The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown

Prospect Magazine

The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown


The less his talent, the more amazing his achievement

Clash of the titans: Dan versus Dante (© Ian West/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful. Nevertheless it is still almost worth reading. In the publishing world they have a term, “pull line,” which means the few words of apparent praise that you can sometimes pull out of a review however hostile. Let me supply that pull line straight away, ready furnished with quotation marks: “The author of The Da Vinci Code has done it again.”

Once again, that is, he makes you want to turn the pages even though every page you turn demonstrates abundantly his complete lack of talent as a writer. The narrative might be a bit less compulsive this time but you still want to follow it, if only to find out whether the hero and the heroine will ever get together. But to do that, they will first have to stop running to escape the heavies.

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.

Do they get together in the end? Alas, or perhaps hooray, he realises that he is too old for her. But hooray, or perhaps alas, she offers herself anyway. There is something … irresistible about the tall symbologist. He is a bit like a wildly successful American author of brain-teasing thrillers, but he has taken another course.

As for the author himself, he will probably go on taking every course there is, in his heroically studious search for a new subject. Dante was a bad choice, I think. Most of Brown’s huge audience won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. If they want to find out, I recommend my new translation of The Divine Comedy, which Brown was mischievously shown by the American newspaper USA Today. The author of Inferno said of my translation that it was “kind of clever.” I want you to know this because if even a tiny percentage of the audience of Inferno chooses my translation to find out more about Dante, I might come closer to being rewarded for years of labour.

So I have no reason to begrudge Dan Brown his universal success. But I wouldn’t begrudge it anyway. I am an old man: old enough to find pretentious absurdity a diverting spectacle. There is not enough of it in this book, but its author will return, undaunted. 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.

Unfortunately, however, he also shows evidence that he is learning from his mistakes. We don’t want him to. We want him to give us everything he’s got, and in his case a kind of exalted stupidity is an essential part of it. Should you read this book? Of course you shouldn’t. Will you read this book? Of course you will. As Sienna puts it: “The mathematics is indisputable.”

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  1. July 12, 2013


    Your jealousy downright gushes from your critique (please don’t criticize my prose, I do not claim either high intellect or any writing ability of note) and it is sad, and it makes you look sad. Sorry we can’t all be literary heavyweights like you, then surely you would be justly rewarded for all your hard work in translating an umpteenth version of a book 99.99% of the world has no interest in.

    • July 12, 2013


      I really can’t believe you think that ‘jealousy gushes’ here…….you have allowed your love for Dan Brown to overshadow what is a wonderful review. I’m fairly certain that Clive James is not jealous of Dan Brown.

    • July 13, 2013


      That’s sad that you have no interest in Dante because — for the music of the words and the intensity of the vision (even if Christianity itself has little interest for you) — Dante is like Bach — it’s deep, it’s there, you can never fall as far or be as alone in your humanity because Dante has gone before you and thought and felt everything already, and he survived it and so can you. Seriously, dude, don’t project percentages who don’t care until you engage the material first. There’s a reason why it’s on all those lists of “must reads.”

    • July 13, 2013

      Eric Bacon

      I can’t believe you just defended Dan Brown’s book while trashed The Divine Comedy, which Brown’s book is based on. You say that 99.9% of people have no interest in great literature? That is only true if 99.9% are reading Dan Brown. I thought this review was brilliant, sharp, and funny. I don’t care if you like Dan Brown or not, but people should spend less effort being offended and projecting jealousy.

    • July 15, 2013


      Your stupidity downright gushes from your critique of his critique and it’s so sad i’m crying now. Go make out with Dan Brown in your dark little corner but leave the writing and intellectual debate to other people

    • July 16, 2013


      spoken like a true bogan, Steve – wow -

    • July 16, 2013


      Why would you instantaneously equate a perfectly reasonable and well written critique of a book to jealousy? Just because it doesn’t sing praises of the author doesn’t mean it paints a profile of jealousy or spite. Offensive as it may be to you, it is Clive’s take on the book he read.

      And just so you know, the book you’ve never read means something to author you’re so gladly defending. That must count for something.

    • July 16, 2013


      I would dearly like to live in a world in which jealousy – no, everything – gushes.

    • July 18, 2013


      Not jealousy, just intellect.

    • July 23, 2013


      Clive James sounds like a typical pseudo intellectual who is simply jealous of the success and millions that Dan Brown has earned in his Da Vinci serials. Stick to your poems Clive and perhaps someday someone will know who you are.

    • January 8, 2014

      Suresh Dogra

      If illiteracy is appallingly so widespread that 99.9% have no interest in Dante, God save the world.

  2. July 12, 2013

    Gene Schulman

    This is one of the great reviews of all time. I am reading Jame’s translation of Dante now, and have no intention of even a cursory look at Brown’s pages when in my local bookshop.

    • July 15, 2013


      I agree. One of the best reviews I have ever read. Reminds you of some of Roger Ebert’s memorable reviews of awful movies.

    • December 31, 2013

      Steve Gillette


  3. July 12, 2013

    alex masterley

    I think Brown got his comma right in “pretty, young woman.” Like that, it means a woman who is both young and pretty. No comma (a “pretty young woman”) and it would have been a woman who was only approximately young.

    • July 12, 2013


      As opposed to precisely young? What does “approximately young” mean? I can’t see your point.

