Friday, 25 September 2009

Humbug



Can there be anyone in the world who has missed the hoo-ha surrounding the release of Dan Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol.

Booksellers across the land have been inundated with advance orders and queries about this most awaited of books. Sales are set to outstrip his previous block buster, The Da Vince Code with a first print run of millions.

At a time when the economy is on its knees and the publishing industry is feeling the pain, you'd imagine a feel good story of this magnitude would be greeted with joyful relief.

Getting the public into shops or on line stores can only spell good news. If a punter pops into Smiths for a copy of The Lost Symbol the chances are pretty high that he will walk out with something else too, particularly with all the discounting and special offers around to tempt the innocent. And who has ever placed an order on Amazon for just one book?

It's not rocket science. The more books people buy, the better authors' advances, the more new books get picked up.

Yet Dan Brown's success has, in some quarters, been met with only derision and sneering.

Hundreds of column inches in the loftier press have been devoted to rubbishing his latest effort, in much the same way that DVC was rubbished. 'It's not very well written,' sniffed one radio four presenter to a patient and extraordinarily gracious Kate Mosse. Who are any of us to say what is good or not, was her response.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. If someone reads TLS and finds it not to their taste, well, you know, shit happens. I don't love a lot of books I read. But it is hardly worth the tirade of condemnation that is currently pouring from the self appointed arbiters of good taste.

And that's the point really. The wave of sniping from the chattering commentators says more about them than the book in question. They did the same to JKR and Meyers. It's as if they take their stand point against Dan Brown precisely because he is so popular. If they loath what the common man likes, it sets them apart. It makes them cleverer, better...

Good old fashioned snobbery. Don't you just love it.

But here's the thing. The opinions of a handful of journos who live in North London and are still bitter about not being able to send their kids to private school, are neither here nor there, but it's very easy to get sucked in.

Frequently, I hear writers bemoaning the commercial success of Brown et al. If only it weren't for Harry Potter, my own genius would have been discovered...

But we must not fall into this lazy trap. As writers who are still seeking a publisher or whose published works have not sold like Brown ( and frankly, none of us have), there is no room for flippant mockery of those who have cracked it.

We shouldn't focus on the 'lack of texture', or the 'one dimensional characters.' We shouldn't focus on what is wrong with these stories, but what is right with them.

Whether we like it or not, Brown, JKR, and Meyers have touched the hearts of millions. Their message has reached an audience the size of which is usually reserved for religious leaders and Brad Pitt.

A writer who believes they have nothing to learn from the most successful authors of this generation are deluded, or arrogant, or both. Frankly they deserve their failures.

So fellow scribblers, as TLS remains at the top of the best sellers list for longer than Summer Loving was number one, banish bitterness from your heart.

Pick up a copy and read it with an open mind. You don't have to love it. You don't even have to like it.

Just ask yourself; what is right with this story.

40 comments:

Bernadette said...

Excellent post!

I get very irritated with people who say a book is rubbish and then later admit that they haven't read it. As you say, you don't have to like it, but as writers you probably should read it.

And other people don't have to read it if they don't want to - there are many books I just don't fancy - but they don't then have the right to an opinion on it either.

Helen Black said...

I don't get that either - rubbishing a book you haven't read.
A bit like saying you don't like someone you've never met.
What you're really saying is you don't like the very idea of them...which leads us right back to snobbery.
HB x

Dan Holloway said...

Ha ha! When I saw this on my blog roll I thought it might be a review of the new Arctic Monkeys album.

I get sick of the Dan-bashing by fellow authors. Worst of all is the cryptic "he tells a good story" type of comment, laced with an implied "but" - "but he can't write" "but it's not good fiction" "but the technique's awful".

The fact is he DOES write a good story. And his writing is damn good as well. I really don't like thrillers. I'm a Murakami guy who likes his fiction weird and literary. But I love Dan Brown. Because he's a bloody good writer

Gillian McDade said...

Excellent post with plenty of food for thought. I read DVC and Angels and Demons, but have yet to read The Lost Symbol. I probably will though at some point!

CarolineG said...

Well here is one North London journo who agrees with you, Helen!
Great post.
I think anyone who makes people excited about books is to be applauded.

