The Dan Brown contest

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I'm not usually on the Dan Brown desk here at Language Log Plaza — that's Geoff Pullum's domain — but this one came to me (from Bruce Webster). By Tom Chivers on the Telegraph's site:

The Lost Symbol, the latest novel by The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, has gone on sale. We pick 20 of the clumsiest phrases from it and from his earlier works.

Chivers quotes Geoff P. on Brown's writing. And there's space for comments and for nominations of further regrettable quotes from the Brownian oeuvre.


  1. bulbul said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    Where is Geoff P. anyway? I'm sure I'm not the only one who can't wait for him to go all, well, Pullum on "The Lost Symbol".
    Spoiler alert: no formulaic opening sentence this time and no anarthrous NPs, either. But still plenty of material for all Joels, Crow T. Robots and Tom Servos out there.

  2. marie-lucie said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    For alternatives to Dan Brown if you like the genre:,news,dont-buy-dan-brown-s-the-lost-symbol-read-these-books-instead-review

  3. Jair said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    I've never read Dan Brown, and I'm sure I won't anytime soon, after reading that article and Pullum's hilarious analysis. He seems incompetent, but I don't want to judge him too harshly based on a few select sentences. But I do have to take issue with the "show, don't tell" rule. Perhaps it's the more modern style of writing, but I don't see it as obviously superior to other styles. The prose cited is:

    "Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal — wisp of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete."

    This is not especially brilliant writing, but it's functional, and hardly unusual in style. Compare this to the following passage from Great Expectations:

    "Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow — a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness."

    It seems to me whatever criticism is laid on Brown for telling instead of showing would fall equally upon Dickens and many, many other authors whose prose is routinely worshiped by critics. There are other reasons to prefer Dickens to Brown – just based on the two paragraphs I would say Dickens seems warm and funny, while Brown comes off as a bit smarmy. But I'd appreciate if the editors would criticize sentences with a bit more care than simple-minded Creative Writing 101 catch phrases.

  4. Lazar said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    @Jair: I agree; that was one of their weaker criticisms.

  5. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Steven Poole is a day later than Chivers, but this is undiluted Lost Symbol.

    "Ah — now this is why Dan Brown is Dan Brown."

  6. kyle gorman said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    some of you may enjoy this author's attempt at a line-by-line edit of dan brown…(i'm unaffiliated)

  7. The Dan Brown contest « Old School Hacker said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    […] [From The Dan Brown contest] […]

  8. The Ridger said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

    Dan Brown is not a great writer, but he spins one helluva yarn and that makes his failings easy to overlook – though not ignore… at least in some of the books.

  9. HP said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    I'm reminded of the time some twenty years ago, before the rise of the World Wide Web, when someone brought a copy of The Bridges of Madison County in to work, and we spent the whole day passing it around and giggling.

    You know, I'm hardly a literature maven — most of my pleasure reading consists of mid-century pulps. But at least Clark Ashton Smith had his charms. And it seems to me that there's a gulf between misusing a word like arras and misusing remind.

    Or perhaps I really am that old.

  10. Mark F. said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 12:29 am

    Is it entirely the case that Brown's books are popular despite his writing style, or is there something about his prose that actually makes them work? Maybe not, maybe it's just the pacing, storyline, subject matter, or whatever. But I don't think that's true. It's always seemed to me as if some writers of cheap genre fiction had a writing style that I liked more than others, even if I'd have trouble pointing to a single particularly well-crafted sentence in one, or a single bad one in another. I remember enjoying Alan Dean Foster's novelization of Star Wars as a kid, but being unable to get through Donald Glut's Empire Strikes Back book, even though the narratives of both were of a piece. I have a feeling that if Glut had written The Da Vinci Code, I wouldn't have gotten through it, but in fact I found it difficult to put down. Despite thinking it was crap the whole time.

    It'd be interesting to understand what it is linguistically that good bad fiction does right, as opposed to inferior bad fiction. It might even be profitable.

  11. D.O. said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 1:20 am

    Mark F., maybe it's just accident + snowballing. Remember, DB wrote 3 novels before da Vinci with almost identical story lines and characters and one even having the same Langdon-guy as a protagonist and the Vatican as an arch-rival. None of the three were particularily succesful.

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 8:21 am

    Hugo Rifkind has a Dan Brown spoof in today's Times which some here may find amusing.

  13. marie-lucie said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    I have not read Dan Brown's works, nor do I intend to do so, but I looked at the link and also at the numerous comments from readers. The majority of people liked Dan Brown's work and poured scorn on the "elitists" who were probably jealous of his success, but there were quite a number who had bought the book and did not finish it because it was so bad, not just in terms of style but also of plot inconsistencies and even absurdities.

    One thing that struck me about the comments was that many people thought that the 20 sentences were being criticized for their "grammar", while actually the cricitism was directed at the vocabulary and style, with a few errors of fact, not at any grammatical errors. Another thing that came to mind after reading those comments is that Dan Brown's fans are not at all bothered by the clichés or the excessive amount of detail, often in the wrong place: perhaps this is because their main reading matter is the newspaper, and newspaper journalists usually try to pack a lot of detail in a single sentence. So "45-year-old best-selling British author Dan Brown" is typical journalism, although a similar phrase describing the protagonist of a novel while in action is overkill.

