A response to a call-out

Maybe it’s that I’m in a slight­ly melan­choly mood today; maybe it’s the sud­den warm­ing trend out­side (-15 degrees? It’s like freakin’ Hawaii out there!); or maybe it’s irri­ta­tion. Pick one. Whichev­er you choose it be, I have decid­ed to respond to a ‘call out’ by a lit­er­ary peer.

Yes, this is rather sil­ly, and I enter it into the spir­it in which is was intend­ed, i.e. just for fun. Nev­er­the­less, a call out is a call out, and if it be either a school­yard scuf­fle or jail­house rules free-for-all, dammit, I’m no chick­en.

To sum­ma­rize the events to date:

On my last post as online writer-in-res­i­dencec with Open Book Toron­to, I made a snide lit­tle com­ment. To whit:

A friend sug­gest­ed that I end on some­thing con­tro­ver­sial to get peo­ple talk­ing, but that’s not me. I have my opin­ions, but this is not the venue. Oh, but if you ever meet me in per­son, I have some doozies to get off my chest.

Okay, one quick rant.

The breath­less antic­i­pa­tion of Dan Brown’s next piece of hack­neyed plot­ting to save the slump­ing pub­lish­ing indus­try makes me weep uncon­trol­lably. He’s a hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble author tru­ly unde­serv­ing of his fame. Seri­ous­ly.

There, I said it. Let the hate mail com­mence!

So, there you have it. I know what you’re think­ing; “Oooh, con­tro­ver­sial!” I believe from the tone and con­text that you can sur­mise

a) it was all meant as a lit­tle joke, and

b) I don’t care that much for Dan Brown (Not the most sur­pris­ing of sen­ti­ments from myself, if you’ve ever met me or read my nov­el [and if you haven’t, why are you still read­ing this?])

I thought that would be the end of it, but it appears this was not to be.

Last week, I was perus­ing the entries of Rick Blech­ta, my fol­low-up W-I-R at Open Book Toron­to. I’m not famil­iar with Mr. Blechta’s work, but he’s writ­ten a slew of nov­els, and has been nom­i­nat­ed for an Arthur Ellis Award, so he clear­ly knows his stuff. He also appears to be a nice guy.

But as I scanned, I came across the fol­low­ing:

My pre­de­ces­sor, Corey Redekop, took a run at this author in his last post­ing and it’s ran­kled with me a bit ever since. This cer­tain­ly won’t be a flame, Corey, but I think it was a cheap shot on your part: say some­thing con­tro­ver­sial and then run for the door.

I don’t think Dan Brown is a great author; I don’t think he’s a poor author, but he cer­tain­ly isn’t — how did you put it? — “a hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble author”. What is that pro­nounce­ment based on? His prose is rea­son­ably pol­ished, sen­tence con­struc­tion not bad, he makes his thoughts under­stood. A lot of pub­lished authors (and crit­i­cal­ly praised, too) don’t do as well.

Now, Rick admits that Brown is no genius; “Dan’s char­ac­ters are not very well fleshed out. I didn’t real­ly know much more about what makes them tick when I got to the end of the book. Dan also gives one the feel­ing that all his his­tor­i­cal pro­nounce­ments are based on fact and metic­u­lous research. I think time has proven that this was not the case, and it was stu­pid on his part to present it so.” He con­cludes:

So why did the book sell so many copies? Because peo­ple got caught up in the sto­ry. I know that I did. When I final­ly turned the last page, I sat there won­der­ing why I’d read the darn thing so breath­less­ly, but the fact of the mat­ter was that I had. In speak­ing to oth­er peo­ple, I found the book had had the same effect on them. There is cer­tain­ly some writ­ing skill involved if an author can do that.

Come on, Corey, his plots aren’t what I would call “hack­neyed”. It had some neat twists and the puz­zle aspect of it was pret­ty cool. Bot­tom line: Dan Brown can tell a good sto­ry.

I guess it could all be summed up like this: don’t judge a book by its sales.

