The Lost Author (or Dan Brown, where are you?)

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  • Monday, January 7, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • Several years ago, during a discussion about favorite movies of all time, a friend of mine opined that he hated Die Hard.
    “How can you hate Die Hard?” I asked.  “It’s one of the most awesome movies ever!”
    “Oh, I agree,” my friend replied.  “But I hate the fact that now, every action movie that comes out is billed as ‘Die Hard on a bus’ or ‘Die Hard on a ship’ or ‘Die Hard in a sandwich shop.’”
    It was a fair complaint.  Imitation may be the sincerest form a flattery, but it’s also the cheapest form of marketing.  Nowadays, everything is sold as a variation on whatever is currently at the top of everyone’s consciousness.  ‘If you like X, you’ll love Y.’
    In the world of treasure hunt thrillers—my literary genre of choice—the gold standard has, for the last decade, been Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code.  Here are just a few examples:
    “[Steve] Berry goes gnostic in this well-tooled Da Vinci Code-knockoff.”—Publishers Weekly review of The Templar Legacy.
    “This novel is sure to be compared to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, but, in every way, it's a much better book.”—Booklist, referring to James Rollins’ thriller Sandstorm.
    “The mix of history, suspense, and action in Silver [is] perfect for those Da Vinci Code fans looking for another electrifying read combining Biblical history with modern-day Armageddon.”—Douglas Preston, commenting on Steven Savile’s novel Silver.
    “Short, gripping chapters move the action from Egypt to Russia to Africa to London. Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code. Look out, Dan Brown, Brokaw can play this game a lot better than most of your imitators.”—Booklist review of Charles Brokaw’s The Atlantis Code.
    Can you stomach one more?
    “Imagine Clive Cussler or Dan Brown plots packed with the nonstop action of Indiana Jones and you get a pretty good idea what The Shroud of Heaven is all about.”—Amazon reader review of The Shroud of Heaven by Sean Ellis.
    That is by no means a comprehensive list.There are dozens of others blurbs and reviews that have somehow referenced Brown or The Da Vinci Code.
    The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s fourth novel and the second to feature symbologist Robert Langdon as the protagonist.  Brown’s first novel, Digital Fortress was released in 1998, followed by Angels & Demons (the first Robert Langdon) in 2000 and Deception Point in 2001.  Those early novels were not considered very successful initially, but the 2003 release of The Da Vinci Code changed all that, catapulting Brown to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and reviving his backlist to bestseller status as well.
    You probably already know the reason for Brown’s unexpected success; The Da Vinci Code was controversial with revelations that promised to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church.  The buzz was infectious.
    I was a little surprised by the hype over the “revelations” since there was nothing new there.  I’d read it all before in one of my favorite novels, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco.  (I’m not the first to notice the similarities, and Eco himself, in a 2008 interview with the Paris Review, playfully remarked: “Dan Brown is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist”).
    The buzz attracted a lot of attention, good and bad, and opinions about Brown as both an author and a historical researcher are often polarized in their intensity (for my part, I enjoyed reading all of Brown’s novels—Angels & Demons was my favorite of the lot). Regardless of how you feel about Brown, The Da Vinci Code was a godsend for thriller novelists and readers alike because it infused new life into the genre and got people interested in historically based mystery thrillers.
    Yet, while publishers (and to a lesser extent, authors) were cashing in on the inevitable Da Vinci Code comparisons, one author seemed to be missing the boat: Brown himself.  Between 1996—when Brown quit his teaching job to “officially” start his writing career and 2003, when The Da Vinci Code hit the stores, Brown wrote four novels.  That’s just slightly less than one novel every two years, which was about average for the pre-digital publishing era.
    Nowadays, most bestselling authors produce at least one novel a year, which is I believe, an industry expectation.  Sometimes that’s not enough for publishers who want to keep their authors in the spotlight, and that has led to the practice of collaborative novel writing for authors like Clive Cussler, James Patterson, and Tom Clancy.  Even a few authors who have shaken off the mortal coil continue to put out new fiction every few months (putting a literal spin on the term ‘ghostwriting’). You would think then that a hot property like Dan Brown would be under some pressure to accelerate his pace a bit, if for no other reason than to stay in the consciousness of his audience.
    So, how many novels has Dan Brown written since The Da Vinci Code caught fire in 2003?  You can count them on one finger.
    Six years passed before Brown’s long anticipated follow-up finally reached bookstores.  The book had originally been slated for a 2006 release as The Solomon Key, but that deadline came and went, and took the title with it.  It wasn’t until 2009 that the third book in the Robert Langdon series was finally released, now titled The Lost Symbol. By the numbers, The Lost Symbol was a hit, spending a full year on the NYT bestseller list, but the list can be deceptive; it doesn’t reflect how many people actually buy a book, but rather how many copies the bookstores order.  And when there’s a lot of anticipation for a book, people will purchase it months in advance of the release, or buy it as a gift for a friend or family member who might have previously expressed interest.  The critical reception was about the same as for Brown’s other novels, which is to say that some liked it and some hated it.
    Why the long break between novels?  I haven’t been able to find a compelling answer to that question.  I’ve heard rumors—rumors for which I’ve could not find a shred of evidence to verify—that Brown’s first draft had to be scrapped and the novel rewritten from scratch.  I find this unlikely, but even if true, it shouldn’t take six years to write one book, not from an author who has proven himself capable of delivering a well researched and adequately entertaining book every two years.
    It’s now been four years since The Lost Symbol.  A few months back, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard any news about Brown in a while.  There have been some rumblings now and then about a film adaptation of The Lost Symbol.  In 2011, there was a bit of good news: Ron Howard, director of film versions of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, announced that he would NOT be at the helm of the third Robert Langdon film.  (Yes, that’s right…I said good news.  Howard has a gift for sucking all the magic out of his source material; his movies are about as interesting as eating paste).  But what about a new novel?
    In an NBC Dateline interview in 2009, Brown indicated that he was already working on his next book, one that would include a “fascinating code” which was too complicated to be used in The Lost Symbol.  He indicated that the book would be something of a departure from the theme of Freemasonry, but that he would revisit that subject at some future date.
    Last May, Brown spoke at a benefit in New Hampshire, and talked at length about the influences that had shaped his creative work. The monologue was both entertaining and fascinating, but it was only in the brief interview afterward that he made any comments about his next Robert Langdon novel, stating that he was “well into the process of writing it.”
    Anything else?
    Brown said that he had spent a year and a half researching the novel, and that it would be set in Europe.
    But when, Dan, when will we get to read it?
    “It’ll be done when it’s done…My publisher wants good books, not quick ones.”
    Hmmm. Well, that’s a laudable enough sentiment, but what about your readers, Dan?
    Some will probably opine that Brown probably feels no urge to produce; he’s made millions after all.  I disagree.  Although every author dreams of success, making boatloads of money is never a primary motivation.  It’s always about telling stories…sharing ideas.  And literary criticism notwithstanding, Brown has a history of sharing some pretty damn good ideas.
    I worry that Brown may have become a victim of his own success.  To the world at large, Brown isn’t just the author of historical mystery thrillers but rather the author of the CONTROVERSIAL BESTSELLER THE DA VINCI CODE.  The expectation is that his novels will not only be entertaining, but possess explosive new revelations.  But Brown isn’t the only thriller novelist dipping into the well of secrets and speculation, and the odds are good that the mysteries Brown plans to reveal with his next book will probably already be old hat to today’s conspiracy-hungry thriller audience.  
    The world of mainstream publishing is in crisis mode.  The Big Six (or is it Five now?) have doubled down on the strategy of author branding, while cutting loose a lot of very talented mid-list authors.  Dan Brown isn’t exactly a mid-list author, but does he qualify as a brand name?  More to the point, will he be one in 2014…or 2015…or whenever that next novel finally shows up?

