What is the Secret Behind the Bad Writing of Lost Symbol Author Dan Brown?
By Tom Chivers
15 Sep 2009
If Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol is anything like his previous works, it will not go down well with the critics. Famously, comedian Stewart Lee mocked him for using the sentence “The famous man looked at the red cup” in his bestselling The Da Vinci Code. • Dan Brown’s conspiracy theories: six of the best
In fact, Lee was making that up – the sentence never appears in the book. So are the critics unfair on Brown?
They’re certainly harsh. Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum says “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” He picks out some excerpts for special criticism. The female lead in Angels and Demons learns of the death of her scientist father: “Genius, she thought. My father . . . Dad. Dead.” A member of the Vatican Guard in the same book becomes annoyed by something, and we learn that “his eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.”
Below we have selected 20 phrases that may grate on the ear. It’s not a definitive list. It couldn’t be: he has published five novels, each around 500 pages long, and the arguments over which are the worst bits will go on for a while. But it’s our list. Add your own in the comment box below.
20. Angels and Demons, chapter 1: 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.
They say the first rule of fiction is “show, don’t tell”. This fails that rule.
19. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 83: “The Knights Templar were warriors,” Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.
“Remind” is a transitive verb – you need to remind someone of something. You can’t just remind. And if the crutches echo, we know the space is reverberant.
18. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: He could taste the familiar tang of museum air – an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon – the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.
Ah, that familiar tang of deionised essence.
17. Deception Point, chapter 8: Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes.
It’s not clear what Brown thinks ‘precarious’ means here.
16. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
A silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away. What’s wrong with this picture?
15. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he’d suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces – elevators, subways, squash courts.
Other enclosed spaces include toilet cubicles, phone boxes and dog kennels.
14. Angels and Demons, chapter 100: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.
The Rio de la Plata. Between Argentina and Uruguay. One of the major rivers of the Old World. Apparently.
The Da Vinci Code, chapter 5: Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.
A keen eye indeed.
13 and 12. The Lost Symbol, chapter 1: He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.
The Da Vinci Code, chapter 17: Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.
Oh – the Falcon 2000EX with the Pratt & Whitneys? And the Manurhin MR-93? Not the MR-92? You’re sure? Thanks.
11. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.
Do angry oxen throw their shoulders back and tuck their chins into their chest? What precisely is a fiery clarity and how does it forecast anything? Once again, it is not clear whether Brown knows what ‘forecast’ means.
10. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Five months ago, the kaleidoscope of power had been shaken, and Aringarosa was still reeling from the blow.
Did they hit him with the kaleidoscope?
9. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 32: The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. “SmartCar,” she said. “A hundred kilometers to the liter.”
Pro tip: when fleeing from the police, take a moment to boast about your getaway vehicle’s fuel efficiency. And get it wrong by a factor of five. SmartCars do about 20km (12 miles) to the litre.
8. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 3: My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.
And they say the schools are dumbing down.
7 and 6. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 33: Pulling back the sleeve of his jacket, he checked his watch – a vintage, collector’s-edition Mickey Mouse wristwatch that had been a gift from his parents on his tenth birthday.
The Da Vinci Code, chapter 6: His last correspondence from Vittoria had been in December – a postcard saying she was headed to the Java Sea to continue her research in entanglement physics… something about using satellites to track manta ray migrations.
In the words of Professor Pullum: “It has the ring of utter ineptitude. The details have no relevance to what is being narrated.”
5. Angels and Demons, chapter 4: learning the ropes in the trenches
Learning the ropes (of a naval ship) while in the trenches (with the army in the First World War). It’s a military education, certainly.
4, 3, and 2. The Da Vinci Code, opening sentence: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
Angels and Demons, opening sentence: Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.
Deception Point, opening sentences: Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.
Professor Pullum: “Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence”.
1. The Da Vinci Code: Title. The Da Vinci Code.
Leonardo’s surname was not Da Vinci. He was from Vinci, or of Vinci. As many critics have pointed out, calling it The Da Vinci Code is like saying Mr Of Arabia or asking What Would Of Nazareth Do?