Dan Brown’s Inferno: loving to hate it, hating to love it

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.


  1. kannarkk says:

    I disagree with the point on extrovert-introvert writers. It has no relevance what-so-ever-at-all. Do you think Brown studied and read every book on cryptography, numbers (etc..) for four and half years so that it would go on to be nominated to Booker Prize? It doesn’t work that way! Thinking that way when writing,if so, it is better not to write at all. Literary circle? Wannabe moment? Isn’t writing a book, solving a mystery,creating a mystery much more gratifying>


    • Hi Kiran,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I don’t think Dan Brown studied or read every book on cryptography, numbers etc for four and a half years. If he says that, my view is that he’s lying. His books show no research whatsoever. (But then that’s my opinion.) If you will allow me, I will recommend Umberto Eco’s books for a glimpse of what a well-researched conspiracy theory book looks like.

      But that’s beside the point. I agree with you when you say that Brown did not have the Booker Prize in mind when he wrote his book. But then, by the same token, neither did Oates. I was not criticizing Brown or praising Oates in what I wrote. All I said was Oates’s fans have a deeper connection with her than Brown’s fans do with him. It’s more of a comparison between popular fiction and literary fiction. Popular fiction has more readers but it sticks in mind for a relatively less time. Literary fiction has only a small group of readers, but it lingers for longer. Which is better? Would you rather have a million buyers of your book who will forget it tomorrow, or have a hundred buyers who will remember it, cherish it, and pass it on to their children?

      The answer depends on whom you ask.


  2. Million people don’t know what is crytography – not even an iota. Million people don’t care about the detailed research. Million people want a tearaway entertainer which is a new kind of story and new kind of story telling. Million people are so fried with their lives that they don’t care if Dan Brown’s book is riddled with tautologies, bad grammar, bad form of prose, etc.(their lives a riddled with far bigger problems), as long as the tempo of ‘what’s happening next’ is maintained. Million people want to be ‘easily’ led out of their staid lives into something ‘exciting’. And this is why popular fiction always works. And nobody forgets popular fiction tomorrow. We remember Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis. I don’t understand why should writing be literary. (Yes, Agatha Christies and Issac Asimov aren’t literary at all. Any maybe you can confirm, they are the biggest proponents of ‘tell, don’t show.’)

    As far as liking Dan Brown is concerned, I like him. Also, ask someone who reads for entertainment and has no other agenda with literature, and who likes Dan Brown, whether they ‘like’ Dan Brown. I’m sure many will say yes. In fact, I think we’ll get a million ‘likes’.

    I don’t agree that popular fiction doesn’t stick to one’s mind or isn’t recommended. Harry Potter is popular fiction and is one of the most discussed books, sticks to the readers mind, and is going to be handed down the generations. As far as life changing fiction is concerned, nothing in this world can do that, not even Fight Club can make you quit your job.

    I think literary fiction has problems with popular literature because they (literary fiction) don’t have great stories to tell. They just have a great way (and sometimes not even that) to tell very insipid stories. Sometimes it works, for eg. The Book Thief or Anna Karenina; many times it doesn’t (atleast not for more than a 100 people).


    • Hi James,

      Interesting ideas, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t. For instance I certainly agree with Asimov and Christie not being ‘literary’. In fact, I don’t think anyone can define what is ‘literary writing’ and what isn’t. There is good writing and there is not-so-good writing. What Dan Brown writes is not-so-good; you admit it yourself. Many people say his books are well-researched, but it only takes half an hour’s research of your own on the internet to see how amateurish his ‘research’ is. If he claims that he’s spending years doing it, he’s either very dumb or he’s lying.

      None of that, you understand, makes him wrong. I am not suggesting that he has no right to write (everyone has a right to write). I am only saying that Brown’s books are less likely to ‘last’ than, say, Oates’s. You say Conan Doyle, Christie, Asimov and Tolkien have all survived, therefore Brown may too, but I think that ignores the fact that all those writers you name wrote well. Their writing was good. Brown’s writing isn’t. Yes, people tolerate it (in your own words) because their lives are riddled with bigger problems, and therein lies my point. People tolerate his bad writing for the sake of a little cheap thrill.

      Ultimately it’s whether you affect a lot of people superficially or a handful of people deeply. It’s not just the ‘likes’ that matter. The depth of how much you like something also matters. I like the love letter that my dad first wrote to my mom. I also like chocolates. If you put them both on Facebook, I will like both of them. That doesn’t mean I like both equally, or that they both mean the same to me.

      So maybe the debate is about good versus bad writing, not literary versus popular?


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