Deb said...

Great post, Helen. Unfortunately I think the reaction to Dan Brown is very typical of us Brits. We're not a great nation for celebrating success, are we? There's always that 'but' - 'but, it was poorly written', 'but, the dialogue wasn't great' etc. It's a great shame because if Brown's, Rowling's, etc, books really were that crap, then the public wouldn't keep buying them.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Great post. I've never read any of DB's books but my daughter who's not really a 'reader' has loved them all.
I for one would love that accolade - imagine being able to tease someone back to reading with your work.
Good luck to him.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Well done, Helen! I've never read any of Dan Brown's books - yet - nor, for that matter, J.K. Rowling's or Stephanie Meyer's or Jodi Picault's - but I absolutely agree that dissing a book because it's popular is sad and snobbish.
Susiex

Samantha Tonge said...

Hear, hear, Helen - I for one get sick of snotty conversations rubbishing Meyer, Rowling and the like. Give me a huge audience rather than the Booker any day.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Well I've not read him either, but I probably won't and for the most part that will be down to the poor reviews he's had. Frankly, I've got such a huge pile of books I really do want to read that I'm loathe to read one I don't want to purely so I can have an opinion.

I'm the same with films too, as a rule and tend to shy away from the blockbuster in favour of more indy films.

So I'm staying out of this debate. I can't imagine DB could care less what I think, anyway!

Samantha Tonge said...

I have to say i couldn't put the DVC down until i'd finished it.

I guess it all boils down to that old argument of what's good writing - the nuts and bolts of how the prose is constructed, or the page-turnability of the story...

Roderic Vincent said...

Personally I prefer books that are well written with a crap story, that's what I aspire to write. But I only came over here for a group hug.

Geraldine Ryan said...

You can have one any time, Rod! I'm sure I speak for the other SW'ers.

Samantha Tonge said...

Eh, Rod, ying and yang you and me - seriously though, however well-written a book is, i couldn't read it if the story didn't grab me. I don't admire prose, i admire characters and plots.

How about a group fight instead?:)

Derek said...

Here here, at the end of the day we are each here to become authentic writers. If Dan Brown reaches the masses, irrespective of his actual writing prowess (and I've never read him either, although I didn't enjoy the film at all), then good luck to him. When I tell people that I write and that my output includes anecdotes for Prima magazine and what may politely be termed 'knob gags', I'm sometimes told that it's not proper writing. But you have to be who you are and write what you write. Greetings card, anyone?!

Helen Black said...

All these good folks agreeing with me.
Come on there must be some out there who think DB is the work of the devil.
That JKR is single handedly bringing down the children's publishing industry.
In the words of the great Mrs Merton, 'let's have a heated debate.'

TOM J VOWLER said...

As a aetheist fundamentalist, I don't believe he's the work of the Devil. But a lot of these statments are clearly untrue.

Firstly, that the more books DB sells, the more new writers are published. Wrong. It's actually the opposite.

Secondly, that his books have touched the hearts of millions. I mean, hearts? Really? That's like saying Friends is the most affecting, profound drama to have been on TV.

Thirdly, saying he is a bloody good writer is absurd. That's what all the fuss, and the essence of this blog, is about. He can't write, hence the indignation from literary circles. He makes Jeffrey Archer look like a great stylist. His books sell well, people enjoy them, but that's something entirely different.

Helen Black said...

Tom, Tom, Tom...this is more like it.

What makes you say no more new books are published?
When, for example, the Half Blood Prince came out sales jumped by £17m. only 15m of that was for the book in question. This means the rest of us sold more books off the back of JKR.
And that year the amount of new acquisitions hit an all time high.

I accept that DB may not have touched the heart of millions, but he has excited millions and enticed them to read and buy books.
And Meyers and JK have certainly touched the heart of every kid I know, including my own, in a way that very few other authors have. They queued up to by the new books. That's commitment surely?

And as for what is well written, Well who decides that?
I'm just an author. It's not my job to say what is good and what aint. The only person with a CV for that is the reader.
HB x

TOM J VOWLER said...

