Almost Everything You Need to Know About the Immense Gulf Between Dante and Dan Brown

is communicated by the juxtaposition of these portraits:

The gravitas of the one.  The sheer empty-suit vacancy of the other.  Brown is a parasite feeding off a genius, making a fortune from gulls who take his pretentious hackery for erudition.  But in case the portrait doesn’t really communicate how depressing it is that this dim-witted tin eared buffoon is feted as one of the greatest writers of our time, Clive James does us all the kindness of reviewing his latest brick, Inferno.

It is, in a peculiar cruel way, a kind review in that James recognizes that Brown is a man of extremely modest talent and intellect who has somehow managed to parley that into massive success, sort of like  Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.

Discussing Dante even as they run, they are a handsome couple, the hero and the heroine, rather like Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps. The hero we already know. He is Robert Langdon, fresh from his activities as the “symbologist” who cracked the code associated with the famous painter whose surname was Da Vinci. (If Dan Brown’s all-time bestseller had been about the Duke of Edinburgh, it would have been called The Of Edinburgh Code.)

Langdon, though an American, still favours English tailoring. It must be easier to run in. Running beside him is Dr Sienna Brown, described as a “pretty, young woman”, in keeping with Dan Brown’s gift for inserting the fatal extra comma that he or one of his editors believes to be a sign of literacy. And indeed I should perhaps have written “the fatal, extra comma”, but something stopped me: an ear for prose, I hope.

Dan Brown has no ear for prose at all, a handicap which paradoxically gives pathos, and even tenderness, to his attempts at evoking Sienna’s charm. He has no trouble evoking her brains. She has an IQ of 208 and at the age of four she was reading in three languages. You can picture the author at his desk, meticulously revising his original sentence in which, at the age of three, she was reading in four languages. Best to keep it credible. But how to register her beauty as an adult? Here goes: “Tall and lissom, Dr Brooks moved with the assertive gait of an athlete.”

Would that be the assertive gait of a Russian female weightlifter? Probably more like the assertive gait of the British pentathlete Jessica Ennis. Anyway, as usual with a bad writer, the reader has to do most of the imagining. A canny bad writer keeps out of the way so that the reader’s mind can get to work with its own stock of clichés, but Dan Brown shows deadly signs of an ambition to add poetry to his prose. Take, from quite early in the book, his chilling portrait of the beautiful female assassin who is stalking the heroic couple as they flee from one famous location in Florence to another. Later on they will flee from one famous location to another in other famous cities, notably Venice and Istanbul, but early on they are stuck in the famous city of Florence, being hunted down by the beautiful female assassin whose name is Vayentha. How can she be described, in view of the fact that all the “tall and lissom” adjectives have already been lavished on Sienna? Langdon looks out of the window, and there she is:

“Outside his window, hidden in the shadows of the Via Torregalli, a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BMW motorcycle and advanced with the intensity of a panther stalking its prey. Her gaze was sharp. Her close-cropped hair—styled into spikes—stood out against the upturned collar of her black leather riding suit. She checked her silenced weapon, and stared up at the window where Robert Langdon’s light had just gone out.”

That counts as a long paragraph for Dan Brown. Generally he believes that a short paragraph will add pace, just as he believes that an ellipsis will add thoughtfulness. Groups of three dots appear in innumerable places, giving the impression that the narrative … has measles. This impression is appropriate, because the famous symbologist and the pretty, young woman are actually impelled by their mission to save the world from plague. It isn’t just because the heavies are after them that they are always in such a hurry.

In fact the heavies turn out not to be so heavy after all. They, too, are out to save the world, which must surely soon die unless its population is drastically reduced. How this can be done is the central question raised by the book, unless you think that the central question raised by the book is how it ever got published. Dan Brown and all his characters take it for granted that a Malthusian interpretation of earthly existence must be correct. The fact that Malthus turned out to be wrong doesn’t slow them down for a moment. They just keep running, always one step ahead of whichever panther-like assassin is unstraddling herself from her BMW just behind them.

Eventually they get to where they would never have thought of running to if it had not been for Robert Langdon’s skills as a symbologist. I had better not reveal how it all comes out: there might be a few readers of this review who have not already read the book. But just in case you haven’t, let me suggest that it ends the way it began, as a fizzer. Your enjoyment will eventually depend on how much you, in your role as a symbologist, can revel in the task of decoding the text to lay bare the full extent to which the author can’t write.

The less he can write, of course, the more admirable his achievement. As well as the heroism of Robert Langdon, we must think of the heroism of Dan Brown. This is a man who started out with such a shaky grasp of the English language that he still thinks “foreboding” is an adjective meaning “ominous.” I also relished “Sienna changed tacks.” Read aloud, these three words would suggest that the pretty, young woman had altered her arrangement with the Internal Revenue Service. But Dan Brown has never read one of his own sentences aloud in all his life; and why, now, would he need to? He can buy and sell all the pedants in the world.

On top of the shaky language are piled the solecisms. “Pandora is out of her box.” (Dan, she was never in it.) Piled on top of the solecisms there are the outright mistakes. The C-130 in which the World Health Authority task force travels is called a “transport jet.” It should be a turboprop. In Istanbul, “the Bentley roared away from the curb.” The last Bentley that ever roared was racing at Brooklands before World War Two. But at least he tried to tart up his text with the occasional everyday fact.

More questionable is when the fact is from a higher realm of experience and comes accompanied by a judgement.  Brown has put prodigies of effort into mugging up the scholarly background of his story, but the laborious deployment of learned lore is too often undermined by signs that he can’t tell one painting or piece of sculpture from another, even though he knows all the names and has seen every masterpiece from close up. (Some of them are probably hanging in his house by now; he must have the purchasing power of the Metropolitan Museum.) He uses the word “masterpiece” when referring to Vasari, who never painted a masterpiece in his entire career: even at the time, it was well known that Vasari’s gigantic pictures were mainly of use in order to cover walls.

On the subject of Michelangelo, who really did create masterpieces, Dan Brown has admirably taught himself every name and date, but can still refer to “the sombre phalanx of Michelangelo’s crude Prigioni.”  Actually the term “sombre phalanx” is quite good, but the word “crude” won’t do at all, because the unfinished look of those sculptures is the sculptor’s dearest effect. Throughout the book, the reader will find evidence that the writer’s learning has been hard won. It must have been hard won because it is so heavily worn. Langdon will engage in private speculations about Dante while he is running flat out, the pretty, young woman matching him stride for stride.

The tragedy for utterly undeserving success stories like Brown is that, at some level, they have to know what complete frauds they are.  And  after the initial experience of making a fortune wears off and they settle into the new life of underserved wealth, fame, and acclaim as a genius, they have to then sleep at night with the rankling awareness that what they make and their whole public persona is crap.  If they are sufficiently mediocre, men like Brown can perhaps succeed in telling themselves they are “artists” and have made a contribution to the common good.  But if they have any shred of conscience left, they have to know they are pretentious parasites and third rate phonies who create junk.  If they are aware of that, their doom (and perhaps their salvation) is that they they then spend the rest of their lives trying to actually do something worthy of all the accolades accorded them by sycophants and suckers.

I hope that Dan Brown’s conscience keeps him awake at nights. It might be his salvation. So far, though, there’s no evidence of that.  He seems secure in his mediocrity and wealth is a powerful insulator against the blandishments of conscience. Meanwhile, if I never have to read and, God help me, analyze another Dan Brown book again, it will be too soon.  That anything this guy writes could ever have been taken seriously as a threat to the Christian faith is a comment on the immense intellectual poverty of the post-Christian west.  That he dares to pair his name with a giant like Dante is an insult akin to spray painting the Mona Lisa.

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    All you need to know about Dan Brown’s latest effort is that Dante’s masterpiece is not “The Inferno”, it is “The Divine Comedy”, of which the Inferno is the first third.

    I have never read a Dan Brown book and even Clive James can’t entice me to do so. But I may try James’ translation of Dante 🙂

    He’s a little hard on poor old Vasari; true, his style is “imitating Raphael imitating Michaelangelo” for the most part, but he’s a serviceable enough painter – though granted, he is most known for his “Lives of the Artists” (“Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”) in which he covers all those destined to be more famous than he.

  • Doug

    Hmmm, dull, cliched characters moving from one fabulous European setting to another. If he threw in endless digressions on philosophical points nobody cares about, he could stand in for Michael O’brien.

  • Marcel Ledbetter

    When I see basically untalented men prosper, I never know whether to be annoyed or hopeful.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    You left out the quote from the review which reveals what Dan Brown is missing:

    “Meanwhile he leaves us with a scene in which Robert Langdon puts on Sienna’s wig—she’s bald, I forgot to say—and she helps him to secure it into place with his tie. The scene comes about half way into the book and it proves beyond question that Brown can’t picture what he himself is describing .”

    • CTW

      I laughed out loud when I read that scene in the book. Just picture Tom Hanks in that get up. 🙂

  • Katie in FL

    The true test is time. Twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now, will anyone be reading these books? Dante’s works, however, are still doing pretty well.