      • July 12, 2013


        The point is that ‘pretty young’ without the comma is a description of how young she is (distinct from ‘very young’, for example), whereas adding the comma makes it clear that pretty is an adjective describing the woman, not grading the extent of her youth.

        • July 13, 2013

          James Kabala

          No, the point here is that traditional grammar treats “young woman” as a single syntactical unit. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things rather than a precisely defined rule, but the underlying idea is that precisely that one CANNOT SAY “young pretty woman” – “young woman” is a unit and cannot be separated – “pretty” must come first and there should be no comma.

          Phrases of this type often involve ages or colors – good old boy, fine young lad, mean old man, old gray mare, old brown shoe, big yellow taxi – reversing the adjectives would create an impossible phrase (in English – other languages might have different instincts). Maybe someone who knows more grammatical terminology than I do can say if this rule has a name.

        • July 13, 2013


          In colloquial American english not having a comma after “pretty” turns it into an adverb meaning “more or less” ( in this case to modify the adjective “young” ). When a comma is placed after “pretty” it remains an adjective meaning “beautiful.” In Great Britain “pretty” is rarely as an adverb and remains an adjective in most contexts: thus for British speakers, such as James, the comma would be unnecessary.

        • July 13, 2013


          I concur. ‘pretty young’ could sound as if ‘pretty’ is an adjective of ‘young’, not of ‘woman’. Switching the order to young pretty goes against this adjective-ordering rule:
          Pretty neat site, that.

        • July 18, 2013

          Joe McMahon

          As an American English speaker, “pretty young woman” to me reads as “a young woman who is pretty”. Even our barbarisms aren’t as barbaric as that embedded grocer’s comma. If we wanted to say a woman was relatively young, that’s not the adjective we’d use. “Fairly” or “reasonably” or “somewhat’, if it were to be in the leading position. If we were going to use the word “pretty” as a comparative, it would probably be “a woman who’s pretty young”, specifically to avoid “pretty” binding to “woman” instead of “young”.

          A subtle difference, but that’s our usage.

    • July 12, 2013


      That was my take on it, too. I suppose you could swap it round to “young pretty woman” to avoid ambiguity and drop the comma but it seems unnecessary.

    • July 13, 2013

      K. Truelsen

      In this case the comma makes distinction is between a “young and pretty woman” and a “rather young woman” and is justifiable. Less so is the banal description in the first place. And as to Mr. Kabala’s comment below, I suggest that a “good old boy” is not necessarily the same as a “good, old boy.” Now please stop giving me reasons to defend Dan Brown’s approximation of writing.

    • October 14, 2013

      Larry Siegel

      I am absolutely certain that he got the comma right. A pretty, young woman is a woman who is both pretty and young. A pretty young woman is one who is only somewhat young and who soon will be pretty old.

      Emarrassingly snotty review. Roger Ebert, bless him, would be ashamed to have his famous pans compared to this.

  4. July 12, 2013


    …old enough to find pretentious absurdity a diverting spectacle… Try rereading your article next week and you should have a grand old time. Am I the only one who finds James diminished and instead sympathizes, surprisingly, with Brown? What makes for the greater crime, receiving success out of all proportion for silly but compulsive page turners, or lavishing critical attention out of all proportion on a silly but compulsive page turner? An entire paragraph mocking Brown’s use of commas? Good heavens.

  5. July 12, 2013


    A very entertaining article, but I must ask about the final line. Is Clive’s implication that it should be ‘The mathematics are indisputable?’

    I discovered (relatively recently, I might add) that mathematics is often wrongfully considered a plural because of the letter S at the end. In fact it’s a singular. More here:

    So while that line does look horribly clumsy, it’s not, I don’t think, evidence of Dan Brown’s inability to use the English language.

    • July 15, 2013


      I do not think Clives James thinks ‘mathematics’ is a plural (it is not, any more than economics, politics, ….). What perhaps Dan Brown wants to say, I suppose, “there is no doubt about the calculations” or some such. The line “mathematics is indisputable” is silly, because that sounds as if they were talking about the Mathematics, the discipline, and the effect is ludicrous.

  6. July 12, 2013


    Now that was frikkin’ funny!

  7. July 12, 2013


    1. A sense of impending evil or misfortune.
    2. An evil omen; a portent.
    Marked by or indicative of foreboding; ominous.

    -The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

    • July 12, 2013


      I have to say that that foreboding/ominous thing had me scratching my head, too, and searching for a dictionary to see which of those words I had misunderstood for, I think, ever. Turns out it was neither.

      While I agree with James about Dan Brown, I have to say that the forced rhymes of his Dante translation and the injection into the poem of explanatory notes had me abandoning it early, and grateful for the Hollanders.

      The only Dan Brown book I’ve read is DaVinci, and while the quality of the writing seemed low to very low, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it at 2 or 3 in the morning.

    • July 13, 2013

      Sean Devine

      I think you folks miss the point – whether the sentence is ‘right’ or not, the fact is that it is still terrible writing on the part of Brown. I enjoyed his books but felt myself cringing at some of the prose.

      (I’m just realising that the sentences above are terrible too but you get my drift)

  8. July 12, 2013

    Brian Brett

    ummh, Clive, would you rather have her being a pretty young… woman?

  9. July 12, 2013

    Eric Blair

    Clive James is a national treasure. Sadly, he is not our national treasure.

