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The Conspiracy Artist

Geoffrey K. Pullum
"Dan Brown is America."
09/22/09 at 14:40

I love Dan Brown. I love the open, friendly face of his author photo and his inspirational success story. He struggled with novel writing, achieving real success only at the fourth attempt. He reminds us all that hard work and determination count for something. Fame doesn't tap on your door, having heard about your genius from afar; you have to work at it the way Americans have always worked at marketing crazy ideas and tacky real estate and useless software and outrageously risky financial products and bad fast food.

Trash gets sold, yes; indeed, it gets moved off loading docks by the container-load. But there is something wonderful about that.

Dan Brown is a skilled adventure-plotter whose writing, by any literary or linguistic standard, is medium to dreadful, but it is stacked up on pallets in Costco. He doesn't try to fix his writing; it's much as it was in his first novel. He doesn't pose as a literary giant any more than Paris Hilton tries to pretend she has a doctorate. He is who he is.

Dan Brown is America.

Don't think that's a put-down of America, either. I write from Scotland, but I'm just one of the hundreds of American citizens who work for the University of Edinburgh. I love America, and Dan Brown is us.

Let me tell you the funniest, most delightful thing I have noticed so far about Dan's prose in The Lost Symbol. A huge proportion of his common nouns (my current estimate is nearly 40 percent) are preceded by attributive-adjective modifiers. Dan piles them on like extra whipped cream on apple pie.

No sound can be just a crack for him, it has to be a "staccato" crack (not one of those smooth, gradual crack sounds). The cabin of a corporate jet has to be an "enormous" cabin; Peter Solomon's wealth must be "massive" wealth, not just from a dynasty but from an "influential family" dynasty. And the January air at Dulles airport is (surprise!) "cold" January air; the fog is a blanket of "white" fog, beneath which is a "misty" tarmac. (In case you didn't get that: There is fog, okay?)

Now, the chapter on style that E. B. White added to William Strunk's book The Elements of Style in 1957 tells us: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." That is deeply silly advice. I am well known to despise the notion that The Elements of Style is some kind of holy text on grammar and style and writing. White called upon two adjectives in the dozen words following his edict — he actually uses more adjectives than many other writers do. However, there is definitely something White was warning against, and Dan shows us what it is.

Dan cannot trust us to approach a noun on our own. He has to mediate our access with a descriptor. A man cannot get out of a car; he has to be a "professional-looking" man. He cannot wear a suit; it must be a "dark" suit — even the Lincoln Town Car in question cannot just sit there as the professional-looking man in the dark suit gets out of it; we have to be told it is a "sleek" Lincoln Town Car. One's head swims with adjectives.

No one hates White's pontifications on writing more than I do. Mechanically altering your prose in just the way White demands like banning adjectives completely would in general be disastrous for your literary health. Yet Dan Brown violates White's edict so copiously (and often so redundantly) that even I get modifier indigestion.

What we have, then, is a world where Allyn & Bacon make a fortune selling the book in which White tells you not to write like Dan Brown, while Doubleday makes a fortune selling a novel in which Dan Brown writes exactly the way White said you shouldn't! It's beautiful. Brown and White ignore each other completely, and each richly deserves it, yet each sells in the millions (to different sectors of the public, one assumes, though you never know). It's so ironically lovely it brings tears to my eyes.

Wet tears to my weeping eyes, as Dan would put it.


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