  • Lee Johnson

    I was puzzled by the last few paragraphs … would you stay awake at night if you sold 10 million units of plastic vomit, or rubber chickens?

    I think it’s the parasitism of Brown’s writing that offends Mark, not the success at schlepping schlock. Brown’s popularity sows confusion about sacred things.

    Year ago, I would have argued that Brown is so over-the-top in the badness of his parody that no one could possibly take it seriously except as camp. However, I have listened to people tell me, “Brown’s book is all true.”

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      That’s the irritating part. Brown doesn’t bug me, but his fans–the ones that think he’s telling a truth slyly veiled as fiction–they get under my skin. And really, can’t he write without leaving crumbs on a master?

      • It doesn’t help that Brown himself claims it’s all true, that “they” would not have let him publish it as non-fiction. I lost all respect for him when I read the interview where he said that. It’s one thing to pick a controversial and potentially offensive conspiracy as a topic because you think it would sell well or make a good story; it’s another entirely to do it because you are dumb enough to think it is true.

  • etme

    “The tragedy for utterly undeserving success stories like Brown…” I think you are mistaken, Mark. His “success story” is about fame and making a lot of money. As one of the commentators on James’ article paraphrased, “No one ever went broke underestimating the public’s taste.” Fame and money have nothing to do with high value. I.e., the reward for high value (artistic, intellectual, moral) is not – fame and money. It is however a bit typically American and modern, that the measure of value is popularity; it is the democratic mindset, vox populi and all that. It is also, at heart, the principle of capitalism, of the market, of commercial success. Yet something that sells well is not necessarily valuable; to the contrary: OK magazine and pop stars and fast food and Dan Brown. In truth, it is otherwise.

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      Rubbish. Dante himself was the most popular and widely read Italian author of the period; so were Cervantes and Dickens after him. Success is often, though alas not always, an indication of merit.

      • bear

        And Shakespeare. He made enough to retire. Most other writers of his class and era earned enough just enough money to die broke.

      • etme

        Success, strictly speaking, is an indication that people bought some stuff, and of nothing else. More plainly, the income made by selling something is ONLY an indication that people bought it. The fact that many people buy it – or vote for it – is NOT a moral indicator, nor is it an intellectual or aesthetic one. Those might or might not be associated , but that is contingent. To the contrary, given what we as Catholics know about human nature, “panem et circenses” (bread and circus), or appealing to the basest, will always be a broad appeal. Fast food and sex. Let us walk to the neighborhood cinema, turn on the TV, check the bestseller list, or the “more than a trillion sold” food joint. But this, too, is contingent. Getting people to buy something – or buy into something – is an indicator only of that, that they bought that something. Not of value. Barabas would agree.

        • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

          Elitism is not Catholic. Your attitude towards what you seem to imply is the idiot mass is not Catholic. “I thank you, Lord, that you have hidden these secrets from the wise and have taught them to children.” “25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26For you see your calling, brothers, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: 27But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; 28And base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen, yes, and things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are: 29That no flesh should glory in his presence. 30But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made to us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: 31That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord.” And definitely NOT in being wiser than the silly mob.

  • John Russell

    Being an artist has nothing to do with contributing to the common good. Only good artists do that. It is quite possible to be a bad artist.

  • michael

    I know nothing of this Dan Brown, other than he is a writer of fiction never read his books or seen his movies, so I really can not comment on his work, BUT DUDE you need to simmer down, you put way to much significance on this garbage. I think you may have been better before your public confession and coming out party. When you result to school yard name calling, it makes you seem like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Easy up guy, before you bust something important. I love to read your stuff and love your humor, but a lot of times I can not finish reading your post when get stopped short at the sharp tongued comments. CHILL OUT

    • Newp Ort


      Who has said Brown is “one of the greatest writers of our time”?

      That’s a picture of a guy standing there in a suit with his book. Isn’t “empty suit vacancy” a bit harsh? Can anyone stand up to the gravitas of a centuries old oil painting? And so what? It’s the guy’s writing that’s bad, not his ability as a model. This characterization is as uncharitable as it is unnecessary.

      Many writers have used great works of literature as inspiration, and included them in their writing. (as a Sci-fi nerd, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and Olympos/Ilium come to mind) I don’t think doing it poorly makes him a parasite.

      Brown’s writing is so bad it’s funny, as this hilarious review shows. I’m glad you shared it with us. But why all the bile?