  10. July 12, 2013



    On mathematics being singular or plural, it is not a simple as you suggest. Remembering that Clive James, the author of this article is Australian (resident in England), the traditional English usage (as explained in Fowler’s Modern English Usage) for “ics” words like mathematics is singular when they are used simply–such as “Mathematics is the study of numbers” However, usage is plural if denoting quality or behavior “His mathematics are weak” “Mathematics are not needed in this situation” By this rule, the sentence James quotes above falls into this latter category and should take the plural.

    Either way,

    • July 14, 2013


      Mathematic am plural. One may infer this from the existence of the silent “g” at the end.

  11. July 12, 2013


    Lovely piece. Pointing out the aspects of weak writing is a service. CJ does it with humor while graciously giving Brown props for creating a winning formula.

    As for “the mathematics is indisputable” –I smiled along with CJ because (feel free to correct me) a result would be indisputable, not a mathematics.

    • July 13, 2013

      Andy Bloom

      Agreed–likewise, OED cites Edmund Burke, “I can never quote France without a foreboding sigh”; the New Monthly Magazine, “He gave me a squeeze of the hand, which was forebodingly forcible”; Collins, “Her head shaking forebodingly from time to time”. Dan Brown is a terrible writer, all right, but his use of ‘foreboding’ seems perfectly standard.

    • July 15, 2013


      I have not read this masterpiece (of Brown), so have no idea of how ‘foreboding’ is used to mean ‘ominous’. But you cannot simply substitute ‘foreboding’ for ‘ominous’. Consider : “What he said was ominous” and “What he said was foreboding”.
      Only someone who has read the book can clear the issue.

  12. July 12, 2013


    Lasciate ogni speranza…

  13. July 12, 2013

    Gary Dietz

    Sometimes, I eat ho-hos. Sometime, I east fine French pastries.

    Depending on the context, those who surround me may make fun of me for either choice.

    Such is life.

  14. July 12, 2013


    While I find some of Clive James criticisms of punctuation and grammar unfounded, I don’t think its snobby to expect even popular books to be decently written. Certainly many have been: e.g. The Name of the Rose, the mysteries of P.D. James, even the Harry Potter series.

    Like Bridges of Madison County or the Shades of Gray series, Brown writes clumsy, stilted, and sometimes gag-inducing prose. If people want to by and read it, fine. But as long as there are mystery and adventure stories by writers of skill, I don’t feel the need to do so.

    • July 12, 2013

      Other Steve

      It’s an editor’s job to ensure that a writer isn’t embarrassed by incompetent prose or grammar, and one can only wonder where they are in Dan Brown’s case. His sales make him a major asset, and one who should be protected from looking as stupid as he so frequently does. American publishing houses have the most efficient procedures for this kind of thing. If Brown refuses their help, he’s basically de-educating his readers.

      As for Mr James, all I’ll say is; Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper.

    • July 15, 2013

      Anthea Brainhooke

      The Harry Potter books had their magic moments (excuse the pun) but they were fairly unevenly-written.

      That said, the greatest achievement of the HP books was to get children reading, and that’s nothing to be sneezed at.

      If Dan Brown can get adults reading, especially if they can wean themselves from his poorly-made pap onto something with a bit of bite to it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    • July 22, 2013


      Or John Grisham.

  15. July 12, 2013


    And yes, “its” should be “it’s”, “by” should by “buy” and Like Bridges…should continue “Brown’s books have clumsy…”

  16. July 12, 2013


    I’ll hardly defend Brown as a literary genius, but the hate he gets is quite disproportionate to whatever lack of talent he has. There are far, far worse writers getting published and making truckloads of money (David Baldacci, DAVID BALDACCI). If you’re really, I mean *really*, going to use the fact that he wrote “pretty, young woman,” or that he wrote ‘athlete’ as a generic catch-all for someone who moves confidently, or that he wrote that the Bentley ‘roared,’ or that he called an artist’s whose work you so *deliciously disdainfully* cast aside piece a ‘masterpiece,’ as reasons he can’t write, it sounds like you’re a repulsing pretentious nitpicker (though, I’ll admit, I chuckled at the ‘Pandora’s Box’ error).

    Will Brown be remembered in the pantheon of brilliant writers? No. Has he written some entertaining stories in clear enough language that I can enjoy them at the beach or on a plane? Yes. Or, at least, he could, before his formula wore thin. But this critique came off as downright snobbish, and oozed envy.

    Also, “changed tack” is a perfectly fine idiom (though… Gasp, did Brown add an S? HERESY) and ‘foreboding’ can mean ominous.

    • July 12, 2013


      I believe Clive James’ point about “change tack” was that it cannot be plural, As I’m sure you know are on one tack–one direction–and change to another.

      More broadly I have a different few, as detailed above. Even if Brown is not the absolute worst (like Baldacci or the awful E.L. James of Shades of Gray), there are still many other “beach reads,” both current and classic, that are far better written. (Just to name a few: PD James, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ngaio Marsh, Jack London. Even Rowlings’ Harry Potter series.).

      If you still get pleasure out of the story, great. I find that really clumsy prose, like Brown’s, makes even a good story hard to enjoy.

      • July 13, 2013

        Andy Bloom

        Right–so why can’t “tack” be plural? You “change horses”, for example (not “change horse”). And “direction” (which as you say is what “tack” means) can go either way here–”change direction” and “change directions” both sound OK to me.

