You might have gathered from my previous post that I’m not the world’s biggest Dan Brown fan. Heck, maybe you even agree with me that Brown is not exactly the world’s finest prose stylist. That’s not what he intends to be, you may argue. He just writes thrillers. What’s so bad about that?
Well, in some ways, nothing. I’m not looking scornfully over the top of my reading glasses with a copy of Crime and Punishment in my hand, tut-tutting. Thrillers — fiction driven purely by plot — are good. I like thrillers. But I also like good writing. It’s possible to find both in the same book, but it’s doubtful that that book will be by Dan Brown.
I shudder to think that for millions of people — at least 40 million, it seems — this may be what they define as “a really good book.” They are missing out on so much — on the ability of literature to move us; to make us ponder deep underlying themes in our lives and in the world around us; to help us live better and love better. Good writers can do that, and they do it not just by choosing more significant themes. They do it by crafting language that soars and resonates. Language that shows, rather than tells. Language that evokes complex, and often conflicting, emotions.
If you think you might not recognize the kind of difference I’m talking about, compare these opening sentences:
This from The Da Vinci Code:
“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.”
This is Dan Brown’s invitation to a few hundred more pages of such tortured prose, bogged down with awkwardly worded sentences, nonsensical constructions, and ham-handed modifiers. Renowned curator? If that was such an important detail, why not take the time to establish the fact, rather than just tell us it is so? And why, at the end of that second sentence, does he feel like he has to tell us the man’s name again? Does he think maybe we’ve forgotten?
And now this, from Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides:
“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
In these simple words, Conroy introduces us to a compelling character. We know he is wounded, we know his is telling us his tale, but we don’t know anything more about him. Yet the sentence is so enigmatic — so loaded — that we want to know more. It’s a voice we hear, not a description we read. We’re driven to find out who this person is, whose voice this is.
Maybe in the end, that’s the critical difference between Brown and writers I admire. I want fiction that makes me ask, “Who is this person?” Not just “…and then what happened?’
How about you? What do you want out of your fiction?