’ is an old slang word meaning ‘nonsense’.
Conspiracy-packed
The hero in most of Dan Brown’s works is an academic whose expertise is in finding secret clues in historical works of literature and art. He discovers that secret plots and societies are behind many of the world’s most important events – both historical and in the present day. These conspiracy theories are not supported by evidence.
Epic poem
Dante’s Inferno (Italian for ‘Hell’) begins with the author awaking lost in a dark forest. Dante is then guided by the Roman poet Virgil through the nine circles of Hell, where he encounters a cast of sinful historical figures, on a journey to be reunited with his beloved Beatrice.
Misleading
The history in Dan Brown’s fiction is not invented. But fringe theories and heavily disputed claims are often presented as hard facts, and he oversimplifies in ways that academics find objectionable.
Ulysses
James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, published in 1922, experiments with language by borrowing words and phrases from different languages, dialects and periods. It is dense with references to mythology and popular culture and is notoriously difficult to read – but it’s also widely regarded as one of the greatest books of all time.

Subjects

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