Certainly taste is subjective, Helen. Each to their own, certainly. But if say, whilst judging a short story comp, I received a piece littered with grammatical errors, laden with clumsy descriptions, choking on adverbs, lacking any depth or sophistication, awkward, telling me how to feel, how the characters feel, instead of showing me, ridden with cliche...I would likely reject it on the grounds of being not very good writing, which is not subjective. :)

Samantha Tonge said...

So why has he sold so well, Tom?? I mean, hype can explain a few of the sales, but not millions.

Certain literary circles' view of what makes a good book is vastly different from that of your Average Joe.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Ooh, now I've got to wade in. 'Can't write' - that's a very sweeping statement, based on what's been traditionally agreed on in literary circles as 'good writing'. In other words, Thou Shalt Not Litter With Adjectives, Thou Shslt Not Use Cliches etc have become the measuring rules for whether or not you are A Good Writer. Stylistically, such things can be grounds for judgement about the experience or ability of a writer, but they don't encompass the ability to tell a compelling story. Friends is an extremely well-made television series, even though it doesn't touch depths/use symbols/have deep themes. Deal or No Deal is an extremely cleverly conceived programme. OK, they aren't Costume Drama, but they contribute in their own way. It's only when you start measuring one against another that the problems creep in. Is a daddy-long-legs 'better' than an elephant?
Er, I'll just go and lie down now.
Susiex

Helen Black said...

See, I could never make a judge.
I know when I read something if I enjoyed it or not, but even that can depend upon my mood, where I am etc.
I think of writing very much like cooking. If my guests clear their plates and ask for seconds then it's a 'good' meal. It's ingredients and the technique's used are immaterial.

Helen Black said...

Its not it's.
Gone mad today.

AL Milton said...

Well said Tom. I actually agree entirely with what you said, and I'm glad someone had the balls to get up here and say it!

Helen Black said...

To be fair - the entire broadsheet press and radio four are saying what Tom said, so it's not brave new world stuff.
And they said it about JK and Meyers.

But I still say any writer worth their salt must ask themselves why it is that readers love these books.
Afterall, aren't we all just in this game to communicate with the readership?
HB x

Brian Keaney said...

I've tried to read DVC twice and each time I gave up without making any significant headway. This is certainly not because I resent his success. I like to see writers getting rich. It cheers me up no end. I just didn't enjoy the way it was written and, as someone who was brought up a Catholic, I was unable to take the notion of a homicidal Opus Dei monk seriously.(For a start there are no monks in Opus Dei.) The admittedly tiny amount of the book that I read struck me as too silly for words with characterisation worthy of a pantomime. That's not snobbery it's a genuine response to a text. I haven't read the book but I know what I think of it because it isn't necessary to finish a book to dislike it any more than it is necessary to finish a bottle of wine to know it's vinegary. And just for the record I live in South London and sent my children to the nearest comprehensive school.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

I'm with Tom.

I'm not in the game to communicate with the readership at the expense of literary merit. I haven't read TLS, but I did plough through DVC, and Brown's work is clunky and badly written in every way Tom noted. He's succeeded because of the immense jet-pack of the popular media and film industry propelling him along. 'Non-readers' read him because he's pushed in their faces, not because they've consciously rejected, say, Faulkner, in favour of Brown. I don't care if half the world says he's their favourite writer - that's entirely their perogative - what does bother me is when sales figures are taken as the ultimate indication of success. What about literary merit? Stylistic innovation? Rounded characters? Why is it illegitimate to criticse Brown on those things? Because he's rich and famous? He's selling books like all the other writers; can't he be judged on the same criteria? I'm a writer, and I like good prose, so when people tell me I should learn from Dan Brown, it makes me cringe.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Oh goody! A lively debate! Now, where was I and what was I doing?

Helen Black said...

Valerie I think you do the book buying public a huge disservice, saying they only buy what's shoved in their faces.
People, even, gasp, ordinary people , are not stupid.
As for JKR and Meyers, they, in my view, must have something very special going on indeed to make younger readers love them so, in this age of playstations and 24 hour telly access.

Susannah Rickards said...

Must confess that I've never read DB but have had hearty debates on his behalf with my husband, who has sneered at his appalling factual errors. I pointed out this is fiction not fact and why, when Jim Crace makes it up and gets it wrong is that daring lit-fic, but when DB does, that's shoddy workmanship.