        • July 13, 2013


          He was, I think, making two points. One that the more usual phrase is singular “change tack.” Another is the sound of phrase “changed tacks,” with the “d” butting right up against the “t” of tack — hideous, clanging sound of two consonants that crash into each other quite painfully in modern English. Followed immediately by that explosive “ack.” Now that’s bad English! Beowulf might have luxuriated in its consonants, but in modern English we really never do. That’s why, if you think about it, you never read the phrase as Brown wrote it. You tell someone to “let’s change tack.” If you are describing, or it happened in the past, you say something different. “Sienna changed tacks” is so cacophonous, the modern English speaker avoids. Why didn’t Dan? Well, he has a tin ear, which is dire for a writer.

          One of the most successful writers I ever met is only moderately intelligent, and kind of a mental thug — so little elegance or refinement. On the other hand, she’s enthusiastic, she does research, she finishes her assignments and she wants, more than anything, to support herself as a writer. That’s apparently what it takes!

          (She never changed tack …)

        • July 13, 2013


          How would a person change “directions” (plural)? (Remember that the sentence is about an individual, the character Sienna.)

          Sienna was heading north and south, now she heading east and west?

          Perhaps two people, or two boats, could change tacks, but not one.

          Sorry, on this one I’m with Clive James–it doesn’t work.

        • July 14, 2013


          Change in this case being a proxy for exchange and implying a substitution of one for the other, the use of plurals is perfectly acceptable. “Changing tack” is practically idiomatic, though, so I concede Mr. James’s point.

        • July 14, 2013

          Andy Bloom

          There’s the direction you started with, and there’s the direction you end up going in: two directions, thus the plural. Again, see my “change horses” example. Or shirts–you’d say “I changed shirts before going out again”, not “I changed shirt before going out again”; though I suppose you might say “I changed my shirt before going out again”. At any rate, if the logic doesn’t appeal to you, just treat it as an idiom or fixed phrase, like “by and large”. A quick google search suggests that “change directions” is extremely well attested, as is the original phrase “change tacks”. With idioms, the logic doesn’t really matter.

      • July 13, 2013

        Bob's Your Uncle

        I’ve heard of Dan Brown, but who is Clive James?

        • July 23, 2013


          I don’t know but Bob’s your uncle.

      • July 14, 2013


        Regarding changing directions, suppose you are in Chelsea, and believe someone has asked you how to get to Greenwich Village. You start to give directions, but midway through, you recall a teenagerhood spent in front of concert speakers way to loud for the venues in which they were situated, and realize that due to the resulting massive hearing impairment, you interpreted the question of how to get to Inwood as an inquiry about how to get to Greenwich Village. Consequently, mid-sentence, you restart, now describing the the appropriate steps to take in order to arrive at an uptown destination.
        You have changed your directions.

    • July 14, 2013


      Perhaps changing tacks was necessary, since the old ones had become pointless, and the pictures they held up were falling off the wall.

      Or perhaps changing tacks (which might be something like safety pins) were necessary, because there were many possible points of egress, from the diaper, for a variety of unwholesome fluids.

      Time flies, you cannot, because they are too fast.

    • July 22, 2013


      “Sienna changed tacks.” Read aloud, these three words would suggest that the pretty, young woman had altered her arrangement with the Internal Revenue Service.

      What Clive Jones is saying here is simply that if the author had read the sentence aloud would have noticed that it sounds like “Sienna changed tax” therefore the reference to the Internal Revenue Service.

  17. July 12, 2013

    nick s

    It is the most tangential of tangents (and yes, I brutalise the term deliberately) to point out that Jess Ennis is actually a heptathlete, but I’ll do it anyway.

    • July 14, 2013


      Is that contagious?

  18. July 12, 2013

    mark powlett

    We shouldn’t like his books but we do. Maybe its something to do with the fact you can read them in an afternoon and still have time for another more challenging read too.

  19. July 12, 2013

    The No Show

    I love Clive James and I love everyone who took the time to leave such entertaining comments.

    Your all awesome.

  20. July 12, 2013


    Only a writer as bad as Brown would persevere with such a paltry plot to its conclusion in the first place. Anyone even modestly better would pitch their ambitions higher, work harder on metaphor, polish their prose to a sheen and then be rejected out of hand by publishers. The middle ground is a no-mans land littered with bodies of “good enough” work

  21. July 12, 2013


    “That’s very pretty, young woman.”
    The pretty young woman was an athlete.
    The woman was pretty young.

    I have always liked Dan Brown’s stories. They are page turners with chapters about the same length as most writers paragraphs, but writing is not his strong suit. It’s poor quality, lazy, and often ill informed. I expect him to write things like:
    They were all pointing guns at each other, like that scene in Reservoir Dogs.
    The big guy walked in, like Arnie in The Terminator 2.
    He had a lopsided smile, like Han Solo in Jedi.
    Langdon had a distinctive voice, like Woody from Toy Story…

  22. July 12, 2013


    Bravo, Clive James. I have been enjoying your wonderful observations on life and art since your early years in England and your delightful sense of the absurd remains undiminished. I, for one, will forego Mr. Brown’s Inferno and skip straight to your translation of The Divine Comedy.

  23. July 12, 2013

    Frank Calidonna

    Does anyone remember Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor of the London Philharmonic orchestra? Once when asked why he did not add many modern pieces to the repertoire he said because no one could write a decent tune anymore. If you could not whistle it who would want to hear it. (I am paraphrasing as I don’t remember the exact words.)

    Dan Brown is a storyteller. He writes an interesting story. That is why he is popular. Why not? When I read a book I want a good story if I am reading fiction.

