What’s so bad about Dan Brown’s writing anyway?

Language Log is a language blog run by a team of terrifyingly intelligent linguists–I can follow about half the content on a  no-hangover day. LL began in 2003; I discovered it only last week (throat slash). I have since moved from admiring to obsessing–checking the contributors’ rankings on Rate My Professor, googling their images, forcing my husband to read a year’s worth of their archived posts (with no pee breaks), and much more.  Here is an excerpt from the post that made me a  linguistics professors groupie.   

“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don’t do it in describing an event in a narrative. So this might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.

But Brown packs such details into the first two words of an action sequence — details of not only his protagonist’s profession but also his prestige in the field. It doesn’t work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance, of course, to what is being narrated (Saunière is fleeing an attacker and pulls down the painting to trigger the alarm system and the security gates). We could have deduced that he would be fairly well known in the museum trade from the fact that he was curating at the Louvre.

The writing goes on in similar vein, committing style and word choice blunders in almost every paragraph (sometimes every line). Look at the phrase “the seventy-six-year-old man”. It’s a complete let-down: we knew he was a man — the anaphoric  pronoun “he” had just been used to refer to him. (This is perhaps where “curator” could have been slipped in for the first time, without “renowned”, if the passage were rewritten.) Look at “heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” We don’t need to know it’s a masterpiece (it’s a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre, that should be enough in the way of credentials, for heaven’s sake). Surely “toward him” feels better than “toward himself” (though I guess both are grammatical here). Surely “tore from the wall” should be “tore away from the wall”. Surely a single man can’t fall into a heap (there’s only him, that’s not a heap). And why repeat the name “Saunière” here instead of the pronoun “he”? Who else is around? …”

Read the rest of the post (there’s a lot more) here.

Write Pullum (the author of the excerpted post) a mash note. Donate your Dan Browns to Oxfam. Burn your ms. I’m undecided whether my admiration for this piece overshadows my humiliation at having committed similar  errors in my writing, but I know this much is true: every aspiring writer should subscribe to LL’s feed, if only to avoid a similar Pullum post on your future novel.

8 responses to “What’s so bad about Dan Brown’s writing anyway?

  1. Even that tiny extract is enough to set someone on the road to being a Pullum groupie, Niru. I’ve read DVC three times (well, one of those times was when I nursing and would have read anything, but that’s neither here nor there), and while I had several bones to pick with the book, I never realises the language equivalent of an overstuffed sofa was one of them.
    After reading that extract, I feel even someone like me can re-write the passage. The question is – why did nobody do it BEFORE the book became the bestseller that it did?

  2. Pingback: Dependency ratio » Real Writing Jobs.

  3. @ Rayna: Aaah, nursing. When your brain cells leak out along with your milk…

    From what I’ve heard, DVC wasn’t expected to be so enormous–Brown’s earlier novels (A&D, DF) weren’t big sellers when they were first published. So I guess his eds. didn’t think his writing would be subject to such scrutiny. And now, given his success, they probably wouldn’t dare touch his writing anyway.

  4. This is hilarious and brilliant. Thanks for the tip!

  5. i am not expert in linguistics…. so i wont comment on that… but as to popularity of DVC I think it had more to do with the controversy that it created rather that the literary value…

  6. @ Shripriya: Isn’t he bloody fantastic?

    @ Aayushraj: You are right–Brown’s readers don’t buy the books for the writing, but for the plot. But one doesn’t preclude the other. A DVC with tight, error-free prose–that reading experience would be so much more pleasurable.

  7. However, perhaps sometimes, language style is used to emphasise.For instance,: ‘
    “heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” We don’t need to know it’s a masterpiece (it’s a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre, that should be enough in the way of credentials, for heaven’s sake). ‘

    The word ‘masterpiece’ may be used to emphasise the effect that the ‘old man’ is tearing such a priceless painting off the wall, and act emphasised by the continual references to age (surely a physical feat) and that he is a curator, a lover of art who would not normally teara painting off a wall. I’m not saying certain word choices are not inappropriate or perhaps a little excessive, but the subjectiveness of English can perhap show some real value in the writing too. Numerous people have found this an ‘addictive’ book, which no matter what the controversial subject matter ( as this was not Brown’s first popular book), may have resulted from some linguistic style?

  8. You are just over exxagerating his writing style Your just a ignorant bigoted PERSON ….DAN BROWN IS AN EXCELLENT WRITER…Unlike you, i fell asleep reading your stupid reasons on small petty phrases…DONT BULLSHIT US PLEASE:p No wonder, hes a success…He knows how to pace the audience’s hearts and trails of suspense hang from every where…YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED… Your article was disgusting to read. I swear.

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