Saturday, June 24, 2006

DUST JACKETS: The Da Vinci Code, Continued

In Thursday’s "Dust Jacket" entry, I discussed the writing merits of The Da Vinci Code. This closing entry to my review focuses on what makes this book stand out above all those other religious conspiracy thrillers, in other words, what made it a blockbuster.

Perhaps one of the most important elements comes before even a single sentence of the story. In big bold letters just before the prologue, we’re given a page entitled “FACT.” On this page, we’re given three important details about the story to follow. The first relates to the “Priory of Sion.” Brown proclaims this organization, one more than nine-hundred-years-old, actually exists and that its ranks have included some of the most brilliant scientists and artisans in history. Unfortunately, as the many “Da Vinci Code” documentaries have well established (Hasn’t every cable channel done one?), this is wrong. As Wikipedia so ably states, the Priory “has been shown to be a hoax created in 1956 by Pierre Plantard, a pretender to the French throne.”

The second fact we’re given is an organization that does actually exist, Opus Dei. This Catholic sect is portrayed as shadowy, wealthy and ruthless. It’s the idea of this group planted on American soil in the heart of our most powerful city, New York, that makes it tough to ignore this fact as a reader.

Then there’s the most important of the three facts. “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Oh, now there is a cleverly crafted sentence. “Accurate” offers so much leeway. Many people have hammered Brown for this statement, trying to corner him for fudging details. His website offers up an equally well-crafted reply which basically says that these items all exist, but that doesn’t mean Brown is calling every theory surrounding these items as fact. The point is that Brown is intentionally giving the reader just that impression, though.

If you look at all three of these elements, they’re basically designed to make the reader buy into the story that follows. The Priory is said to exist and is given legitimacy by the list of impressive names attached to it... a humorous detail considering that’s exactly the con that Plantard was playing when he picked out these names. The shadowy organization of the Opus Dei... real and attached to great power... basically fits the bill as your standard group of conspirators for any conspiracy novel. Then there’s that bit about the documents all being real. You could look at all this and say Brown is trying to con the reader into believing all this, and he probably is. After all, the point of a good story is to make the reader believe in it. So should Brown be “held accountable” for this? Not really. He’s just trying to suck in his readers as any writer would. I think that big honking “FACT” planted at the top of the page is a bit iffy, though.

This “factual” build-up has a lot to do with why The Da Vinci Code is so successful, I think. It’s part of the sales pitch. Some of you will probably dispute me on this, but if these factual details did not matter, then why have there been so many documentaries on this? The “Fact” page within The Da Vinci Code is designed to make the reader ask one thing and one thing only, “Could this be true?”

Now, there are other factors that go into why The Da Vinci Code was such a success. Perhaps more important than even that “Fact” page is the almighty word-of-mouth. Random House deserves a lot of credit for successfully marketing this book before it was even on the bookshelves at your local bookstore. Reps from the publisher made the rounds, speaking to booksellers and telling them what an amazing book this was. They got the booksellers talking who in turn got the customers talking. In the end, it wouldn’t have worked though if the book itself wasn’t such a good page-turner.

Thursday, I defended Brown’s writing, and I’ll reiterate that today. If it was such a horribly written book, then I don’t think it could have done as well as it did, even with the “Fact” page or Random House’s marketing strategy. I’m not suggesting this is “Shakespeare” or that it will stand the test of time, but it’s not the careless work of some hack either. Earlier this year in London, the writers of the non-fiction work Holy Blood, Holy Grail (a book Brown used in his research for The Da Vinci Code) sued Random House saying the ideas in their book were stolen. Brown had to write a sixty-nine page witness statement about how he does his research and what went into writing his blockbuster novel as well as his previous works. I read this statement, curious what Brown would have to say, and I was struck by the sincere passion he demonstrated for the art of the written word. Reading over that statement made me respect Brown as a writer.

Other Books by Dan Brown:

Brown’s next book, The Solomon Key, will supposedly focus on the Masons, a frequent player in conspiracy thrillers. That book was originally scheduled for release this year. The idea was obviously to cash in on the joint success of the movie adaptation to The Da Vinci Code. That book’s release has been delayed until next year. Could it possibly hope to match The Da Vinci Code’s success? I don’t think so. Everyone knows about the Catholic Church and recognizes its power. The Masons don’t carry that same kind of clout, but that doesn’t mean Brown’s next book won’t be a fun thriller and that’s about as much as readers should probably expect.


Sandra Ruttan said...

How do you make your blog posts look so cool with all the graphics and stuff?

I feel so inept when I look at your fancy blog.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

I spent several years in college working in production for local tv news stations. Was never actually hired to do graphic artwork, but I did quite a bit of it on my own and learned a lot from the guys who worked in the art department. Was a lot of fun.

My computer has Paint Shop Pro on it, and funny enough, it was my wife who insisted on a snazzy art program. I've probably gotten a lot more use out of it, though.

Part of the reason I enjoy blogging is that it gives me an outlet for my graphic artwork. These days, I'd have no use for it otherwise.

You should see some of Pat's animated graphics. She does some great stuff!

Paul said...

I read Angels And Demons before I read The Da Vinci Code. Now there's a book that is very poorly written. It was embarrassing in parts how inept and immature the prose was. What Dan Brown does do, however, is tell a rollicking tale. Once I forced myself to get past the first 50 pages or so of set-up, it became a real page turner. The Da Vinci Code shows more maturity and practice as a writer, with the same rollicking story telling.

DesLily said...

awww you sweet little "pimper" you! lol..

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Paul, thanks for visiting the Lair. Yeah, I wouldn't say Brown's writing is the best (not by a longshot), but I do respect his honest passion for the craft. That, for me, forgives a world of sins. He's just been fortunate enough to get his career rolling sooner than most could manage at his level. I know I look back on the early things I wrote a decade ago and just cringe! I'm even glad for the rejection letters that early stuff received!

Pat, you still got me beat by a mile in the animation department. I haven't mustered up the courage to give that a go.