Why is everybody laughing at Dan Brown? That's what he wants

Dan Brown has been shortlisted for a National Book Award. He is often mocked by critics, but is a powerful and influential author, whose goals may be more complicated than Clive James or Peter Conrad suspect.

On Monday morning, the National Book Awards shortlist was announced, and there among the nominees for International Author of the Year – sandwiched between Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt – was Dan Brown.

Now, Brown gets a lot of stick – and some of it’s deserved. At his worst, he writes like a severely concussed Tom Clancy. His grasp of historical fact seems loose in the same way that London in 1666 seemed on fire. But what if we’ve got Dan Brown wrong? What if he’s smarter and more playful than we’ve thought? And what if, when we laugh at Dan Brown, it turns out he’s laughing right back at us?

Like it or not, Brown’s an influential man: for millions of people, his books are their first introduction to Dante or Da Vinci. Even the Louvre offers a Brown-themed visitor trail, primly titled "The Da Vinci Code, Between Fiction and Fact". In response to Angels and Demons, the plot of which hinges on an "antimatter bomb" stolen from CERN and primed to destroy the Vatican, the international research institute issued an almost painfully patient FAQ for readers wishing to learn more (a sample: "Does CERN own an X-33 spaceplane? No."). In Florence, you can walk in the footsteps of Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, on a day-long tour which – some might say fittingly – stops for a lunch of tripe.

With this kind of global influence, it’s bizarre that more people don’t stop to consider how the man thinks. Jumping from painting to poem and back again, Brown wants us to see him as a renaissance man. But Dan Brown’s renaissance is no cultural revolution: it’s a machine to be broken down for spare parts. In his novels, every piece of knowledge is only valuable insofar as it can be directly applied to the solution of a problem. Da Vinci’s paintings offer handy clues to solve a murder. Bernini’s sculptures point the way to a conspiracy at the heart of the Church.

Even Washington DC’s architecture is only of interest as evidence in a Masonic mystery. Like some bizarre cross between Michael Gove and the gobbet-obsessed Irwin from The History Boys, Dan Brown wants us to see knowledge not as abstract, but as a key with which we unlock the present. And when the key doesn’t fit, it gets discarded. Behind his Harris tweed and Mickey Mouse watch, Robert Langdon is less Mary Beard and more Niall Ferguson.

Brown’s critics like to mock his uneasy relationship with historical fact. The Langdon novels all open with a statement assuring readers that what follows is based on the truth. Antimatter bombs, ancient Illuminati conspiracies, heirs of Christ – these, a sober note informs us, are all founded on real, reliable research.

Ridiculous, of course. But ask yourself: is it really possible that Brown is as naive as his critics think? Starting a Robert Langdon book, I’m reminded of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel whose multiple prefaces carefully muddy the question of whether what you’re about to read is the God’s honest truth or "just a novel". There’s nothing new in an author’s playing with truth and, at the same time, playing with their audience. Brown’s had his butterflies broken on the wheel by critics like Clive James and Peter Conrad, but nobody seems to have thought for a moment that maybe he’s in on the joke. And once you start to think this, it’s hard to read his po-faced insistence that he’s only dealing in facts as anything other than a prank – a glorious two fingers to the academics, preachers, and critics who love to tear him apart. If Brown’s appeal to facts enrages us, it just might be because we’ve fallen for it – hook, line, and blood-crazed albino monk.

Still, he’s only Dan Brown. If I was Eleanor Catton, I wouldn’t be worried. But as Brown, ever the New England gent, flashes his "gracious loser" smile, we could do worse than wonder at what might be going on in the mind behind it.

Dan Brown (and Dante) at the launch of "Inferno". Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

John Gallagher is writing a history PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker for 2013/2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @earlymodernjohn.

Getty
Show Hide image

The world has not had enough of Daniel Craig as Bond

The actor's fifth film in the franchise will be a welcome return for his layered and troubled Bond.

It looked like a cut-and-dry case. He was going to be the spy who went out in the cold. The one who didn’t say “never say never again.” Dr No Thanks. But with the announcement this week that Daniel Craig is staying on to have one final stab at the role of James Bond, it’s become a case of Resign Another Day. 

A fifth outing in the part will nudge Craig ahead of Pierce Brosnan (four) and comfortably outstrip Timothy Dalton (two) and George Lazenby (one) while leaving him a couple short of both Sean Connery (seven) and Roger Moore (also seven, though consecutive where Connery’s run was not). But it’s the quality not the quantity that counts and Craig has been consistently intriguing and surprising, whether the films themselves have been (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) or not (Skyfall, Spectre). He has also attracted compliments where it counts. Moore, who died earlier this year, referred to Craig as “the Bond.” Are you going to argue with the man who leapt across a row of snapping crocodiles in Live and Let Die, survived the G-force simulator in Moonraker, told a tiger to “Sit!” in Octopussy and went to bed with Grace Jones in A View to a Kill? Thought not.

I’m glad in one way that Craig has chosen not to leave just yet. He has one of the best heads in the industry. I’m not talking about his business acumen - I mean his actual head, a cross between a breeze-block and a bullet, with distinctive jutting ears stuck on the sides for good measure. He looks formidable before he even produces a weapon. What’s more, he casts the most easily-identifiable shadow since Mickey Mouse. His appeal is not just physical though. His is a genuinely layered and troubled Bond, something which the films immediately prior to his own tried to evoke, but which seemed slightly beyond the range of Pierce Brosnan - who, let it be noted, had some tremendous moments of befuddlement in GoldenEye (the one where Judi Dench, as M, gives him that memorable dressing-down in which she calls him a “dinosaur”) and even came close to a Craigian callousness in The World Is Not Enough.

In the end, it was Brosnan who was not enough. Not dangerous, intelligent, damaged enough. Craig has the whole package. If you’ve seen Casino Royale, and you have forgotten the intermingled strains of pain, resentment and vulnerability that he brought to one cruel line near the end of the film (“The bitch is dead”), then I envy you. I can still hear his chilling delivery. 

Any reservations I feel about his return in the next Bond movie, which is scheduled for November 2019, can be traced to an eagerness to see what else he will do once he hangs up his holster and tuxedo. He was a fine actor before Bond (check out Love is the Devil, The Mother and the BBC’s Our Friends in the North for proof) but has not made such a strong impression so far in extra-curricular parts during his tenure as 007. (He will shortly be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s heist movie Logan Lucky.) It will be exciting to witness what he can do once he is a free agent - or rather, not an agent any more at all.

It would have been nice and neat for Craig to have bowed out with Spectre. It wasn’t an impressive piece of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination but it dropped so many hints about its hero’s demise that it felt like a natural swansong. Bond is first seen in Spectre  wearing a skull mask during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. In scenes later on in London, he learns that plans are afoot to sack him. Switching on a radio, he is greeted by “New York, New York”, the lyrics of which have P45 stamped all over them: “Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today.” His off-screen antipathy in interviews towards the idea of being bound to Bond only fuelled the rumour that it was curtains for him.

But though he said straight after finishing Spectre that if he played Bond again it would only be for the dough, no one should doubt his commitment. “I get paid a lot of money to do something I love to do,” he said in 2011, when Skyfall was still in the planning stages. “And whatever it is—the way I was brought up, or whatever—I feel if you’re getting paid you should put the work in. Maybe I’m stupid and everyone’s looking at me and saying: ‘Chill out, take the money and run.’ I can’t do that. I feel the more we put into it, the more we’ll get out. How best can we spend all this money? You don’t just take it and go, ‘Yay! See ya!’ I want millions of people to watch the movie. So why not make it good?”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.