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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My quest for an elusive can of juicy Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie ends with a Dolmio pasta sauce

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet.

The last time I addressed you from my bully-beef pulpit I was going to write about my all-consuming yen for a Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pie, but as there wasn’t one to hand to mouth, I related the electronic cigarette incident at Pizza Express instead. This week, I can report that I have attempted to secure one of the meatylicious treats – and once again failed.

Mr Vairavar, who keeps the convenience store immediately beneath my flat, did have a Fray Bentos minced beef and onion pie on his shelves (and very attractively priced it was, too, at £1.99) but I knew that it wouldn’t hit the suety spot. I had already undertaken a smallish tour of supermarkets in the environs, and although I hadn’t secured the elusive pudding I still found plenty of food for thought.

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet. All convenience foods rely not on a specific ingredient, but rather on its absence: time has been left out, usually in favour of some artificial flavouring. I think of paella as a dish to be
prepared over hours, possibly an entire day. Cooked in the warm south, beneath the canopy of a leafy bower and before an azure sea – coaxed into full and piquant fruition by some adipose and moustachioed duenna, while almond-eyed kiddies dangle from her skirts and the menfolk sit around drinking harsh Rioja, smoking black tobacco and spitting.

Mind you, human ingenuity has been diminishing the temporal component of our cuisine for a long time now: in the Middle Ages salt was the preferred preservative, but by the 1900s tinned meat was being despatched from Fray Bentos in Uruguay and making the long voyage to dock in the British duodenum.

Also on Tesco’s shelves was an extensive selection of pasta sauces. All the usual suspects were there, including Loyd Grossman’s and several variations on the Dolmio theme. It had been a bad week for the Dolmio brand, what with Mars Food, which owns it, feeling it was incumbent on it to place a label on these sauces (and its other products) warning punters that they aren’t “everyday” foods but should be eaten only “occasionally” – say, once a week.

I stood in the aisle, my dreams macerated at my feet. Not eat a Dolmio pasta sauce every day of the week (and even twice daily)? What kind of freshly preserved, heavily sugared and salted hell was this? I have clung on for years to a vision of the good life, summed up for me by Dolmio pasta sauce adverts of the early 1990s, in which a tumultuously happy extended Neapolitan family chows down at a long table laid out under the spreading boughs of an olive tree: old crones and rosy-cheeked bambini, voluptuous girls and their blushing beaus, the entire assembly benignly surveyed by a greying paterfamilias, a role I reserved (don’t laugh) for myself.

True, I can actually count the number of times that I have eaten Dolmio pasta sauces on the fingers of one leprous hand, but as with most commodity fetishism – contra Marx – it’s the thought that counts. So, I bought a jar of Dolmio sauce and bore it home as a sort of edible time capsule; if it isn’t an “everyday” food, I reasoned, I could wait for the Apocalypse to crack off the lid.

I considered buying a jar of Loyd Grossman sauce as well. I’ve no idea if it’s any good but I met Grossman once, in his capacity as chairman of English Heritage’s blue plaque committee. He’d invited me to unveil the plaque for the short story writer H H Munro (whose nom de plume was Saki), which was to be sited on a property on Mortimer Street, London, now tenanted by a firm of accountants.

A scaffold had been put up outside so that the plaque could be mounted, but Loyd and I still had to crawl over one of the partners’ desks in order to reach it. I found him to be a warm and genuine man with no side at all – only a bottom, with which I was nose-to-tail during the desk-clambering. So, that’s the problem I have with his pasta sauces: instead of associating them with joyful consanguinity, I think of systematic pederasty. (Not, I hasten to add, because of Loyd Grossman’s bottom but because Saki had these proclivities and, according to his biographer, whom I met the same day, the writer kept a scrupulous menu of his conquests, including details of their, um, portion size.)

The next stop was Lidl – always a bizarre experience. The last branch of Lidl I’d visited was situated exactly on the death strip of the old Berlin Wall and surrounded by silver birches that looked to be precisely 25 years old. It was sheer foolishness to expect this outlet to have one of the elusive Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney puddings – its stock is discounted stuff that it has picked up cheap.

Fun fact: founded in 1930, Lidl was originally called Schwarz Foods but being referred to as “Schwarzmarkt” would have been a bit of a liability, especially once war was declared, and so the name was changed. There were no black-market puddings here but almost an entire aisle stacked with serrano hams! I would have bought one of these time-infused meats . . . but I had my Dolmio end-of-the-world to look forward to.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism