Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Dan Brown Matters

Now that I'm back in NYC full time, at least once I day I walk through my local bookstore. On any given afternoon, I'm likely to see a group of teenagers huddled in several aisles, hunkered around a book or manga, pointing, talking, laughing and enjoying themselves. To these kids, reading is cool, something to experience and talk about among their friends. They could be doing any one of a dozen other things, but they're hanging out in a bookstore. Things like that make me smile.

Yesterday I wrote a post, perhaps overly snarky, about a poster of Orlando Bloom promoting reading hanging on the wall of a library. Now, regardless of what I think about Mr. Bloom, something in children's literature seems to be working. When you think about all the books that have been published over the last few years that have been cultural touchstones, they're all books aimed at children and young adults. The publication of new books by J.K. Rowling, Christopher Paolini and Stephenie Meyer have become events. People line up at midnight on release day for their copy, just like I did for a brand new U2 album back in the day (my dad always came with me to our local HMV because I was too young to drink the bottle of Guinness that came free with each purchase).

The night Stephenie Meyer's BREAKING DAWN was published last year, I was walking my dog. We passed by my local Barnes & Noble around 11:00, and the line to get in had already wrapped around the block. Kids were dressed to the nines, costumed and buzzing with excitement. I was informed by a security guard that nobody else would be allowed into the store because there was no room. No room! These kids weren't home watching television or playing videogames or texting. On this night, kids were lined up outside of a bookstore because reading was cool. I thought back to a few years ago when my friend Mike had a pool party. I remember all of our friends hanging around, drinking beer and margaritas...all of us except for my friend Mark. Mark was sitting on a chair, reading the sixth Harry Potter book which had just come out. And we all knew to leave him alone.

Yesterday, Knopf/Doubleday announced the September 15th publication of Dan Brown's long-awaited followup to THE DA VINCI CODE, one of the best-selling books of all time. Five million copies of THE LOST SECRET will be shipped to stores. But five months before the book comes out, the sniping has already begun.

The book will be a critical and commercial disappointment.
The book won't save the publishing industry.
Dan Brown has goofy hair.

The haters can shove it. To my mind, THE DA VINCI CODE was a perfectly decent thriller. No more, no less. Sure the prose was a bit clumsy, but the plot kept me entertained for a few hours (something that should not be taken lightly). Obviously the book touched a nerve far deeper than that of pure entertainment, just as books by Ms. Rowling and Ms. Meyer have. I have read three different New York newspapers this morning, and all three have prominent articles on the impending publication of THE LOST SECRET. These articles are not buried in the middle of the paper, but are printed within the first eight or so pages (right up there with tawdry wedding scandals and mockery of David Patterson--you know, the important stuff). The publication of this book is a bona fide event. When was the last time a book for adults was an actual event? Sure Grisham and Patterson sell books by the truckload, but their release dates are hardly the kind of thing you call your friends to talk about.

So naturally, the haters are going to come out of the woodwork, as is their right. There are a lot of people who disliked the book for the book itself, but there are also a lot of people who hated the book for what it stood for ("This is one of the best-selling books ever?"). I don't really care much about those people. THE LOST SECRET is a thriller, first and foremost. Even the press release touts it as pure entertainment ("...a brilliant and compelling thriller...readers will feel the thrill of discovery..."). And yet within minutes September 15th became a full-fledged pop culture event. People will be lining up to buy their copy. And even if it doesn't come close to the success of THE DA VINCI CODE, I can't remember the last time there was this kind of buzz about a book aimed at adults. Perhaps Bill Clinton's memoir approached it, but I'm willing to bet a whole lot more people actually read Brown's book than Clinton's (I bought Clinton's MY LIFE, and it looks lovely holding up the foundation of my apartment building).

So September 15th will come, and there will surely be a great deal of criticism before and after the fact. I don't really care. I'll buy my copy and I'll read it, and I know a lot of other people who will too. The book may be brilliant, or it may suck. It may shatter every sales record, or it may be a commercial disappointment. It may be read as entertainment, or it may be read for the religious and spiritual implications. The bottom line is that all of this discussion and argument, all of this buzz and anticipation...this makes reading cool for people of all ages. And that is something that should never be taken for granted.

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Blogger David J. Montgomery said...

Agree completely, Jason. Well put.

I love to make jokes about Dan Brown -- the guy made $400 mill; he can take it -- but ANYTHING that gets people talking about books is a good thing. Anything that gets people into bookstores is good. Anything that makes people read is good.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Joe Wallace said...

Excellent post. I read an article on the London Book Fair about how the British have so much better "taste" in books than we Americans. As if THAT's the issue, as if we should be sneering at anyone who reads anything. I was no big fan of DA VINCI CODE, but I'm thrilled that Brown has a new one coming out, and I'm going to buy it too. Thanks for writing this, Jason.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Levi Stahl said...