    As for comparing Brown to Dickens: the physical details of the Brown portrait of the man would be OK, but "the erudite look" is hardly compatible with "the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete" (even assuming that only such athletes, and all of them, have a "strong, carefree" smile). Dickens would not be so inconsistent, and he describes what seems like a real person, rather than piling up bits and pieces of haphazard characterization.

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    I have a rule that I'll read 50 pages or 10 percent (whichever comes first) of any book that I begin, and I've broken it less than a half-dozen times in approximately 50 years. I barely made it through 20 pages of The DaVinci Code.
    Another, rather similar author who forced me to break my own rule was Irving Wallace. Wallace, I gather, could also put together a pretty good story, in terms of plot, but his writing was execrable–perhaps even worse than Brown's.

  15. Mark F. said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    D.O. — Luck and snowballing certainly have a lot to do with why The Da Vinci Code was so ridiculously huge. But there's no way that can be a sufficient explanation. People actually liked the book. They often thought they were learning something about history from it, which is a shame, but I'm sure that mirage wasn't all they liked about it. I just wonder if the book would have been such an effective button-pusher if the prose had been less purple.

  16. Theo Vosse said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    The Pullum Anarthery

    Best-selling novel author Dan Brown looked woundedly around his pristine office in his English manor. His otherwise 20/20 vision started to blur until he could only identify shadowy shapes. The pain in his back was killing him. He felt his still warm blood trickling out of the wound that the 7-inch Santoku knife was inhabiting. “Dios mío,” he whispered, “por qué me ha abandonado?” Slowly, he crawled his way over to the huge Rembrandt that he had acquired only two weeks ago. The expensive masterpiece, depicting the wrath of God, loomed over the office as an eternal judgment. Even now, he could appreciate the composition and use of claire obscure of the 15th century work of the Renaissance genius.

    At the end of his Latin, the writer and millionaire pulled himself up to reach the painting and tried to move it from the wall. Although waning, his consciousness held on to life as a fish to bait. Touching the painting would set off the alarm, it told him, after which members of his private guard would rush over, hopefully in time to save his life. As he reached for the painting with all of his might, the dark silhouette of his assassin slid away through the French garden doors into the moonlit Japanese garden, leaving his signature behind: a mysterious card with the two line inscription in golden letters inequivocally stating

    kill kill VBZ VB 0 verb_arg12 ARG2 them they PRP PRP 1

  17. The effin' bear said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Jair – I think the difference is that DB would have rendered that passage from Dickens something more like this:

    'Blacksmith Joe Gargery was a fair forty-four-year-old adult human male, with curls of flaxen hair falling like a lion's mane on each side of his face, and with eyes on his face of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites, like a chameleon walking across the star-emblazoned corner of a huge star spangled banner laid on the ground. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow — a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.'

    Nothing to change with that last phrase — in constructing that one, Dickens is, I think, adopting a Brownsian flair. It is maybe a little too literary for DB, assuming a knowledge of obscure literary characters, so I would maybe suggest changing 'Hercules' to something more iconic.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Is Hercules an "obscure literary character"? He wasn't invented by a writer but is part of Greek mythology, and I think that most literate people in Dickens' time would have been at least vaguely familiar with the figure, even if they did not know all the stories about him. In French "un hercule" was a popular way of referring to a very strong, burly man, especially one who made a show of his strength in circuses or similar public exhibitions.

  19. D.O. said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    Well, DB's concoction includes thriller, mystery, conspiracy plus some sort of history and tech (geologists in Arctica, NSA nerds, professors flying on ICBMs). Probably adding history was the key. Overall, it is very much like "National treasure".

  20. The other Mark P said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    One thing that struck me about the comments was that many people thought that the 20 sentences were being criticized for their "grammar", while actually the cricitism was directed at the vocabulary and style, with a few errors of fact, not at any grammatical errors.

    The thing that struck me was that Mr Brown's defenders resorted entirely to ad hominen attacks (citing jealously mostly) or resorts to authority (he sells well, therefore he must be good). A few managed arguments of irrelevance ("it doesn't matter that he writes badly"), which is at least logical, if a trifle disturbing to read about a writer.

    None actually came out and said: "No, you are wrong. He writes well. And this is why …"

    Presumably because it is impossible to do so.

  21. The effin' bear said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

    One commenter accuses Geoff Pullum of sitting in an "academic jumper," going on to slander his bravery. The commenter (jimbob) seems to imply that pacing, energy, and plot are what matter most in writing, failing to defend DB's writing style.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 12:18 am

    The other Mark P: I agree with you that those ad hominem comments were prominent, but I was restricting myself to the comments having to do with language.

  23. Malvolio said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    "Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow — a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness."

    That's terrific prose, but some of its strength may have been diluted by cultural changes of the intervening 150 years.

    "Decided" at the time would have taken to mean what "definite" or "pronounced" means now and Dickens is having a little fun with it by calling Joe's eye color "undecided" and going the color mixing with the white.

    Joe being Hercules in strength (that is, in raw physical strength) and in weakness refers to Hercules' uxoriousness: his love for his third wife Deianira (and her jealousy of him) ultimately led to his death. Joe is similarly fond of the termagant Mrs. Joe. I imagine that at the time Dicken wrote the line, he was anticipating some disturbing fate for Joe at the hands of the wife, then thought better of it but could not retract the already-published early chapter. (Can you even imagine how much worse Brown's work would be if he had to write serially and couldn't go back to previous chapter to fix up plot points?)

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