Saturday, September 19, 2009

Does Dan Brown Impress You?

John Ramsey Miller

I am happy for Dan Brown, I’m happy for his publisher, Random House, and I’m happy for his broker. I think he deserves his success, even if I do not fully understand it. None of us knows what readers will hit on, but I do know that chasing a wildly successful book by taking the elements you feel are what struck the chord with the audience is usually a waste of good keystrokes. I don’t think most people can write what they don’t feel and hit home runs with an audience. You know what sells? Entertainment. I can break that down. Readers want to feel good, to know their dreams can be realized, that they can escape reality by getting involved, that good kicks evil’s wide ass, and that hope exists despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

Look at the how the lowly Vampire of a few years ago has suddenly been lifted to the heavens. We have vampires drinking synthetic blood, walking about in the daytime, flying like superman, fangs that open like switchblades, feeling emotions, being all sensitive, falling in love, and next we’ll have them procreating like the living, roasting garlic to sprinkle on their popcorn, and ordering scotch and Holy water on the rocks. And now werewolves, ghouls, witches, ghosts, zombies, voodoo priests, magical beasts of every description, are all lining up in the wings waiting their turn to elbow their way into the middle of the stream. Because readers want to feel fear from the safety of their armchairs, and triumph over it without breaking a sweat. They want to believe that there are things they don’t see in their own lives. They (we) want to imagine they can live forever, only if it’s just at night, and they want to believe in monsters, but want even their worst monsters to have a smidgen of goodness buried in there somewhere. And most people believe that animals in jeopardy are more important than people in the same fix. Seriously you can have a monster kill a child that toddles too close, but one that kills curious cats or protective dogs is beyond redemption.

Successful authors gravitate toward subjects, characters, and stories that attract them. I suppose I could write a convincing vampire novel, if I were interested in vampires it might even be interesting, but I’d rather write about gangsters. I’d love to write about the wild West. I’d like to back off to a time when there were no cell phones, few if any telephones, no TV sets and maybe just a radio here and there and newspapers instead of CNN.

The thing about Dan Brown is that his work isn’t a fluke. About anytime a writer is successful, critics pick at his style, impugn his accuracy, and generally rain poo-poo on his ability. Dan Brown is into his story, cares about his characters, and likes slaying giants. Brown is a great writer, and his financial rewards are well deserved because it is a gift to Mr. Brown for what he is offering them in exchange. Maybe Dan Brown won’t win an Edgar, or the ITW for best novel, or any other rewards his contemporaries can bestow. Like so many great commercially successful artists jealousy keeps those prizes away. But authors like Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, JK Rowling, John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and Dan Brown, the people are voting, and they are voting yes, yes, yes. When millions of people think you are a great writer, the Nobel, Pulitzer committee, and the critics are irrelevant and should be. Would you rather have a line of awards on your bookshelves, or some producer from the Today show begging you for the fifteenth time to make an appearance, or a Gulfstream V taking you and your family to Europe so you can watch your book being filmed. For most authors I know, it isn’t even close. Of course, all of the above would be heaven.

7 comments:

  1. I think begrudging the success of another writer is perhaps the biggest waste of time an author can indulge in. Anyone who can write a book that sells 80 million copies, then follow it up with a book that sells a million copies in the first day, has my respect.

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  2. I keep chirping that it isn't really about the writing all the time. The average reader who you just described doesn't give a hoot about adverbs and passive verbs. As you said, they just want story. Good, bad, or indifferent, readers like it all. And, really, if readers like it and buy it, who can say it's horrible . . . except those who can't stand it.

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  3. Interesting. I was reading some background on author Rick Riordan, who writes very fine P.I. novels, but has found huge success with children's novels, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. In reading a review of his first one, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, one of the reviewers carped about how choppy they thought the writing was. Now, Rick's a fine writer, and his Tres Navarre P.I. novels are beautifully written. I didn't notice any chop to his kids' novels, and the reviewer complained about the main character's attitude, which suggested to me that the reviewer doesn't spend any time with kids. Riordan, a former middle-school teacher, seems perfectly thrilled that the books matter to his audience and doesn't worry over much about the reviewers. Reviewers, after all, get their books for free.

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  4. I like Dan Brown. There I said it! I thought Da Vinci Code was a hoot and I'm sure I'll enjoy the new book as well.

    A while back I wrote an essay called "Confessions of a Genre Hack" celebrating King's win of the big foo-foo literary medal. Years later, I still stand by it.

    A couple of weeks ago Lee Child posted his 'best books' list and it was loaded with genre. He was skewered in various blogs for not including all the literary 'greats' and instead listing hacks like Grisham.

    Anything that gets people to read is good. Our handyman, as lowbrow a redneck as they come, told me that he has read every single book written by Grisham and loved them. How can that be a bad thing?

    As Spillane said, "I don't read reviews. I read royalty checks."

    Terri

    word verify: 'lattes' what snobs call expensive coffee

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  5. A fun essay that almost, but not quite, defends Brown.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/sep/16/i-dont-hate-dan-brown

    The comments are great!

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  6. I'm about 100 pages into THE LOST SYMBOL, and it's become obvious why this book took 6 years to write. Dan Brown is the undisputed king of research. TLS may become the leading textbook on Washington, DC history. At the same time, its glacial pacing could work against it.

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  7. Critics, good or bad, make for free publicity. Let them rant, it draws attention. Perform for the audience, not the reviewer. If the little old lady in the third row snickers when you say that one funny line then you've won.

    And, make the show/book your own. Do it your own style, not as a copycat, and you will do well.

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