Sunday, June 19, 2005

Brittney Spears and the DaVinci Code

qwui laments:

It sure does seem to be easy for snobs and wannabees to toss off quips about how bestsellers like _DaVinci Code_-- or Brittany Spears-- are lacking in all originality.

It's certainly a lot easier to denigrate the audience than to ask the questions of exactly how the work achieves its effect.

The prose of _DaVinci Code_ ain't gonna win awards for beauty, or for that matter, for clarity, either. OK, fine, get over it. Quit whining and bitching about how it's junk, you losers. Take it apart. Why does it work?


Here's my best guess:

What makes a story effective isn't the quality of the prose, but the degree to which the reader can participate with the story being told. If the narrative (be it a technical how-to a la Clancy or Melville or a more traditional literary-dream sorta thing) engages the reader, we'll forgive a lot of clunky craftwork.

(This isn't original with me -- I'm taking that more or less whole cloth from Borges.)

So the things that make a story engaging:

1) Accessibility

A story that relies on a great deal of effort on the part of the reader to decode puts off all the readers who don't want to make or aren't capable of the effort. They leave feeling stupid.

Dan Brown wrote clean, workmanlike prose that was easy to follow, his action was clear, and his intellectual puzzle work was explained succinctly and clearly. (Also he complimented the reader by saying how complex fairly simple things were, leaving most folks able to pat themselves on the back for following it.)

2) Familiarity

The DaVinci Code was an action film -- it's a genre that all the readers were familiar with, and the parts that strained credulity got away with it because we could imagine it being filmed. The structure of the story itself wasn't challenging. It made a contract with the reader to be light and action-packed along the lines of Indiana Jones or the X-Files and it kept to that structure. That familiarity is reassuring.

3) Transgression

This is the part that Onyx is talking about when he talks about being near to but not dead in cliché. The DaVinci Code riffs on Christian heresy in a way that can titillate especially the Christian reader. This is actually a pretty intellectual transgression. More often the transgressive element is sexual or violent fantasy that, while common as dirt, still isn't acceptable to act out in the real world.

It's important for me to emphasize here, I'm not talking about *artistic* transgression. A mystery novel that breaks genre conventions isn't transgressive. It's unfamiliar and difficult to follow. The transgression I'm talking against the rules of civilized conduct that define socially acceptable behavior in the culture.

Also the transgression is usually minor.

Brittney Spears is musically simple (accessibility), uninventive (familiarity), and dripping with sexuality (transgression).

22 Comments:

Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

A fairly good description of the book (except for the "clear" prose bit; that's a ridiculous thing to say), but...

you also just described every mmpb put out by Dorchester and Kensington last year. Why aren't they selling in the millions of copies? Why can't they ever seem to sell as many copies as mmpbs published by Dell or Berkley?

4:13 AM  
Blogger Qwui said...

Nick Mamatis: it's "ridiculous" to describe the prose as "clear." Yeah? What exactly wasn't clear about it?

In the previous thread ("The Box"), Nick posted a link to a link to this analysis of the prose of the first page of _DaVinci Code_.) It's a keen analysis, concluding with scorn that it's poorly written.

But.

Read the text, and the analysis: the criticisms are entirely wordsmithing details of interest to writers and pedants, with little to do with the actual storytelling quality of the prose. The author (Geoffrey K. Pullum) would make a good high-school English teacher: great at pointing out technical flaws, but utterly deaf to story. Pullum may criticize the word choice, but in fact I have no problem understanding what's going on. I do suppose that it's indeed a technical point-of-view fault that in one sentence the attacker is described as a silhouette, and in the next two his skin color and eyes are described (which wouldn't be visible in a silhouette), but as a reader I don't even pause. I have been told what the victim sees-- a silhouette-- and I have been told what the actual description of the attacker is-- pale skin and pink eyes. Poor writing on some technical level, maybe, but it works fine.

Now, I personally love to read prose that works on every level, where each word is precisely the right word, and not a single word could be omitted without loss... but that's really not what makes a story a good read.

So, if this is the nature of the criticism saying _DaVinci Code_ is "poorly written," I'll say, the critics just don't seem to get it.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

What exactly wasn't clear about it?


The writing.

Read the text, and the analysis: the criticisms are entirely wordsmithing details of interest to writers and pedants, with little to do with the actual storytelling quality of the prose.