So, my response:

First, you’re right. It was a cheap shot. It was a joke, but maybe I should have backed it up. I think Dan Brown can han­dle the crit­i­cism (mil­lions of dol­lars in sales do tend to cre­ate a com­fort­able buffer zone), but yeah, it was cheap.

And yes, while I could expound at length on my sub­jec­tive view that Dan Brown’s prose is hor­rid, I could nev­er reach the heights of Mark Steyn’s con­cise dis­sec­tion of Brown’s style (and believe me, it kills me to agree with any­thing Steyn has to say).

But I take some offence at the notion that I do not care for him because of his sales. That’s sil­ly. Many, many tal­ent­ed authors sell well, as do the no-tal­ents. And many, many, many tal­ent­ed authors lan­guish in obscu­ri­ty, along with a healthy amount of hacks. The argu­ment that Brown’s sales in some way cloud my judg­ment is laugh­able.

I do not like Dan Brown because (and I will not back down from this) Dan Brown is no good. I rarely read nov­els that cause me to phys­i­cal­ly throw the book across the room in dis­gust (repeat­ed­ly), but Brown achieved that dis­tinc­tion hand­i­ly. Twice. I read Dig­i­tal Fortress, and that nov­el took a severe beat­ing. I read The Da Vin­ci Code because I felt it couldn’t be worse, and every­one was telling me it was so much bet­ter. Yeah. That copy was lucky it wasn’t mine; I prob­a­bly would have fed it to the shred­der oth­er­wise. Brown’s prose is frankly awful, his grasp of nar­ra­tive flow nonex­is­tent, and his char­ac­ters (as Rick notes) are so one-dimen­sion­al as to be invis­i­ble.

It is not his hack­neyed plots. I ful­ly sub­scribe to the notion that it is not the sto­ry that is impor­tant, but how it is told. Ter­rif­ic fic­tions have been writ­ten from the most ridicu­lous ideas imag­in­able. Do I believe that vam­pires could destroy a small town? No, but Stephen King makes me believe it. Can I find it plau­si­ble that there are schools of witch­craft in Eng­land? Nope, but J.K. Rowl­ing con­vinces me. Dan Brown does not con­vince me.

But maybe that’s too strict a guide­line. What about the enter­tain­ing nov­els you nev­er ful­ly engage in? Sad­ly, Brown doesn’t even qual­i­fy as good pulp. Or good bad pulp. I nev­er for a moment buy any­thing that occurs in The Destroy­er series, but darned if I don’t read them (go Remo!).

Brown is awful, a one-trick pony whose trick ain’t that great. He has one plot, and recy­cles it again and again; the hero has 24 hours to over­come a series of ludi­crous plot twists. There’s a killer with a weird phys­i­cal quirk (a deaf-mute, an albi­no). There’s a mys­te­ri­ous mas­ter­mind behind it all whose iden­ti­ty is secret, yet is obvi­ous to any­one who has sat through a few episodes of Mur­der, She Wrote.

Now, to give Brown cred­it, at least he pre­sum­ably writes his own mate­r­i­al, and has not tak­en to writ­ing by com­mit­tee a la James Pat­ter­son. He does a lot of research, and the stuff he digs up is kin­da neat. But who cares, when the prod­uct is so poor?

I hope I’ve laid the crit­i­cism to rest. If you like Dan Brown, then fine. Dif­fer­ent strokes, dif­fer­ent folks. I care not if he sells a zil­lion copies of his next work. I would like­ly sell my soul for a piece of the action. But Rick, it is a cheap shot of your own to assume my dis­like is based on sales or jeal­ousy. I’ve inter-library loaned a few of your nov­els, and can’t wait to read them. Unlike Brown, I’m pos­i­tive you’ve got tal­ent.

Let’s lay the feud to rest, and agree to dis­agree. I don’t want to be like John Irv­ing and Tom Wolfe snip­ing at each oth­er like fifth-graders at recess.

Now, about James Pat­ter­son…ugh!