No one who cares about literature would accuse Dan Brown of being a great writer. The info-dump dialogue, the unnecessary inner monologues, the lol-tastic punctuation that makes characters sound like William Shatner (“Doing … some hiking, Mr. President?”). My eighth grade English teacher would have sent Dan out into the hall to think about what he’d done.
But after giving the audiobook of The Lost Symbol a fair shot, I’d like to suggest that maybe we should give Dan a break.
See, I’ve written a book, and it was hard. Like, really hard. It left me with a newfound respect for anyone who can even finish writing a novel, let alone get it published. But that’s not why I’m picking Dan out of the crowd. See, for all our huffing and puffing about his prose, like it or not, there’s a reason Dan’s books are so popular. Here’s what I’m learning from reading them:
1. Building tension
It’s hard to build tension with finesse, and I wouldn’t say that Dan succeeds entirely. But he can describe something important– a room, a painting, a completely unknown object– without actually telling you why it’s so important. You just know that it is. And it’s so important, in fact, that as the tension builds before the reveal, you’re cursing the characters out loud and saying, “For fuck’s sake, just tell me what’s behind the goddamn door!” Dan frustrates you and makes you love it.
2. How to use flashbacks
I’m going to argue, flat-out, that Dan Brown is a master of flashbacks. As I neared the end of The Lost Symbol, I was shocked to realize that all of the “present” events happened in the span of twenty-four hours, yet I know all the pertinent backstories. I’d been flash-backed seven ways from Sunday, and I didn’t even notice.
3. Leaving readers feeling smarter than they were
Look, a lot of the connections Dan draws between historical events are conjecture at best and bullshit at worst. That’s called fiction. The flip side is that most of his origin stories and obscure facts are accurate (example: the statue of Moses in the Library of Congress does, in fact, have horns due to a mistranslation of Biblical text). His books leave readers feeling smarter at the end than they did at the start, and that’s one of the key reasons people love him.
4. Tying up loose ends
There’s a lot going on in Dan’s books, a lot of cogs in the machine. You know all the storylines are interconnected, but you’re not sure how until the end. And when it does happen, you can look back through all the twists and turns and see how everything fell neatly into place, usually without the use of any deus ex machina. This might sound easy to do. It’s not. That’s not to say that he doesn’t leave some loose ends or employ the use of convenient timing, but by and large, Dan’s books tend to be neatly woven.
Like I said, I’ll never argue that Dan Brown is a great writer. He’ll never deserve a place on the top shelf with Milton and Nabokov. But I will concede that I’m learning about these four points by listening to his audiobooks. And if nothing else, they’re keeping me sane during rush hour traffic.
What about you guys? Have you ever changed your opinion about a writer you previously disliked? What kinds of things have you learned from “trash” fiction?