Nope. "On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly" is a bad sentence. It has nothing to do with one being a writer or a pedant and everything to do with the sentence not making sense, as anyone could tell you if presented with that sentence outside of the context of the book. Hell, it was a joke 15 years ago in Raising Arizona ("Everybody freeze, everybody down on the ground--" "Well, which is it, young feller.")

You understand what Brown means DESPITE the storytelling quality of the prose, not BECAUSE of it. You do the hard work of making sense for him. I generally understand what a toddler is saying when he says "baba" but that's not because "baba" means anything -- indeed, he could mean "papa" or "bottle" or "blanket." Unless I've met that toddler before I generally guess correctly thanks only to context. That doesn't make "baba" clear.

And those two few grafs are only mild examples of the unclear prose that fills the book.

But thanks for howling about pedants, losers, and wannabes in your defense of stupid crap. It's a good way to let everyone know exactly how wortwhile this blog will be in its stated goals, re: "the field."

4:06 PM  
Blogger Eliani said...

This discussion can branch off to how to do as little as possible and get a book deal (or sell some copies or not betray the already low expections of many readers) or to what is essential and vital about a work of art.

The second branch is what interests me. The first feels rather empty.

As for the second, applied to film, books, music, I count a work and achievement when I think afterwards, "I'm so glad this novel was written, and written by exactly this author." (Or film, or album, etc.)

The translation of a personal esthetic into something powerful and startling that communicates in a manner that *nonetheless* is not a private and impenetrable language is what I'd rather work toward myself and read between book covers.

I feel like so far folks have been celebrating Corn Flakes in the last few posts—because, well, it'll do, and see people eat it.

Odd for Corn Flakes to rate breast-beating, head-scratching, and hand-wringing.

Thanks for the aerobics routine!

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Susan said...

I do really like your point about transgression in here--the balance point at which it becomes possible for things to get really trendy seems to be where they're far enough outside of familiar to trigger the pop-culture audience's sense of "other", but not so far outside as to actually challenge any assumptions.

In any event, it's probably pretty obvious that familiarity and a lack of originality are what help make something (_DaVinci Code_, Britney Spears, category romance novels, blockbuster summer films, whatever) a best-seller. It's why I'm pretty skeptical of writing groups whose stated objective is to make their members' work more commercially viable. And I think what you're talking about here is not how to make a story engaging, it's how to make a story appeal to the widest possible audience. Which is not necessarily a bad goal, but it wasn't quite what I thought y'all were reaching towards in terms of improving the field.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Qwui said...

Qwui wrote: the criticisms are entirely wordsmithing details of interest to writers and pedants

Mamatis snapped back: Nope. "On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly" is a bad sentence. It has nothing to do with one being a writer or a pedant and everything to do with the sentence not making sense, as anyone could tell you if presented with that sentence outside of the context of the book.

Sorry. The sentence is not outside the context of the book. And it's perfectly clear. Patently, the curator is unmoving, except for turning his head slowly. If you chose to deliberately not understand, that's fine-- you're a pedant-- but to an average ordinary reader not interested in a word-by-word analysis, there is simply no problem at all understanding the sentence. Brown could have written "The curator froze, all except for his head, which he turned slowly toward the sound"... but in terms of actual storytelling, is this in any way a superior sentence? No; it's more words, but nothing particularly useful has been added. That's writing for the English teacher, not for the reader.

Basically, word critique on that level has nothing at all to do with story. His prose is nothing to win awards with, but it is clear enough.

Point to take away: pedanticaly correct English is irrelevant to bestseller-ness.

[nm]: But thanks for howling about pedants, losers, and wannabes in your defense of stupid crap.

I have no particular interest in "defending" stupid crap. I do, however, have keen interest in understanding why and how a particular piece works. Dismissing it with "it's crappy writing that works because the audience is stupid" is, I'm sorry, nothing but whining. To the extent that the writing is poor, there must be other features that are even more exceptional, to counterbalance the writing; what are they? How do they work?

It's a good way to let everyone know exactly how wortwhile this blog will be in its stated goals, re: "the field."

I don't speak for the other darkists, who presumably have other goals and interests than I.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Nick says:

you also just described every mmpb put out by Dorchester and Kensington last year. Why aren't they selling in the millions of copies? Why can't they ever seem to sell as many copies as mmpbs published by Dell or Berkley?