    Nowadays, people don’t describe action movies in terms of how much like Die Hard they are…not even the Die Hard sequels.  Comparisons like that have a half-life; with each passing year, they recede from our memory, just like Bruce Willis’ hairline, until after a while, no one even knows what you’re talking about, or worse, begin to make the comparisons in reverse (not unlike Internet trolls who accuse Tolkien of ripping off Harry Potter).

     I fear that Dan Brown might be on a similar trajectory.  How long before those inevitable comparisons to Brown and The Da Vinci Code lose their effectiveness?  How long before we start to say: Who?
    Here’s a New Year’s Resolution for you Dan…This year, write THE END on Robert Langdon #4, and get cracking on #5.   Remind us again who you are. I’m rooting for you! 
    Visit Dan Brown on the web:
    Listen to Dan Brown at the Writers on a New England Stage benefit: New Hampshire Public Radio
    Highlights of the interview with Dan Brown: Dan Brown tight-lipped about new novel
    Transcript of NBC Dateline special from 2009: Secrets of the Lost Symbol


    Seeley James said...

    Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Dan Brown made way over $100 million on the hardcover Da Vinci Code alone and probably closer to $200 million total.

    He's not researching anything. He's spending his money. He was never a JK Rowling or James Patterson or Nora Roberts. He was the biggest flash in the pan ever.

    Peace, Seeley

    womenthrillerwriters said...

    Thanks for the enjoyable and insightful post. I am guilty of using Dan Brown's success in the marketing of my thriller, as in "Indiana Jones meets Da Vinci Code in The Seventh Stone." My WIP is more "Jurassic Park meets Inception." Perhaps I should have gone with "Dan Brown Dies Hard."

    russeldewey said...

    This was Dan Brown's first novel I read and loved it. It was much better than his previous novel Angels & Demons. The movie sucked big time though.

    russel of Tesla K20

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