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.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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