I hadn't thought about Dan Brown that way, Jason, but that's a convincing argument. (And I say that as someone who laughed out loud several times while reading The Da Vinci Code--though I couldn't really slag it because, as you note, it did keep me turning the pages fast as I could.)

I do have to raise at least a mild defense of Bill Clinton's memoir, though: the first 150 pages or so are really good. His account of his early life, the people he knew as a young man in Arkansas, and of his early political career is surprisingly interesting and perceptive. Once he hits the national stage, though, it becomes kind of a slog, and by the second term, it's positively turgid.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Sarah Weinman said...

I know I was one who commented yesterday that THE LOST SYMBOL won't save the publishing industry, but let me get into why: publishing's ills are too systemic and too tied into the current economic situation to be appeased by the bandaid - however forceful - that Dan Brown's new book will provide. Of course it will sell, and very well, and I sure as hell hope its impending success brings people into bookstores so they can go and buy other books. I also hope the discounting already announced by B&N (and presumably Amazon, when the page goes live) doesn't undermine Knopf Doubleday's efforts to make some well-earned money back.

But cultural phenomena deserve realistic and pragmatic analyses, and I also hope no one's expecting THE LOST SYMBOL to capture the same 81-million-copy-selling lightning in a bottle. Not to mention that it's coming out in 2009, a very different cultural time than was 2003 (although still very heavy on the conspiracy theory front...)

10:02 AM  
Blogger Edward G. Talbot said...

I agree with you, Jason. I love thrillers (that's why I write them) and I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code. As did most people, I enjoyed Angels and Demons more. But I rarely read a thriller that I think could survive a serious critical analysis of the writing according to any standard other than keeping the reader wanting to read on. But in many ways that's the only standard that matters.

So I'm with you - it was a solid thriller AND the upcoming release is going to be a net positive event for writers and the publishing industry.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Neil Nyren said...

Yes, it'd be impossible for the new book to reach Da Vinci levels -- there were just too many factors going into the size of that book's sales -- but it'll obviously be huge (and I know I'll be reading it). It also will not "save" the publishing industry -- it's just one book, and my experience of "the one book" is that its success rarely spurs the sales of other books -- people come in, buy the book, and leave. However, it will provide a big sales bump for the accounts, and anything that helps keep them all in business is all right by me!

10:42 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Levi - No knock on the quality of Clinton's book, but I think more people are apt to read an entertaining 400 page thriller than a thousand page memoir. I'd like to read Clinton's book at some point--but unlike Dan Brown's book I doubt I'll carry it to the beach.

Sarah - I don't think anyone (Knopf/Doubleday included) realistically expects it to perform anywhere near the level of TDC. But it will be a massive bestseller, and be the kind of book people go out of their way to buy. Like Harry Potter (or Meyer) I'm sure book stores hope to get some run-off sales as well.

Neil - Agree 100%. I'm sure bookstores are as happy to hear about this release as anybody. And it should keep selling well into the Christmas season (when the DVD of ANGELS & DEMONS will surely be released). If in fact publishing needs "saving" (I think there are tune-ups in store, but as you said in your terrific interview on Murderati publishing is simply being affected by the economy just like every other business), it's not one book that will do it. Still, an event is an event. Books will be sold, people will read, and hopefully it'll bring some revenue to both the book's publisher and the people who sell it. And maybe Dan Brown can simply buy the Vatican to make filming the movie easier for Ron Howard.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

very well seasoned thoughts, and as much as Danny Brown is the butt [pardon pun] of many jokes - he is important to reading, getting people talking about reading - Great Essay


2:11 PM  
Blogger Joe Wallace said...

On the other hand, regardless of our unanimous support of Brown and his new book, those of us with novels coming out are also thrilled our pub dates aren't anywhere near 9/15!

I'll wait for spring 2010, thank you.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Graham Powell said...

I'll echo what some others have said - I'm fully opposed to snobbery in the literary world. If you're into gay weasel porn, well, more power to you.

Even as long as a dozen years ago, I noticed that lots of kids were hanging around in the bookstore. Reading, sure, but it was also a safe environment to be with their friends.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Joe - I bet you're not the only author glad to away from the tsunami.

Graham - For the most part, the kids always have a book they're reading. I think it's wonderful. The only time I get annoyed is when they're sitting in the 'P' section right between 'Jodi Picoult' and 'Jean Plaidy' so I can't see whether the store has any copies of my books in stock. That's when I turn into grumpy old man and start whispering, "Darn kids, get off my lawn."

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason, I had to mull over your post because you cover a lot of ground from kids reading to the predicted backlash when Brown's latest hits the stores. I think Sarah pointed out in the comments that 2003 is a long time ago. Books steeped in the mythology of the moment age poorly and the DAVINCI moment is gone. Still, as you point out, the new book's release will be an event and that's more fun that dissecting AIG's darkly mysterious balance sheet.
David Thayer

1:35 PM  

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