    So if I am reading Jonathan Franzen and being bored out of my mind and even if we were to diagram his sentences and get a Fleur de li (Truman Capote on John Updike) it doesn’t matter as far as my enjoyment of the story. If you are writing fiction tell me an engrossing story. Some have more skill with the language, but it boils down to do you have something interesting to tell. If you want to comment on the human condition, discuss problems with humanity, etc. do it in an interesting manner. Or write non fiction.

    • July 13, 2013


      If you enjoy Brown’s stories, great. But some expect more fluid prose than Brown commands,

      And I think you set up a bit of a false choice between good story telling and good writing. Many writers do both–Jack London, Dashiell Hammett and Eric Ambler just to name a few. As long as I can find writers who do both, I’ll leave Brown on the shelf.

      • July 14, 2013


        What about good solid prose? Also, does fluid prose contain within it, gaseous prose? More confusing, could fluid prose be solid, as some claim that glass is both a liquid and a solid? so perhaps there is some as yet unremarked more general form of vitreous prose. This also suggests the existence of other more esoteric states of prose, for instance highly charged plasmic prose, which can only maintain coherence in huge toroidal magnetic Borgesian libraries.

        On may consider vacuous prose, for instance, the morsel you are currently reading, but modern science informs us that even in vacua, virtual objects may arise and blink out, so even in this current nullity, there are prosons and etyms (Pax, Mr. Choice) popping in and out , fraught and then immediately unfraught with profound significances.

      • July 15, 2013

        Frank Calidonna

        I did not mean to imply that there is no choice. Of course a great story well told is preferable. My point was that Dan Brown is popular because he tells an interesting story. For an interesting story well told I would turn to Wodehouse.

  24. July 12, 2013


    I find this critique of Dan Brown’s work hilarious and it is oh so deliciously snarky. I chuckled several times. While I do not like Brown’s writing, he certainly isn’t the first (or the last) writer to take poor writing and the unfathomable instant popularity of it and skip along laughing all the way to the bank. There are all sorts of writers in this world and all sorts of readers too. Would Clive James have himself choose the reading material for everyone? It seems so.

  25. July 13, 2013


    Sounds like Dan Brown hasn’t improved. Years ago, under duress, I read Angels and Demons. It suffered from much the same problems: poor writing and blatant errors of fact. For instance in A+D, characters repeatedly remarked that they could not get a dial tone on their cell/mobile phones, and a switchboard operator at the BBC was said to be smoking at her desk.

  26. July 13, 2013


    I remember Clive James turn of phrase on the telly when introducing Ita Buttrose, he said she made Women’s Weekly what it is today – a monthly.

  27. July 13, 2013

    Annie Morgan

    Many of the comments are as funny as Dan Brown’s books! Hilarious review, Mr. Brown will profit from its having been written.

  28. July 13, 2013

    Ellie Lousada

    Am a bit confused with curb/kerb. Thought the latter was what one would roar away from.

  29. July 13, 2013

    Nick Allott

    Brilliant and on the money as usual Clive. However, on the subject of “facts”, Jessica Ennis is a Heptathlete, not a Pentathlete. Sorry to be Pentantic.

  30. July 13, 2013


    Much as I enjoyed CJ’s skewering of a literary lightweight, the high ground he takes on matters of accuracy is undermined by referring to Jessica Ennis as a pentathlete rather than a heptathlete

  31. July 13, 2013


    A motorcycling pedant wonders how our powerfully built assassin could have any kind of hair “style” at all, having just (presumably) removed her helmet? Or perhaps European traffic law is not one of the areas Brown thought necessary to mug up on for this book?

  32. July 13, 2013


    Well, we HOPE that Malthus is proved wrong.

  33. July 13, 2013

    martin knight

    I hugely enjoyed this review, perhaps CJ’s best in some time but this part might be taken for a boomerang:

    “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.”

    I thought CJ had more self-awareness than that.

  34. July 13, 2013


    Super-impressive takedown! On an only-vaguely-related matter, please enlighten me – I know “foreboding” is most commonly used as a noun, but is the adjective not also acceptable usage?

  35. July 13, 2013

    Jim S.

    That was one of the funniest reviews I’ve ever read. Bravo!

  36. July 14, 2013


    Clive James gives the devil (pun intended) too much due (dew? do?) I read Da Vinci and the one about Washington, DC. I found both them preposterous. And boring. In other words I could put them down–uh, I mean, physically. I usually only review books I love. Remember, as Ryan O’Neill should have said, “Love means never having to say I’m Dan Brown.”

  37. July 14, 2013


    Am I the only person who regards the metaphysics as of importance in Dan Brown’s novels? The documentary I saw on the Da Vinci Code had churchmen and Opus Dei defending their perspectives against the gnostic inside track being hinted at by that book, and he uncovers beliefs which are deeper than the majority hold, taking basic questions of good and evil, influence and loyalty, and interweaving how they underpin religion and earthly power-brokering.

    Clive James in this acerbic scour of a review has steered clear of that aspect of Dan Brown’s fiction, yet this latest book is also thought-provoking as well as being a fast paced travelog adventure. Dan Brown is a consummate craftsman and, if it feels a bit pastiche at times, the story-line is just strong enough to keep the reader hanging on to the bitter end.

    • July 15, 2013


      By “consummate” [sic], do you mean “shoddy”? That seems to me the better fit.

  38. July 14, 2013

    Michael Powe

    I think the reviewer may have missed a cue. Having read three of Brown’s books, my opinion is that he writes from a template. He just mixes in some new locales and names, presumably this being the extent of his imagination. But the novel and plot structures are interchangeable between books.

  39. July 14, 2013

    Steve C

    Thank you, Clive James for putting a smile on my face this morning. Couldn’t agree more – but aren’t you overlooking the value-for-money of a Dan Brown book? Hardback: 10p from any charity shop (or maybe 10c from a thrift store for the American translation)…

  40. July 14, 2013


    I love Dan Brown’s book, his stories take you on an adventure and an escape from a world we live in. As you read his book you can close your eye and feel that you are right in the place where the story is taking place. I am sure if Mr. James was alive when the Bible was written he would have given it a bad review too.

  41. July 14, 2013


    I always thought the correct, though technical term, for getting off a Beemer was disenstraddle, which is done prior to deholstering one’s firearm once the appropriate line of marcation, littoral (if it is in the damp sand), or figurative, had been crossed, and there is no turning back.

  42. July 14, 2013

    Michael McCaffrey

    An enjoyable and funny take on an popular author. I never could get into Dan Brown and now I know why. It was a pretty, doggoned good review.

  43. July 14, 2013

    Another Steve

    “The mathematics is indisputable” reminds me more than a little of Clive’s poem “Windows Is Closing Down”.

  44. July 14, 2013


    I’ve never read Brown’s work and I probably never will, but I would defend the value of a good page-turner. I’m currently reading the second book in the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin. I understand the writer has written more literary works, but my son directed me to this series. Anyway, despite the obvious cliches and laziness, I find myself thoroughly absorbed in the story. I don’t know about Brown, but Martin has the ability to hold this reader’s interest with well-rounded characters and a suspenseful plot. Beautiful language? Postmodernist inter-textual irony?- maybe not, but a good story just the same. Someone like Umberto Ecco might consider me a naive reader, but I read a novel as much or more for the story as for any larger insight or for any purely aesthetic concerns, and not at all for hidden references to other author’s works. Lastly, although I’m old and cynical, I definitely do not read any novel simply in order to laugh at the author’s shortcomings.

  45. July 14, 2013

    Edwin Firmage

    The only heroic absurdity I can see here is that of someone ambitious enough to tackle Dante and petulant enough to care about Dan Brown.

  46. July 14, 2013

    Don Hildenbrand

    Get over it , clive. It’s a best seller adventure novel. For entertainment. Never intended to be “serious” literature. I’m sure Dan Brown chuckles about your review all the way to his bank.

  47. July 14, 2013


    Brown had a premise of a good plot. But if the book were made into a TV Movie, every five minutes would be interrupted by a commercial about “Renaissance Art”, “Ancient Architecture” or “Things to See and Do in Italy.” These are very interesting subjects, but he overdoes it, breaking the continuity of the story.

  48. July 14, 2013


    “Abandon hope” of converting any of the Dan Brown readers. He just attempts to make his fiction sound as if it were fact-based, by throwing in a few references. I for one, haven’t read an updated “Inferno” translation in over forty years, so will be interested in Mr. James’

  49. July 14, 2013

    Sandra Bowers

    I’d like to suggest a new genre for this kind of literature (?). Just this kind of stuff written by other people, and named “brownie motion”, or “Brownie Motion”, if it catches on. The name is in honor of the originator, as mentioned in the article.
    I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to read this, for fear of herniating myself from laughter.

  50. July 15, 2013

    May Kim

    Thank you for this wonderful review! I was wondering why there aren’t more reviews criticizing Dan Brown’s lack of talent as a writer..

    Might I also add that Dan Brown is not a creative writer? His book, “The Da Vinci Code,” is nothing more than a mix of ideas from “The Club Dumas” by Arturo Perez-Reverte and “Focault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco; and both of these are better books than “The Da Vinci Code”!

  51. July 15, 2013


    Dan is not the ONLY ONE who doesn’t understand that ‘foreboding ‘ is a NOUN NOT an adjective? That’s ‘forbidding’? Dan Brown is what CLIVE JAMES so rightly described, a RUBBISH RITER!!

  52. July 15, 2013


    Is there any back story here? It would seem there is some prior animus between the two writers given how absolutely eviscerating this review is…… wow. (use of ellipsis intentional)

  53. July 15, 2013


    Seems to me that Dan Brown writes simple entertaining books that certain people might enjoy on holiday. I won’t be reading any of his books but I’m not reading literary heavyweights everyday either. It is nonsense to compare to Dan Brown to Dante, it would be more useful to give comparisons with books that are similar and try to indicate what sort of readership this one is aimed at. Less sarcasm, more constructive tones, thank you.

    Meanwhile, I’ll get back to my Mammoth Book of Werewolf Short Stories.

  54. July 15, 2013


    Frankly, to discuss the “literary” merits of Dan Brown’s work is patently absurd, in my opinion, but a number of Clive James’ problems with the book in my mind are the fault of the publisher as much as Mr. brown. Why I am writing is to suggest to Mr. James he stick to comparing the relative merits of the writing alone, as he obviously knows nothing about cars. Otherwise he wouldn’t have subjected himself to the ridicule HE deserves for suggesting a contemporary Bentley can’t roar away from the curb.