As others have said - people do hate success. I used to be a real snob about Stephen King.
Dah-ling, I couldn't stomach such ill-worded prose. Then I read On Writing where the prose, ideas, attitudes are superb. And realised most of the best blockbusters in the past 20 years were adaptations of his work. Story is still frowned on by some But it lasts.

Susannah Rickards said...

Valerie , I just read your post. I completely agree that it would be foolish to learn those things from bestsellers whose prose is weak, but HB was making a valid point: look for what IS good, what IS making people buy, queue etc. There is something there and it does no harm to learn it. apply the same gripping storytelling to exquisite prose and you get the literary best seller, which surely must be the aim of most literary writers.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

I don't at all think the book-buying public are stupid, and people can read, and like, whatever they choose. What I'm saying is, if you're the guy who's never read a book, and then reads Dan Brown, it's probably not based on a qualitative assesment of what's out there, but on the force of the advertising machine. Much like me buying an Aygo by Toyota, since I know nothing about cars but watch E4 a lot. It's market forces, and it snowballs.

My problem is with why people want to conflate quantity and quality. Just because it sells, doesn't means it's amazing. McDonalds sells, and why not, if you like to eat it, but that doesn't make it haute cuisine. You say:

'A writer who believes they have nothing to learn from the most successful authors of this generation are deluded, or arrogant, or both. Frankly they deserve their failures.'

I find this very depressing. Are you advocating sales over people honing their craft? Do you think you're a failure as an artist if you don't make millions? As a reader, I don't like him, but everyone's entitled to make their own mind up; as a writer, though, what do I have to learn from him? Nothing, other than that he had the luck to get signed by a very canny agent. If success depends on such shoddy prose, then I'll be glad to fail.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Susannah, very true! But I just don't find his storytelling gripping at all. The cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, etc; I find it really formulaic and silly. I'm not a hater of all things popular; I like Stephen King, for instance, but I think his storytelling is way more sophisticated than Brown's. No room here for detailed critical analysis. I don't think popularity excludes quaility - look at Phillip Pullman! But Dan Brown, the dude makes me shudder!

Helen Black said...

I am absolutely not saying sales over anything.
I am saying though, when a readership queue up for you, fill your fan sites, and recommend you to all your friends, then you must have something.
And it's something that as a writer I want to learn.
Of course I'd love the cash, sales and adulation, but it goes far more deeper than that.
As a writer I choose a communion with my readership. I carefully draft my words and hope I touch my public.
I want to touch as many people as possible with what I have to say. I don't want to leave anyone behind.
And so, whether I enjoy the book or not, I do feel I must asdk myself the very honest question what is it that the readers love about those books.
I'v done that. For my part I think I have the answer.
Now I just have yto apply that to my own, very different, work.
HB x

Valerie O'Riordan said...

And the very best of luck, Helen!

Val
x

Helen Black said...

And thanks everyone for joining in the debate.
It's really made me think about how and what people write.
About how to some the story is central, to others, it's the actual way the writing is structured.
In the words of the ever erudite Emma Darwin 'I feel a blog post coming on.'

Samantha Tonge said...

Great post, Helen, what interesting debate!

For me the sales are very important, not in terms of money, but because they represent the fact that for some reason the story has resonated with and/or entertained people and isn't that what good storytelling -as opposed to writing - is all about?

Brian Keaney said...

Good storytelling is about different things, though Samantha. It may be true that huge numbers of people have been persuaded to buy DVC but it's also true that Oxfam reports it's the book most frequently donated to their shops. So it's the hare and the tortoise isn't it? Dan Brown has wowed a short term audience but let's see how he does in the long term.

Samantha Tonge said...

Yes, but surely it's the book most donated because it's one of the books most boughts - lots of people donate books they've read. Statistics can be interpreted to mean anything.

I suppose it boils down to whether we rate storytelling above writing or not. Although the ultimate goal is to achieve both.

plentymorefishoutofwater said...

Showing distaste at an author's inability to write proper sentences is not snobbery. Yes, he's a good storyteller - but so was my nan. The work experience kids at my work often write with more elegance. I would think this whether he was successful or not.
http://plentymorefishoutofwater.blogspot.com/