So Dan Brown’s new book is out. It’s called Inferno. Without knowing anything about it at all you could make certain predictions. Robert Langdon will probably wake up in the middle of the night right at the start. He will then go on a hunt after one secret relic or the other across Europe, fight secret societies and solve puzzles. And of course, he will do all of this with an extremely hot (and extremely smart) girl in tow.
Another thing that you could predict right off the bat with a Dan Brown novel is that it will be blasted to smithereens by ‘intelligent readers’. You can go to any self-respecting newspaper on the internet (or to the stands if you’re a Luddite) and read the reviews. They will all tell you that the style is bad, the metaphors are mixed, the characters are flat, the depth is non-existent, the plot is cheese-like and so on.
Be that as it may. Everyone has a right to say what they think, and that includes Dan Brown, the professors of English Literature at universities all over (who, I must add, never write themselves), the librarians whose claim to fame is that they’ve read and understood Joyce, the wannabe literary novelists who are ploughing their way through their first manuscripts, and of course, bloggers like you and I. Even people who like Dan Brown, believe it or not, are entitled to their opinions.
Speaking of which, I’m yet to meet someone who likes Dan Brown. Even his biggest fans are quick to dress their admiration with hangings like ‘the writing is not great’ or that ‘it is no Dickens’ or that ‘he is not literary’. The same was said of Stephen King when he first started out, and of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and the rest of their ilk. Does that mean that in thirty years from now Dan Brown will be one of the accepted literary lights of the early twenty-first?
Okay, that made me shudder a little, but why should it? Ultimately nobody knows who will or won’t get lasting fame. (How ‘literary’ is Agatha Christie’s writing, for instance?) Also, who’s to say what classifies as ‘good writing’ twenty years from now? Maybe we will be writing books in SMS-speak and sprinkle them with emoticons. For people of that generation, won’t Dan Brown’s stuff be pure literary magic? (Woaw, this guy writes in full words and sentences!)
I can see the logic behind all the I-love-to-hate-Dan-Brown stuff you find on the internet. It’s the same kind of envy that you see in the air when at a college reunion the once-valedictorian-now-respectable-teacher meets the once-dropout-now-millionaire. You know how it is: the valedictorian is overweight, dressed in plain clothes, wears a heavy expression on his face. The millionaire looks like a fresh dollar bill, has a blonde on his arm and a Porsche in his garage.
Who is more successful? That’s the eternal debate, isn’t it? Is it Dan Brown, who gets invited to every show on every TV channel on the eve of his book launch, who has his books translated into a dozen different languages before his first print run is out, or is it, say, Joyce Carol Oates, who has written prolifically and without fuss for over thirty years? Dan Brown will sell five million copies of his book before this month is out. Oates will be lucky to sell a million of her latest book over the next seven years.
But then Oates has something Brown will never have, too. She has awards, she has the love and respect from the ‘intelligentsia’, she has university grants, she has Booker Prize nominations, and no matter how much Brown will deny it, I am certain that a part of him wants to be in that literary circle that surrounds Oates. (I am equally certain that a part of Oates wants a fraction of Brown’s sales.)
But in addition to all of this, I think the most important difference between Oates and Brown lies in how they affect their readers. Brown will sell a million copies, yes, but most of his readers will forget about his book in perhaps a month at most. Oates will sell a thousand copies in the same time, but two hundred of her readers will feel their lives being transformed (even by just a little) by what they’ve read. The numbers are not real, but you see what I mean.
What this translates to, then, is that the intensity of love that Oates’s fans feel for Oates is much, much higher than what a Brown fan may feel for Brown. This is why Oates’s books will likely stand the test of time for longer than Brown’s. You could see this as another age-old argument: do you want a thousand acquaintances or ten friends who will give their life for you? That, they say, is the fundamental difference between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts prefer to have a large number of relatively superficial relationships. Introverts are more comfortable with a small number of close friends.
I’ve often noticed that popular writers – those who top the bestseller lists – are generally extroverts. Literary writers, those with low print-runs, small but passionate followings, these are introverts who don’t like the bright lights of book launches, of TV interviews, of Facebook and Twitter feeds. They prefer to lock themselves up in their rooms and write. The popular writer, on the other hand, enjoys wooing his audience, plays to them, flaunts his large Twitter follower base and his high sales figures.
Which is better? It depends on whether you ask an introvert or an extrovert. We seem to be living in a world dominated by extroverts, and our society seems to reward extroversion with a lot more than it does introversion. And yet, there is mounting evidence in sociology that introverts are the true worker bees of human civilization. They’re the thinkers, the generators of ideas, and ultimately they’re the bringers of change, and progress. But who knows? The more you plumb this subject, the more it seems that the only answer that makes sense is: ‘Nobody knows anything’.
So let’s confine ourselves to facts. Dan Brown’s new book is out. It’s called Inferno. Robert Langdon will wake up in the middle of the night. He will go to some nice place in Europe with an attractive woman and jump through hoops to solve some ancient riddle. The book won’t change your life, not even by a little bit, and the writing will probably be bad, but if you ignore that and keep turning the pages you will eventually get to the end. You may even enjoy the ride. So will a few million other readers. By next month you will have forgotten the name of the main villain.
Go buy it. Now.