“It’s not fair and I think you’re really mean”

A few days ago, I stumbled on this 2004 takedown of Dan Brown by the renowned linguist Geoffrey Pullum. It was much linked, liked and recommended when it appeared.

I have two objections to Prof. Pullum’s criticism. First, he does not allow that Brown’s “bad” style could be a literary device. The opening of The Da Vinci Code, “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière…” is in journalese. If Brown chose journalese for the introduction, he was in his own right: there’s no reason why the narrator should write like a Woolfean stylist. He might as well be a pretentious, third-rate hack.

Second, Pullum is being unfair to Brown:

Look at “heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.” We don’t need to know it’s a masterpiece (it’s a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre, that should be enough in the way of credentials, for heaven’s sake).

Brown’s narrator is simply using a synonym to “a painting by Caravaggio.” That’s typical of writing by journalists: they seem to have a fear of repetition and a mania for synonyms. “Masterpiece” is hardly the most unnatural of them – it’s not “slaying” or “funnyman” or “Putin ally.”

…after “a thundering iron gate” has fallen (by the way, it’s the fall that makes a thundering noise: there’s no such thing as a thundering gate)…

By the same token, there’s no such thing as a creaking door: it’s the movement of the hinge that produces a creaking sound.

A voice doesn’t speak —a person speaks; a voice is what a person speaks with.

Occasionally it does, especially if disembodied. See 1 Kings 19 and Acts 10-11. The curator hears the voice before seeing the speaker.

“Chillingly close” would be right in your ear, whereas this voice is fifteen feet away behind the thundering gate.

No, “chillingly close” means “close enough to be chilling.” Why can’t a voice chill one’s blood from the distance of fifteen feet, through a barred gate?

The curator (do we really need to be told his profession a third time?) cannot slowly turn his head if he has frozen; freezing (as a voluntary human action) means temporarily ceasing all muscular movements.

Sure. “On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly” sounds slightly comical. Either he was frozen from neck down only or he froze, then unfroze, and turned his head. A bit sloppy but fixable. And it’s pretty clear what’s going on. As clear as in a movie.

And crucially, a silhouette does not stare! A silhouette is a shadow. If Saunière can see the man’s pale skin, thinning hair, iris color, and red pupils (all at fifteen feet), the man cannot possibly be in silhouette.

This much is true: silhouettes are monochrome by definition. The “silhouette” should have been a “shape” or a “figure.” Despite the misuse of the word, the overall picture is easy to see.

Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.

I respectfully disagree. It’s not “staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly” bad. It’s just bad, possibly on purpose, “ingeniously.”


  1. I found Dan Brown’s prose to be absolutely appalling. It might have been grammatically correct, but boy was it bad. And there are also plenty of examples of sloppy research: in The Da Vinci Code there is an American woman at Cambridge University who is on Spring Break. I assume he means Easter. And the whole technical premise of Digital Fortress is flawed.

    But for all that said, he writes and people want to read it and he sells books and makes himself millions. Good on him!

    I asked over at my place the other day whether guys like Dan Brown and Ken Follett are bad writers who got lucky or they are geniuses who write like this because they know it will sell. I am inclining towards the former. But as I said, I don’t begrudge them any of this.

    • Not that it’s directly relevant, but F. R. Leavis wrote that Theodore Dreiser “seems as though he learned English from a newspaper. He gives the feeling that he doesn’t have any native language…” Mencken, on the other hand, promoted Dreiser as a great American realist.

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Winterings in Trans-Scythia

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading