How Dan Brown Does what Others Can’t (or are not allowed to do).


Less than a week after its publication, Dan Brown’s latest oeuvre is already a huge bestseller. It has, of course, attracted a lot of attention and an awful lot of criticism. Some reviewers sneer discreetly, others scorn it openly.

As a writer, I can only sympathize with the author. If I had received reviews such as: “as a stylist Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal he is now just very poor.” (The Telegraph), or: “it’s all twaddle” (The Daily Mail), I would stick my head in the proverbial oven and decided to write no more.

In addition, it is said that Brown’s writing is poor, breaks many rules when it comes to plot and structure, his research is bad and his prose often long winded. Stuff that most other writers could never get away with.

Similar things have been said about other bestsellers, such as Fifty Shades of Grey and many more. Those books that just run away and sell and sell and sell, leaving other writers far behind, scratching their heads, wondering WHAT is the secret? How can such bad writing have such enormous popular appeal?

It’s all very well and oh-so-easy to say that the general reading public is stupid, that readers don’t actually know what good writing IS. But that is not really the crux of the dilemma. Or the real story about the story.

Writing is a little bit like cooking. Put in the right ingredients, make it taste really good, and you have a product people want. The cake might be a bit wobbly, fall apart in your hands or could be a little burnt at the edges but if it tastes delicious, you’ll want to eat more and more and more. It’s not in the way you cook it, it’s how  the ingredients appeal to the public that counts.

In this way, if you spin a good yarn, be it badly written and the historical facts a little off, people will still want to read it. In fact, generally,most  people have quite a sketchy idea about history, art and religion, so the nitty-gritty of historical accuracy is of no importance.

In Dan Brown’s case, he hit the jackpot with the Da Vinci Code.  He was very clever in creating a plot centered around they mystery of Christ, a very intriguing subject, throwing mystique and sorcery and alchemy and all kinds of taboo subjects into the story, which appeal to the masses.

Plus, setting Da Vinci in Paris and Inferno in Florence, among ancient buildings and artifacts  was another clever idea. Add a soap opera ingredient and, voilà; you have  everything that could possibly appeal to the millions.

My dad, a great intellectual and an avid reader, picked up The Da Vinci Code, read a bit of it and threw it against the wall. I picked it up and started reading. He then asked me to tell him what happened in the end.

Writers may scream and shout, point out all the flaws, laugh sarcastically and then cry in their beer about how another author writes a good story very badly and then rakes in millions.

The bottom line: Brown knows how to hook people with a story. And THAT’S the trick!

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Shani Struthers
    May 16, 2013 @ 10:08:56

    Hi Susanne, I’m new to your blog (which is the same template as mine funnily enough!) but Dan Brown drew me in. I agree, the Da Vinci Code is a damn good story in a wonderful setting, enough to make me buy it and read it. I haven’t been so keen on his others but may give this latest a try. I don’t mind an author who breaks all the rules but I do mind if the story isn’t gripping. Brown doesn’t have to worry too much re the latter. xxx


  2. Son of Incogneato
    May 16, 2013 @ 10:29:28

    MacDonald’s has sold billions of burgers. As food it is abysmal, but thanks to artificial taste additives, it sells by the ton. Brown knows how to write a good Macnovel. The trick is to appeal to the public’s wish for exciting pabulum. Skim the cream off the top and serve it up. Logic, character, or a sense of time and space? Who needs ‘em?
    Barbara Cartland is the third bestselling author of all time (estimated 1 billion in sales), followed by Danielle Steel. Are they good writers, too?
    I read the Da Vinci Code to the end and then threw it against the wall.
    Quoth the raven, Nevermore.


  3. Arc Sparrow
    May 16, 2013 @ 10:44:26

    Good for him. But I have to say, I’m with your dad. I could not get more than a few pages into the DaVinci Code before putting it down forever. He sure as hell didn’t hook me. Maybe some people are just better able to ignore the stench enough to plow through the story.

    I don’t consider anything he does ‘breaking rules.’ You make it sound like he’s some avant-garde renegade expanding the boundaries of literature. He’s just a sloppy, incoherent and inartful writer who gets away with his mistakes because people like the puzzles in his plots.


  4. joskehan
    May 16, 2013 @ 10:58:49

    Like your father, Susanne, I read a bit of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and threw it in the bin…utter twaddle. However, due to the countless conversations, articles, critiques etc etc about the book (as with 50 Shades), readers get curious and buy it just to see what the hubbub is all about. Clever marketing in my view. The claims his wife writes for him add to the intrigue.
    I’m not bored enough with life at the moment to bother buying his latest and trying to read it Time is too precious to waste on reading rubbish.


  5. susannefromsweden
    May 16, 2013 @ 11:04:10

    @Arc: ‘He’s just a sloppy, incoherent and inartful writer who gets away with his mistakes’. That what I meant about rules. Rules of good writing.

    Jo, I don’t know. I never form an opinion on a book without reading it first. I couldn’t actually finish da Vinci, because the plot just fizzled out in the end.


    • Arc Sparrow
      May 16, 2013 @ 17:11:00

      Oh. Okay. I guess I usually think of ‘rule’ as a higher order concept somewhere beyond basic coherence.

      Honestly, when I find phrases and dialogue of the sort that he writes in my drafts I cringe and thank God no reader had to be subjected to it. Admittedly, some still escapes into my final copy, but at least I take pains to minimize these flubs

      All those eyes that go through his manuscripts before publication and no one notices the flaws? What do editors do these days besides eat lunch?


  6. roisinmeaney
    May 16, 2013 @ 11:30:34

    Susanne, I’m another reader who threw the DaVinci Code against the wall after a few pages, likewise the first of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (left the others alone). But live and let live – if people find Brown or Larsson or any of the other multi-million-selling writers entertaining, so be it. We’ll just have to plod on with our more modest offerings and hope they find enough favour to allow us to continue with the next!


  7. Agnes Webb (@AgnesWebbAuthor)
    May 16, 2013 @ 16:25:05

    I was totally bewitched and fascinated by Da Vinci Code. The story was compelling, and full of interesting historical tidbits. I disagree with the notion that Brown is a bad writer. Clearly, he’s connecting with massive amounts of people on some level. Just because something is popular does not mean it’s bad.


  8. susannefromsweden
    May 16, 2013 @ 20:39:06

    Of course not. Jane Austin is popular. But Dan Brown’s writing is not very good, if you look at it critically.


  9. Danny Gillan
    May 16, 2013 @ 22:22:55

    He has plot. He does good plot. He apparently does the same plot over and over again, but hey, have you ever listened to a Coldplay album?
    He’s a craftsman rather than an artist, but that’s no insult. He’s found a product he can create that the public want to buy, and he’s taken it to mass production. Nothing wrong with that.


  10. susannefromsweden
    May 16, 2013 @ 22:26:04

    Absolutely not. And that is my point. A ripping yarn is a ripping yarn.


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