Pop FictionMy reading tends to the extremes; either Literature (of the canonistic or at least Booker Prize winning variety) or "chick lit." I like books that are very well written or that have endearing characters, and I don't seem to read much of the in-between. I grew wary of John Grisham after they made the third movie based on his novel, and gave up on him completely after The Street Lawyer, when I realized he had given up completely on creating worthwhile characters. From my reading, Crichton never bothered much with characterization at all -- too busy writing the science -- and I picked up a Clancy novel once and threw it aside in disgust after two pages.
In short, I'm not fascinated by cutting-edge science, which is why Crichton doesn't do much for me, and I'm utterly bored by militaristic fantasies, which is why Clancy is a turn-off. Danielle Steel, labelled a romance writer, is no such thing; she writes materialistic wish-fulfillment liberally sprinkled with ellipses. To my knowledge, she has published perhaps two books that don't deal with wealthy people, and her style would remain atrocious even if she suddenly started channelling Upton Sinclair.
Stephen King is an occasional exception to my general avoidance of the reliable bestselling writers. He really can write, particularly when he's writing about writers or writing itself. Even though his specialty is supposed to be the supernatural, I like him best when he keeps it close to what he knows, rather than what he fears (or at least when knowledge and fear are combined). I don't think any of the other authors I've named -- nor Mary Higgens Clark, nor Patricia Cornwall -- will receive a "distinguished contribution to American letters" award from the National Book Foundation. (Oprah was a bit of a surprise, but that was a gratitude nod; "Oprah, thank you for getting the TV-watching masses to pick up a book.")
All of this is explanatory prelude to my review of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. Both are interesting in terms of plot and the facts Brown throws in. A terrific amount of research and imagination -- and an extraordinary combination of the two -- went into these books. The mechanics of the plot are perfect.
But I have rarely managed to finish books so poorly written, and I was frankly astounded to read on the dust-jacket that Brown taught English at the high school level. That means he was immersed in good writing, and yet he has shamelessly published this stuff. He italicizes like a schoolgirl writing her diary, and he has allegedly brilliant characters unable to recognize a string of numbers as the numeric code they need, or a seemingly unknown script as merely English written to be read with the help of a mirror.
If he had mentioned Langdon's "Harris tweed" or Harvard affiliation one more time, I probably would have chucked the books out a window. And the clumsy, "incidental" translation of foreign language dialogue made me long for those movies in which people just speak English with a foreign accent, or for old books like Jane Eyre where if the reader didn't know French, tough shit.
I've always thought of myself as a very bourgeois person, especially culturally, but Brown's books have an off-putting odor of aspiring intellectualism, of the sort that is awed by a Harvard pedigree. Art-lite, religion-lite, secret societies -- perhaps it's just that UVA killed any ability I may have had to take "secret societies" seriously.
With all that said, there are a few spots of genuinely useful ideas in the books -- more in Angels and Demons than in its more popular successor -- that make me think Dan Brown is a good thinker even if he isn't a very good writer. I don't regret having read the books... if nothing else, they are a major pop culture phenomenon... but they're not worth re-reading and thus not worth purchasing. Borrow them so you can get an idea of what the fuss is about, but don't bother putting down money.
UPDATE: BTD Greg thinks even more poorly of Dan Brown's abilities than I do.