Oh! You mean the Magic Formula!

There isn't one. Publication is gambling.

qwui asked what made those kinds of works effective, and I gave my analysis.

As to the clarity of language, *I* didn't have any trouble following the story. Maybe other folks did.

Have to go play in real life for a little bit. I'll be back...

5:10 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

susan said:

but it wasn't quite what I thought y'all were reaching towards in terms of improving the field.

Yeah, the conversation is fun, but we're pretty much all killing time until the recommendations of work start rolling in. Only, of course, I'm spending a bunch of time here talkin' instead of getting up on my reading.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Susan said...

When you get right down to it, weblogs are all about killing time, aren't they? :)

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

qwui, your tub-thumping is tedious and stupid. You know how I know? Because you changed your position just to have the argument.

Here was part of your comment that initiated this latest post: "The prose of _DaVinci Code_ ain't gonna win awards for beauty, or for that matter, for clarity, either."


I agree. Then, because I agree, and because you're just one more Internet blowhard, you decide that you disagree: "Poor writing on some technical level, maybe, but it works fine." Now, magically, because I say it is not, the text is "perfectly clear."

So which is it? Well, obviously, it is whatever I say it's not. This is how pseudonymous chumps drive traffic to their little blog in 2005.

It's all pretty clear to me. No person interested in the genre/field/aesthetic issues would say such a thing as: "Brown could have written "The curator froze, all except for his head, which he turned slowly toward the sound"... but in terms of actual storytelling, is this in any way a superior sentence? No; it's more words, but nothing particularly useful has been added. That's writing for the English teacher, not for the reader."

You're building a strawman, and not even a very good one, as there are an infinite number of superior sentences Brown could have written, like "The curator turned slowly toward the sound." See, now that sentence is ACTUALLY clear, and has fewer words, doesn't involve a false note about freezing, and fits what you have today decided what clear writing is.

And we can go on; every post on this blog so far is nothing short of dumb guesses or pathetic mewling.

For example:

Oh! You mean the Magic Formula!

No, that's not what I mean. That's what you think I mean because you don't get the real argument; this isn't your pudwanking Clarion email list, or yet another kaffeklatsch between moron midlisters who are mystified by their royalty statements, this is a real discussion with a real person who is really capable of keeping an idea in his head for more than 30 seconds at a time.

You made a claim: The Code works because of X, Y, Z. Well then, I ask, if X, Y, Z, works there, why doesn't it work when it is present in other books? (For that matter, why do well-written books like The Lovely Bones work nearly as well as The Code in capturing the country's imagination?)

If your claim holds, then you should be able to explain why. But the claim doesn't hold. X, Y, and Z aren't why The Code "works."

There isn't one. Publication is gambling.

The outcomes of gambling games aren't arbitrary, as you imply. One can bet more or less well, manage money more or less well, learn techniques like card-counting, stay away from games with higher vigs (slots, for example) etc.

You can't say "This book is popular because of X" and then say "Well, all those other books with X aren't so popular because it's all arbitrary guessing anyway." If the latter is so, the former is not so. If the former is so, than the latter is not so. Nor do you take into account potential real reasons why one book with X works while others work far less well (e.g., promotion) despite the fact that I brought up the idea of promotion previously. This is junior high school stuff, folks. it ain't hard, but not one of you seems to get it.

And why not? Clearly, it's because you're all dipshits. No wonder you're pseudonymous. It's not about fear of being marketed to or potential problems with editors, it's because this crap is fucking embarrassing to read. I hope Maureen McHugh, uh, I mean "Onyx", who can at least write is at least a little chagrined at being in such company, but somehow I doubt it ...

5:45 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

nick says:

You made a claim: The Code works because of X, Y, Z. Well then, I ask, if X, Y, Z, works there, why doesn't it work when it is present in other books?

Ah. And you're assuming that effectiveness is directly related to popularity. That's the middle part you're leaving out. I don't think that's true. I think that work that can be accessible, familar and (safely) transgressive is the sort of thing that has a better chance of catching the wind the way DaVinci Code did, but you're conflating what works about the book as an experience for a reader with folks going out and buying a whole bunch of them.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

but you're conflating what works about the book as an experience for a reader with folks going out and buying a whole bunch of them.

