Is Dan Brown-bashing becoming a national pastime?

Over the last few weeks, Dan Brown’s name seemed to keep cropping up again and again – and not in a positive light. I didn’t pay much attention at first, as it wasn’t the first time I’d heard Dan Brown getting slated, but all of a sudden I was hearing sneers every other day. Then I stumbled across a review of Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, on the Telegraph website. I hadn’t realised his latest novel was imminent, but at last there was an explanation for the sudden increase in Dan Brown-bashing.

Only a few days before, Dan Brown was mentioned at a talk given by the author Lionel Shriver that I attended. Shriver was making the point that even literary writers should ask themselves the question, ‘Does your book have some commercial appeal?’ For if it doesn’t, it’ll be unlikely to sell many copies and eventually you’ll be out of a publisher – something she herself had learned from past experience.

To illustrate her point she added (words to the following effect): ‘By that, I don’t mean you should try to be commercial. Dan Brown doesn’t try to be commercial. Dan Brown’s soul is commercial.’ Everyone laughed – not that Shriver’s intention was to put Dan Brown down, it wasn’t. Her point was a valid one, in that you should be true to yourself when writing, but don’t underestimate the importance of commercial appeal. However, I couldn’t help feeling slightly unsettled by the chorus of laughter in the packed-out Brighton Dome. Was I the only person in there who had enjoyed The Da Vinci Code? It’s a while since I read it, but I can’t remember his prose being worthy of quite so much negative criticism from across the media and Twittersphere. All I remember is that the plot swept me along and I found the historical theories fascinating. Sometimes I wonder: do critics jump on certain bandwagons because they don’t want to risk their reputation by admitting they liked something mainstream and popular?

I know there are people who only read literary novels, those who only read mass-market novels, and those who only read non-fiction. There are also those who rarely read anything outside their genre of choice, be it crime, chick lit, sci-fi or whatever’s being promoted on the 3-for-2 tables in Waterstone’s. But can I just put a shout-out for those of us who love a literary novel as much as an airport novel, or crime as much as comedy? I’ll read anything from a ghost story to a lesbian love story to a travel memoir, provided that by chapter 3, it’s got my attention by the short and curlies. I’m generally not biased.

After I left university, having spent four years wading through a reading list that made me want to hurl books out the window – Baudelaire, Sartre, Proust (I studied French) – the first book I bought to celebrate after graduating was Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was a long while before I felt ready to move on to anything even remotely more taxing. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate those revered French authors back then, although I’m in no great hurry to give them another try just yet. (Apart from Emile Zola, whose Germinal was the only book in those four years that I couldn’t put down.)

I’m about to start reading my third Lionel Shriver novel, the newly released Big Brother. I love Shriver’s writing. I find her to be sharp, unashamedly honest and I sense that we share the same thoughts and values about much of what goes on on our crazy planet. However, I don’t want to read literary novels back to back. Sometimes I just want pure escapism, a well-told story. I couldn’t give a toss if – like has been said of Dan Brown – the author writes in “blunt, mechanical sentences” and “the protagonist is as vanilla as they come”, provided that there’s a gripping plot laden with suspense. I think Dan Brown ticks the gripping plot box, and personally I think he’s got a gift.

I will end by saying this to all the Dan Brown-bashers out there: The Da Vinci Code has outsold every other novel in the world. I’d like to see you try.

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Five Beg For Mercy

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Whenever I try to read a book that I loved as a child to my own children, I’m often met with cries of protest. Never more so than when I force-read Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Smuggler’s Top to them.

‘You’re gonna LOVE it!’ I told them.

‘No we’re not!’ they cried.

But I was certain they’d change their minds once we’d got a few pages in. I was wrong. The moaning – or rather outright begging for mercy – continued for a good five chapters. And perhaps not surprisingly: some of the language was so old-fashioned, I found myself adopting an Enid Blytonesque accent to read it. (Or at least how I imagined she must have sounded when reading out lines such as: “It will be nice to see your mother again, George, she’s an awfully good sort.” )

After chapter 5, my eldest (who was 8 at the time of reading it last year) started to get into it. Victory! But not for long. Towards the end, her interest waned. We made it to the finish line after about three weeks, with my eldest grumbling, ‘Thank God that’s over.’ Since then I’ve avoided forcing my old favourites upon them, although they both love Roald Dahl. (Well, who doesn’t?)

Today, as my eldest is off school with a sore throat, I decided to compare some of her favourite books with some of my childhood favourite books. (Scroll down for our Top Tens.) I also interviewed her to find out why she liked what she did.

Me: Which is your favourite book out of the ones you’ve listed?’

Her: Ottoline Goes to Sea.

Me: Why?

Her: Just is.

Me: But why?

Her: It’s really cool.

Me: And it’s cool because…?

Her: It’s just great.

Me: Would you still love it as much without the illustrations?

Her: No.

Me: I’m just going to make a cup of tea. When I get back, I’m going to extract some real answers out of you, so get thinking!

Me: Right, why do you love Ottoline so much?

Her: Because it came with a pair of bog-goggles that helps you see the hidden things that only Mr Munroe can see.

Me: I see. I think what you really love about Ottoline is the illustrations.

Her: Yes.

Me: So which book on your list is the one you kept thinking about the most after you’d finished reading it?

Her: Esio Trot.

Me: Why?

Her: (She proceeds to give me a long explanation of the story because she read this one to herself and I’ve never read it.)

Me: So why did you keep thinking about it?

Her: I was thinking about the fact that Mr Hoppy lied to get someone to like him.

Me: Was he wrong to do that?

Her: Sort of.

Me: But did he do anyone any harm?

Her: No.

Her: Now ask me why I’ve chosen two David Walliams books.

Me: Why have you chosen two David Walliams books?

Her: He’s my favourite author and some of his books make me laugh and some of them make me sad. I really like Raj who runs the newsagents. He’s really funny and he’s in all the David Walliams books.

Me: And why do you like Mr Stink the best?

Her: Because you wouldn’t know what a tramp’s past was just by looking at them.

Me: Why didn’t you like The Famous Five?

Her: Cos I didn’t understand the language.

Me: But I explained the language as we went along.

Her: It was still boring. I don’t like old-fashioned books. I like new comedy books.

Me: I’m not holding out much hope for The Wind in the Willows then.

Her: Well I might like it.

Me: Good, stay open-minded.

Her: Can I play on your computer now?

Me: No, I’m using it. Thank you for your time. Go and do some reading.

Her: Do I get extra pocket money for helping you write your blogpost?

Me: Only if you pay me next time I help you with your homework.

Ten of my favourite books from when I was a child:

  1. Grinny by Nicholas Fisk
  2. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
  3. Five Go to Smuggler’s Top by Enid Blyton
  4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  5. Stig of the Dump by Clive King
  6. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
  8. Sleeping Beauty (Ladybird version 1965. I loved the illustrations by Eric Winter.)
  9. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  10. Father Christmas goes on Holiday by Raymond Briggs

Ten of my 9-year-old daughter’s favourite books:

  1. Mr Stink by David Walliams
  2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney
  3. Ottoline Goes to Sea by Chris Riddell
  4. Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
  5. Esio Trot by Roald Dahl
  6. I will not ever Never eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
  7. My Brother’s Famous Hot Cross Bottom by Jeremy Strong
  8. Judy Moody gets Famous by Megan McDonald
  9. Billionaire Boy by David Walliams
  10. Totally Winnie by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul