If you read Elisha Barber all the way to the end, you’ll find an Acknowledgements page. One of the first names on that page is Dan Brown. Yep, the same author everyone’s talking about this week, with the release of his latest title Inferno. Everyone’s talking, and many of the voices are loudly disparaging of Dan’s work.
I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brown for the first time at the Seacoast Writers’ Conference in New Hampshire a few years ago. Right before The DaVinci Code came out. He taught a workshop on writing the series character, and I found him to be an excellent teacher whose workshop helped me to craft the character and concept that became The Dark Apostle. In fact, when Davinci Code broke not only big, but enormous, complete with death threats, one of my regrets was that Dan retreated from much of public life, including his teaching career. That was a loss for his potential students.
Some of you who have suffered my critiques or reviews have noted that I sometimes refer to an author as being a great writer “on a word and sentence level.” What I mean is that the prose is well-crafted, beautiful and smooth. The grammar is excellent, the style is strong without interfering with my enjoyment of the story it’s trying to tell. Not all writers are great on that level–and not all of those who excel at style and grammar can actually write a great book.
Dan Brown has written books devoured by millions of readers. Every time I see a critic jump on his stylistic quirks and flaws, I wonder if they realize they are not only trashing the author, but also proclaiming that yes, millions of readers *can* be wrong. I’ve found my own share of fault with some aspects of Dan’s work, but one of my touchstone sayings, from the lips of Tor editor and Making Light blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is “What is important about a book is what happens in the mind of the reader.” Repeat that to yourself, authors (and critics). It’s important. Dan Brown makes extraordinary things happen in the mind of the reader. He takes them to distant, exciting places where they witness bizarre events, race to solve puzzles, and to stop crimes alongside a striking and unusual investigator. And 99% of his readers couldn’t care less about his style, as long as he delivers a ripping good yarn.
From the perspective of an author who aspires to the bestseller list (if not quite at the death threats and high fences level), rather than nit-pick the work of a popular author, I find it much more productive to ask what is he doing right? What does he create in these books, in this character, that makes readers return over and over? What elements are his readers thrilled by every time? In short, how can I once more be the student to this instructor?
If you want a start at discovering what Dan Brown, and many other big authors are achieving in their work, you might pick up a copy of Hit Lit, by James W. Hall, a recent work analyzing a group of best-sellers.
In the meantime, Dan and I have clearly been reading some of the same books–he typically spends at least a year researching his work–and I, for one, am curious to see what he’s made of them.