Monday, May 15, 2006

Questing for the appeal of 'The Da Vinci Code'

My mother was listening to The Da Vinci Code on CD again. When I asked her about it, she said she was trying to figure out what made it such a phenomenon with people. She couldn't figure it out. She thought it just an OK book.

I, evidently, enjoyed the book more than my mother. Sure, there were issues with the pacing, and the historical conspiracy seemed so much more interesting than the suspense plot, but it was still a one-night read for me. A true page-turner.

So, at lunch today, I read the Sun-Times article 'The Da Vinci Code': Is it worthy? with a lot of interest. Maybe it would help me figure out the appeal, too.

The article ponders:
Is it Brown's canny combination of religious conspiracy theories, secret societies, code-cracking and art-historical mumbo-jumbo? Has it tapped into a wave of anti-Catholicism following a rash of sex-abuse scandals in the church? Does it satisfy an emerging hunger for feminist theologies? Is it the novel's choppy but breathless pace, with nearly every one of its 105 brief chapters punctuated by a cliffhanger? Or is it, by now, chiefly a case of snowballing fame, with many readers buying the book just to see what all the fuss is about?
For me, I identified with the first idea of conspiracy theories and secret societies, plus the idea of a feminist theology. I like the idea of religion with balance - the divine masculine AND the divine feminine. The idea appeals to me that Jesus, born as a man, lived as a man, and established religion doesn't have the story perfectly right.

I think, too, that the story gives a new entry point for people to reconnect with the teachings of Jesus - an entry point that bypasses the legacy of established religion with its history of warfare and manipulation in the name of God.

But the article I was reading didn't go into any of that. The article looks at all the things that are bad about the writing in the book, with often harsh language, but offers no examination on why it works. WHY it's such a phenomenon.
With its flat prose, stick-figure characters, wooden dialogue, perfunctory scene-setting and an unfortunate tendency to interrupt the action with momentum-killing lectures, the novel is in some ways the unlikeliest of best sellers. Many Chicago writers, critics, scholars and book-industry insiders are flummoxed by the book's success.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's important to look at these things, too. As a writer, I want to figure out what made this story work. And it does work. Books don't become uber-bestsellers without hitting a chord with people.

But the article kept focusing on the negatives, bashing the writing, one critic after another, until everyone sounded like a bunch of whining writers upset that they couldn't figure out the magic formula.

And then, wouldn't you know it, one of the people quoted in the article couldn't help but pick on romance novels.
Not that Brown is guilty of any felonies against literature. "It's basically competent writing," says Ann Hemenway, a professor of fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago. "It doesn't offer much in terms of language or character development or deeper psychological issues, but it gets you where you're going, keeps you turning the pages. Certainly in terms of commercial fiction, The Da Vinci Code isn't the worst thing I've ever read -- it's not a Harlequin romance, after all. No one can say that Dan Brown has done terrible things to the world of letters."
Hey! My friends write Harlequin romances. My friends read Harlequin romances. I'd feel prevailed to be published by Harlequin romance. Is it really fair to imply that Harlequin romances have done "terrible things to the world of letters"? It's a sign that something is truly popular, truly established, when it becomes such a big and easy target for people to hit at. The heavy-weights of the publishing industry: The Da Vinci Code and Harlequin romance.

Moving beyond the Sun-Times article, I'm looking forward to The Da Vinci Code's movie release on Friday. We're taking a group of friends who haven't read the book. I'll be interested to see how well the story adapts to the big screen, and the thoughts my friends take away from the movie.

Will the movie adaptation smooth out the flaws these critics noted in the storytelling and help answer the question of why the story is so appealing? Or will it leave people wondering even more?

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