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.