Nope, you're just pretending that this wasn't the point of qwui's challenge in the first place, because you've been caught short. He made it clear that he was talking not about the Code, but "bestsellers" in general (thus you need to explain other bestsellers like The Lovely Bones, not just the ones that fit your framework) and what makes them work, which meant why they are so popular.

This is clear from his use of the terms "snobs" "wannabes" and "loser" to describe those who point out the perfectly obvious fact that the book is lousy and Spears's songs are lame. And it's an especially interesting choice of words from a bunch who tuck their bibliographies between their thighs like a drag queen's scrotum right before the Pride Parade.

Congrats, you managed to jump the shark in less than a week. Even the useless s1ngularity criticism blog managed a month or two before all save one contributor abandoned it. It's a new record for genre dipshits!

Anyway, in conclusion, feel free to argue amongst yourself about how best to shake your asses like Britney Spears. I'm out of here. Whither goes the blog?

6:07 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Well, take care, Nick. It was fun talking with you.

As I was doing my errands, I was thinking that the better way to phrase that would probably have been that I expect there are other books as effective as DaVinci Code and with the same sorts of structures that haven't enjoyed the same commercial success for reasons other than the innate qualities of the writing.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Qwui said...

Nick: For heavens sake, you really are a pedant, and proud of it.

Between writing the first brief post (saying Brown wasn't going to win awards for clarity) and writing the longer one, I did some flipping through, asking the question "ok, is this in fact unclear?" When I say "it's perfectly clear," I mean this in the ordinary English meaning of the phrase "perfectly clear," that is, a reader will have no difficulty understanding what he means. I don't intend this to mean that the prose is a Platonic model of clarity, the paragon to which other prose aspires, something which will win the clearest-sentence of the year award.

I see no particular paradox between saying that one particular sentence out of Brown's book is "perfectly clear," and having said early that he's not winning awards for his clarity.

The prose is good enough. The reader knows what is meant. It's not winning awards for beauty of language, nor even for clarity, but it is understandable.

(In fact, I wouldn't give it awards for anything-- honorable mention for clever working out of a high-concept idea into novel length, maybe.)

But you're missing the point to say it's actually "unclear."

8:24 PM  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

Nick Mamatas said:

"you also just described every mmpb put out by Dorchester and Kensington last year. Why aren't they selling in the millions of copies? Why can't they ever seem to sell as many copies as mmpbs published by Dell or Berkley?"

In a previous post comment you said something to the extent that The DaVinci Code was made into a Big Book by the publisher's huge promo effort including review copies, etc. And that was your apparent answer to "why does it work."

If the rules for creating a Big Book were so clearcut (publisher allocates huge budget for book and pushes it bigtime), then why aren't more of the annual Projected Big Books into which the publishers pour their annual Effort (TM) all DaVinci Codes?

Why, for that matter, aren't they all Harry Potters?

To me the question seems to be still unanswered. And whatever it is that makes the DaVinci Code and other mega-sellers "work" and stand out from the crowd of other Books Designed To Hit Big remains elusive.

3:44 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

This stuff is kind of interesting to me from the perspective of understanding what makes people tick. A huge success always says something about the society that celebrates it, although it's not always easy to tell just what it's saying.

Beyond the more obvious factors, I'm inclined to think the secret ingredient that makes mega-sellers work is a mysterious mix of an author's individual skills/psyche and the moment in zeitgeist. Someone can consciously design a book to be a bestseller, but even with good marketing behind it, there's no guarantee it'll catch hold of the public imagination.

Britney Spears hit it big riding the wave of a backlash return to bubblegum dance-pop; a few years previous, she wouldn't have found an audience doing what she does. The Da Vinci code hit it big at a moment in time when certain religious concerns are in the public consciousness; Brown managed to tap into those anxieties and the hunger for a framework to help make sense of them. It's not only style and content that make things popular, but how these connect to social currents, how well they mesh with the immediate needs of their audiences. We're looking here at art that makes a big splash in its day; these aren't necessarily the same qualities that go into more universal and timeless art that resonates with an audience over a longer period.