  55. July 16, 2013


    Forboding can be an adjective as well and has been since 1630 my Merriam-Webster dictionary tells me. I did quite like the critique though as it’s filled with passion for the art f writing.

  56. July 16, 2013


    Of course I need to spell it right: foreboding.

  57. July 16, 2013


    I can’t be arsed with the outright snobbery some people exhibit about Dan Brown’s books. The Da Vinci Code was a bestselling book that led to a successful film adaptation for a reason. Live with it, failed Aussie journalist.

  58. July 16, 2013


    Try as I might, I couldn’t force myself to finish this book. I had trouble reading the last one but finally got through it, this one was so bad I read 150 pages or so before placing it on the shelf. I have learned my lesson where Brown is concerned.

  59. July 16, 2013

    The Other Man in the Hat

    “Diiiiiiivve” said the Captain!

  60. July 17, 2013

    Terence Hale

    The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown. May be Mr. Brown should write a book on how to promote a flop for dummies. The internet promotion of Mr. Browns books amount to spam.

  61. July 17, 2013


    To (slightly) paraphrase H. L. Mencken:

    No one ever went broke underestimating the public’s taste.

  62. July 17, 2013

    Tim W

    The word “foreboding” can be a noun or an adjective. Also, “ominous” is a synonym of foreboding. Come on Clive! This error took away from the snarky fun!

  63. July 19, 2013

    James P

    As Piet Hein noted:

    Why do bad writers win the fight?
    Why do good writers die in need?
    Because the writers who can’t write
    Are read by readers who can’t read.


  64. July 19, 2013


    So many writers are making a career out of criticising Dan Brown’s literary style. What’s up? At least his books have a gripping plot and make entertaining films. It must be envy. Now, is there anything to this Noetics business, I wonder?

  65. July 19, 2013

    Michael Powe

    Dan Brown wrote a book, supposedly about Dante; a world expert on Dante was asked (most likely) to review it. Having read several of Brown’s books, I cannot attest that any one of them has “a gripping plot;” and, I can only characterize the two films as grindingly dull. Perhaps, another film has been made that I missed.

    What struck me after the third Dan Brown work was that they all seemed to have the same plot. The location and the names of the characters were changed to insure a larger readership.

    Clive James:
    * graduated Cambridge with honours
    * Knighted
    * excerpts of his work are in The New Oxford Book of English Prose
    * Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
    * reads in six languages
    * personal friend of the Royal Family
    * received the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature

    Dan Brown:
    * graduated Amherst College
    * 10 years as a songwriter and singer
    * first three novels were commercial failures
    * sued for copyright infringement 3 times, won all 3 cases
    * claims Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons are fact-based
    * estimated book sales of $250 million

    When I compare the two writers, I have to ask: why would anybody think that Clive James would be jealous of Dan Brown? You’ve got to be kidding.

    • July 23, 2013


      Why would anybody feel Clive James was jealous of Dan Brown? $250 million in sales would do that, even if the work was good . Grub Street is alive and well.

  66. July 19, 2013


    Although I disagree with Clive’s insistence on pretty young woman, I still think this is a hilariously brilliant article that points out the craft that should be behind all great works of literature. Fine article, and I just loved seeing all the opinions on “pretty young woman.”

  67. July 20, 2013


    I have read one of Brown’s books; aloud to my other half because she enjoys his stories. For the first few pages I read what was on the page, but it became more and more difficult. It felt somewhat like an alternative to wearing the old idiomatic hair shirt. But what followed was a most enjoyable way to spend one’s leisure time. I began throwing in lines of my own, introducing various absurdities of my own, and putting voices to the characters was the cherry on the cake. Dan Brown leaves so much room in one’s mind to allow for such an approach. Give it a go next time you re-read some of his books.

  68. July 21, 2013

    Mark Reiter

    Brilliant as usual, Clive, marred only by that brain fart in graf 4 calling Sienna Brooks “Sienna Brown.” (Let’s blame the editor, shall we?)

    Loved the Pandora’s box error. (Obviously, Dan Brown has never seen “Notting Hill”: “I knew a girl at school called Pandora. Never gpt to see her box though.”)

    Now please apply the same intelligence to the other end of the status continuum, namely the high-end Wikipedia troll posing as a “literary novelist” known as David Mitchell, in particular his first novel, “Ghostwritten.” Please advise if you consider that well written.

  69. July 22, 2013


    “He makes you want to turn the pages even though every page you turn demonstrates abundantly his complete lack of talent as a writer.”

    If he makes you want to turn the page, he’s got talent.

  70. July 23, 2013


    A hilariously brilliant deconstructive critique, made all the funnier by the Dan Brown fans desperately rushing to his defence. He doesn’t need defending, he is now insanely rich & only has to sleep type his way through his books to make millions more.

    Best selling books have little or nothing to do with literary talent, Clive James sells only a fraction as many books as Brown despite Brown having a fraction of James’ talent (& knowledge of Dante.)

  71. August 1, 2013


    Very funny review and a better read than dan brown, I read that da vinci code , what a joke! excruciatingly bad book

  72. October 20, 2013


    Mr. James has sadly got his basics wrong!! Its Sienna Brooks… not “Brown”..
    am sure he has done a great job spending time and energy writing the review… but I personally found the read a lot more interesting and gripping than he portrays the book to be.. He is right though about the winning formula that Brown has.. he so does! the book did compel me to turn page after page…. but not because i wanted to discover if Langdon and Brooks made out in the end.. but to quench my curiosity to come to an end of the chase and get to know what happens in the end and how the puzzled blocks fall in place.. eventually!