      • I agree with you, Newp Ort. Almost any modern photographed in modern dress trying to look friendly (which is the preferred style in our culture) would look paltry beside that portrait of Dante. I loathe Dan Brown’s writing for both its popularization of historically illiterate heresy and for its shockingly awful prose, but going after him for an awkward publicity photo is a cheap shot. In his heresy, his mediocrity, and his unseriousness, he’s just a symptom of contemporary culture–rage at the flood, not the flotsam.

  • Will

    I do not know much about Dan Brown other than he writes books of fiction that seem to upset some conservative religious people. Does he claim his books are other than fiction? His books are only a problem if you are not secure in your religion.

    • Newp Ort

      If he represents his books as other than fiction, then I would have a big problem with him. Even if he claims it’s fiction, I also think it would be wrong if he quietly claims it’s only fiction while happily watching many people perceive it as truth while he rakes in the cash.

      I think it’s wrong to spout falsehoods, and wrong to stay quiet while others perceive fiction as truth or spread falsehoods they interpret from your work.

      Is there any evidence Brown is doing this? That would have been helpful information to have in this post.

      • chezami

        He does represent his book as other than fiction, but the main issue in *this* review is simply that he is a crappy, crappy writer.

        • Newp Ort

          Ok if he’s saying this stuff is true, he’s either a liar or a conspiracy nut.

          The writing, yeah it obviously sucks. Someone gifted me the davinci code and it was horrible, had to stop reading. Crap read like a Hardy Boys mystery. (i forgot that part about the opening page “FACT”, but in my defense all of it I read was forgettable.)

          Mark, is anybody with a whit of sense about literature calling him one of the greatest writers of our time?

          • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

            Oi! I liked the Hardy Boys!

            • Newp Ort

              And you were what? 12?

              • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

                Eleven to fourteen. There was a successful Italian series of translations, including the HBs, Nancy Drew, the Three Invesigators and eventually an Italian character, and I was an addict. I don’t suppose I’d enjoy them as much now, but I think they were honest and even vaguely educational entertainment, and certainly not to be compared with this berk.

      • “The Da Vinci Code” opened with an egregious page entitled “FACT” that stated that the “documents, rituals, organization, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist” which would be news to anyone who knows that, e.g., the organization called the “Priory of Sion” is a silly hoax that never existed.

        • wlinden

          Not to mention that his depiction of Opus Dei amounts to libel.

          • Margaret

            Libel, AND he couldn’t even get the address right…

      • What Mark said. I don’t know about his current novel, but Brown has claimed in the past that what he wrote in The Da Vinci Code was true, but he would not have been able to publish it unless he disguised it as fiction.

        Moreover, even if he himself doesn’t believe it, I can’t tell you how many people there are who do believe it is true. For that crime — causing the world to be a little bit stupider — I can’t forgive him.

    • wlinden

      He insists on having it both ways. “This is fiction…. but everything in it is true.”

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      No. You are just desperate to score points, and you are being stupid. Most of the greatest artists I love disagree with me, from Aeschylus to Kalidasa to Sappho to Hayao Miyazaki. But if there is so little of you as a human being that you can’t tell the difference between greatness, even purely human greatness, and crass, inflated and rewarded failure, then I suggest you shut up and listen, because you have a lot to learn. I would be equally furious if this worm had tried to deal with Hayao Miyazaki or Virgil, because it is a case of a worm bringing a titan down to his own level. Are you capable of understanding that, or are you yourself so much a worm that you think worms have a right to do so?

      • Will


    • Romulus

      His books are a problem because the man can’t write a sentence that isn’t crap. Even if every fact he presents were gospel truth, his books taken as a whole are artistic frauds because they lack any quality of beauty that characterizes truth.

    • jaybird1951

      In the case of the DaVinci Code he did claim that it was based on the truth and many millions believed all his lies in the book, including his claim to have done extensive research (Not!). I once offered to supply some articles from the Catholic press debunking Brown’s DaVinci book to a colleague whose wife loved the book and was regurgitating the anti-Catholic lies in it. He came back the next day and told me she had no interest in reading anything that would debunk it. Evidently, she (like many others) preferred to cherish her prejudices. And she was a self proclaimed Greek Orthodox Christian.

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    I’ve had word from above that Dante is petitioning the good Lord for a few days’ leave of absence to go back to earth and add a few dozen suitable verses featuring Brown to his masterpiece.

  • Scott W.

    The concern trolling is strong with this thread…

  • Mike

    Help me out. What’s the difference between foreboding and ominous :s ?

  • Jordan

    That review made me laugh really hard. Spot on characterization of Brown’s writing abilities.