The way I see it, it's not surprising that every designed-to-be-a-hit book doesn't become a runaway bestseller; the exception is when one does. There's no shortage of lively stuff out there that could make a splash and doesn't. I think Safe Light posts some good observations about factors going into a book's effectiveness. I'd add another factor that shouldn't be discounted: success itself. People like to read books that others are reading and talking about, so they can join the discussion or feel they're in on the phenomenon. As with Britney, the celebrity adds to the glamour and excitement, and allows readers to participate in ways that go beyond just an isolated individual sitting down with a book. Sharing in the phenomenon becomes a social activity.

That kind of boom doesn't come around every day; nobody would have the energy for it. Even if a book contains all the effective elements and has the marketing behind it, it won't necessarily arrive at the exact moment when people are receptive. I think every now and then the time is just ripe.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Karen:

I was just trying to write something that said that, but having read your entry, it's better than mine would have been. :)

So yeah, what Karen said. :)

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's up with the poster incorrectly spelling Britney Spears?

This is truly the most important question to consider.

- Mix

4:12 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Mea maxima culpa.

I'm only a wannabe Britney fan. :)

12:22 AM  
Blogger Johnny Dark said...

Wow. This discussion does seem to have chased Mr. Mamatas away. Too bad, because that link to the analysis of the DaVinci Code writing was great-- I haven't read the DaVinci code (nothing I'd heard about it ever made it sound very much like my kind of book), but that critique was great.

I suppose I should listen to something by Britney Spears now...

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Tacky said...

I read the Da Vinci Code. I was annoyed most of the time, but I'd paid for it, and I was stubborn, and it's been on the bestseller list for a couple years now. If I'm going to get over my snobbishness and admit that deep inside, I'd love to write something that was not only well-liked by critics but a big heaping barn-burner of a commercial success, it seems only fair to try to figure it out.

It's not very good, but it did help me learn or re-learn some things about the market.

- Most non-SF readers are really surprised when they read fiction whose biggest commodity is ideas. The book contained very little that my father-in-law, a minister, hadn't learned in his first year of theology -- and most of that little was, well, the parts that Brown made up. Most SF people I've talked with seemed to be unwowed by it, but the people who read it as regular thriller or mystery readers seemed to be blown away by the sheer scope of the ideas. Moral for me: Out-there ideas will impress non-SF readers, but aren't going to impress the average SF reader. (I might differentiate between fantasy and SF here, since SF sells itself as the literature of ideas, and I don't think fantasy has that opinion of itself -- so when a fantasy novel with lots of new-to-the-reader ideas comes along, it's still pretty wild for the average fantasy reader (I'm thinking of Perdido Street Station, which wasn't to my taste but did have a lot of original ideas flying through it.))

- Most readers apprently don't care if the author uses cheap tricks on them. Man, the times I howled when Brown pulled an infodump in the middle of a chase scene. Or when he had someone infodump by remembering a class he'd taught, complete with dialogue from his students at the time. Or when he tried to build suspense by violating viewpoint rules, having characters whose heads we were inside allude to things interminably without ever actually telling the reader what it was they were thinking about. That stuff grated on me in a big way, but evidently, the average reader either doesn't notice or doesn't care.

- New ideas are better than a new plot. For all its new ideas, the Da Vinci Code is a stereotypical thriller in terms of its plot and characters. In fact, it's a pretty lazy thriller by those standards. If I get a bug up my ass to be original and not cater to cliches, the place to do it is in general world ideas, not in the plot (unless I am taken by the muse and absolutely absolutely must), because the readers seem more comfortable with a story that has the trappings of new ideas but a pretty vanilla plot once those trappings are taken away than they do with a story that has a non-normal plot and no trappings of weirdness.

(I'm not making sense on that last one, I think. By "vanilla plots", I mean that in a mystery novel, generally speaking, the protagonist finds out about a crime, spends time hunting down clues, has false leads or suspects that create some internal character conflict, and eventually finds out who did it -- either proving the innocence of the person close to the protaonist suspected in a happy mystery, or proving that the person close to the protagonist was the culprit, or responsible for some unpleasant red herring in a more tragic or psychologically harrowing mystery. If I decided to be original by having the protagonist not solve the mystery in the end, that would most likely come back to bite me in the butt unless I did the bestest job ever. If I wrote a romance novel, I'd better not have the heroine end up in a dysfunctional, quasi-abusive relationship just for the sake of realism and a twist ending.)

4:44 PM  
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7:09 AM  

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