  73. October 31, 2013


    Given the majority of the world don’t have an English Degree, writing a great novel that can pass the scrutiny of literary experts and graduates is not a requisite. It’s more important that it’s comfortable to read, entertaining, gripping and carries you along on a wave that doesn’t wish to break. So while Dan Brown may not be a literary genius, he doesn’t need to be. He appeals to a wide audience who most likely do not even notice the objectionable literary errors observed by those who care ‘perhaps too much’ about these, in a book that is read for recreation. It’s also never wise to criticise someone who has had greater success in the field than oneself. ;)

    • October 31, 2013


      You don’t need a degree to enjoy, or even prefer, quality literature. And I agree- Charlie Rose should never criticize Jerry Springer because Jerry gets (got) a larger audience.

    • January 1, 2014

      Stephan Gregor

      No arguing your basic points, but unfortunately Brown does not even meet the most basic criteria for being ‘readable.’ I don’t recall the title, but I found one of his books second-hand before he achieved success and it was simply too painful to read. The hero was an academic with an athlete’s body, a soldier’s survival skills, an awesome mind, handsome in the chiseled fashion, and humble. The co- was his female equivalent, and the ‘bad guy’ peered and sneaked, carried too many pounds under a cheap suit, and sweated a lot as his eyes exhibited shiftiness. Plot? Yes, utterly a plot to take money from my pocket in return for drivel.

  74. November 1, 2013


    Charlie who? My point exactly ..

  75. November 8, 2013


    Dan Brown may b a writer with a lousy use of the English Language,but some of his books remain page turners and two of them(that I know of)have been adapted into films.What the heck,he even has worldwide popularity.Even though I’m not a fan,I think he should be given credit for that.Its not possible for every popular writer to be a William Shakespear or for every popular scientist to be an Albert Einsten.Critics are necessary in the world of entertainment but they sometimes have a tone of jealousy or snobbery in their criticism.The author could suggest or personally give Mr Brown some lessons in the use of english language instead of having cause to find loop holes in his future works over and over again*laughing*.

  76. November 15, 2013


    It’s hilarious how people talk about some writers (or books) being more popular than others, as if being popular is necessarily a good thing. Not all popular things are good, nor are all good things popular. Popularity isn’t a measure of talent. Seriously, is that so difficult a conclusion to come to by yourself?

  77. November 15, 2013


    I never said popularity is a ‘measure of talent’.I was only trying to give my opinion that he should b given credit for that.One of the meanings of popularity is to be widely accepted or liked.Not all popular things are good,we can see that from vices.Some of Dan Brown’s works make a mockery of d basis of the Christian faith,especially the Catholic Church(of which I’m a believer)but that dosn’t mean I would refrain from giving the man credit,where necessary.

  78. December 31, 2013


    From *The Da Vinci Code*:
    “As Sister Sandrine fell, her last feeling was an overwhelming sense of foreboding.”
    “Tonight, however, this place held a strange aura of foreboding.”

    From *Inferno*:
    “Langdon was well aware that the inspiration for this foreboding masterpiece had originated not in the mind of Botticelli himself … but rather in the mind of someone who had lived two hundred years before him.”
    “Dante’s Inferno, Langdon thought. Inspiring foreboding pieces of art since 1330.”
    “It also brought to Sinskey a deep sense of foreboding.”
    “His skin now prickling with foreboding, Langdon squinted through the reddish haze that surrounded the sculpted head.”

  79. January 1, 2014

    Stephan Gregor

    Dan. Brown. Hurts. My. Head.
    This column was a very satisfying read.
    Clive has no reason to be jealous of Brown. The notion that any person who loves, and writes in, the English language would envy Brown is amusing.
    The problem with the (also amusing) discussion surrounding the use of the comma in “pretty, young woman” is that it is based unwarranted assumptions about Brown’s literacy. “Yup, she was pretty young.”
    Nice to know, though, that so many still care about our language.

  80. January 1, 2014


    You review write good.

  81. January 3, 2014

    Laura McNamara

    This is the best damn book review I’ve ever read.

  82. January 3, 2014

    Laura McNamara

    And ‘symbologist’ is a nonexistent profession. YEEERGGGGHH!

  83. January 8, 2014


    To the person who thinks the world is doomed because so few can’t read or appreciate Dante’s Inferno, unless you my friend have read and can read it in Italian then you like many who presume to have read Dante’s Inferno in fact have not! Reading a translation is not at all the same. How can you appreciate the literary genius via a translation? You cannot.myou can only appreciate a poor interpretation at best.

  84. January 13, 2014


    I don’t know of many ‘Tall and lissom” weightlifters so I did not have to do much work in imagining an athlete more like Jessica Ennis. If the author of this utterly unfunny diatribe did then I suggest that says more about his lack of intellect than Dan Brown’s writing ability!

  85. March 19, 2014


    “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.”

    I heard the story as Pandora opened the box (from outside) and unleashed a host of evils into the world that torment Mankind. As stated, she was never in the box.

    That erroneous view of the myth would make it one of Brown’s “mistakes”, and not a “solecism”. Certainly, it is more clearly an error in fact than is describing a C-130 as a mere “jet” instead of “turboprop”, or a “roaring Bentley”.

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Clive James

Clive James
Clive James’s translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” will be published by Picador in July 

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