My husband, Damien, recently read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, which I had read for my book club last summer and spent, no doubt, more time than I ought to have complaining about its many faults to Damien after I read it. It’s a very poorly crafted book, to say the least, and since it’s the only Dan Brown book I’ve ever read (and probably ever will read), I find it’s mere existence kind of grating since there are so many good writers out there who aren’t getting the attention that writers like Dan Brown receive.
Damien, though, is an unapologetic Dan Brown fan, so I was anxious to hear his thoughts on The Lost Symbol. Would he think it was a good book, I wondered? Were what I was calling its weaknesses really just subjective things that I personally didn’t like while another well educated writer/reader could see those things as strengths? Or was, perhaps, this book not a good example of Brown’s abilities? Damien has read most of Brown’s books, and while he’s always the first to admit that Brown seems to have some sort of template that he just plugs names, locations, and other details into for each new book, Damien also firmly believes that they are enjoyable books and worth reading because of their entertainment value.
It was interesting watching Damien make his way through The Lost Symbol. He did notice many of the same lousy writing issues that I had, and joked around with me about the crappy sentence level stuff, or the ridiculously amateurish repetition—characters in the book are constantly doing “a double take,” or their “gaze” finds something, and they “chuckle” a lot. Damien also felt like the plot was predictable and kept stopping to tell me, “I hope I’m wrong, but I think X is going to happen, and if X happens, I’m going to be very disappointed with Dan Brown.” Indeed, in almost every case, X did happen, and Damien was accordingly disappointed.
When Damien finished the book, I asked him what he thought overall. He of course first had to point out how long winded the ending was, and how a couple hundred pages should probably have been cut from the entire book (both points which I agree with), but then he said something that kind of surprised me—I honestly think it’s kind of a brilliant observation. He said, “There’s a difference between thinking a book is good and liking a book. The Lost Symbol,” he admitted, “is not a good book. But I liked it anyway.”
This point really resonated with me in part because while Damien was reading The Lost Symbol, I read a couple of small press novels I’d picked up at AWP. Both books had been good, in that they were well written and carefully crafted, and they explored interesting ideas in subtle and new ways. Yet, I have to admit, I didn’t like them. I found them interesting, and I felt like I gained something as a writer from having read them and analyzed the techniques they were using, but I didn’t enjoy them as a reader. I didn’t get sucked into the plots. I didn’t really care about the characters or feel invested in what might happen to them. So when Damien pointed out that there’s a difference between liking a book and thinking it’s a good book, I had to agree.
This is an interesting realization as a writer. I suppose I would have assumed that these two things should go hand-in-hand—and certainly, sometimes they do, but not always. I think for many readers, maybe even most, what makes a book pleasurable to read is a very different set of things than what makes it a worthwhile piece of literature. It’s the same, I think, for most types of art. What makes a painting artistically worthwhile is a different set of criteria than what makes the average Joe want to hang a print of it on his or her wall—consider how commercially successful Thomas Kincade is, in spite of the fact that educated artsie types think he’s a hack. Thomas Kincade probably is a hack, but his paintings are still pretty, don’t you think? Dan Brown is a hack, too, but man, wasn’t that chapter that takes place in the pitch black pod intense?
I can’t picture anybody in their right mind (to be fair, I should say I can’t picture anybody who is very well educated about literature) considering Dan Brown a “good” writer, but I can and do understand people “liking” him. Damien’s right, the two attitudes are not the same, and even snooty types like me, who cringed my way through most of The Lost Symbol, can still recognize the value in a good mystery, a little adventure, just something to distract you from the real world for a while.