Here’s What I Mean When I Call Something a Bad Book

I’m not talking about the difference between literature and a beach read, or the finer points of a cheap, dime-a-dozen thriller versus a soul-wrenchingly unique narrative. I’m not talking about the boorish tastes of our popular culture versus the selective, often-translated preferences of some mythical elite. I’m talking about hack writing that attempts to ride the coattails of the zeitgeist or to coast by on a fast-moving, pseudo-intellectual plot that shrouds itself in cloaks and daggers so as to seem both smarter and sharper than it actually is. I’m talking, naturally, about Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, which succeeds only in that it is a decent through several levels of literary hell.

To begin with there’s the googly-eyed plot, which mixes Malthusian delusions about the human cancer with the mysticism of Dante’s (and Vasari’s) depictions of hell, and a good dose of chemical terrorism for good measure. Aside from the fact that this sort of righteous eco-terrorist willing to infect billions for their own good is a little too easy of a villain (this Bond go-to even comes with an amoral and shadowy conglomerate backing his actions with limitless resources), the real issue is that Brown is more interested in namedropping inspiring artists and historical “facts” than he is in actually making arguments or points; this isn’t even speculative fiction, it’s referential fiction, with the power to leap off on huge tangents in a single bound. Oh, and did I mention that Professor Langdon, our hero, is suffering from retrograde amnesia, a hoary old trope that’s made only a little brighter by the fact that it’s coupled with a ticking time bomb scenario? (It’s actually even worse than this, but I hesitate to spoil anything this early in the discussion.)

All of that’s excusable, however: it services the narrative, and that’s really all you should be coming to a Brown book for, anyway. (I’d tell you to wait for the inevitable movie, but if anything, those only make it even clearer just how shallow and bad the books are.) The reason why I’m using Brown’s Inferno (and let’s just be clear that we’re not talking about Dante’s Inferno at any point in this essay) as an example of a bad book is because of the writing itself. The very first chapter begins with one of the more pretentious lines I’ve ever read, a Bulwer-Lytton nominee if I’ve ever seen one: “The memories materialized slowly . . . like bubbles surfacing from the darkness of a bottomless well.” What does this simile even mean? Nothing materializes in darkness, and bubbles would never surface if they stemmed from a bottomless well.

That’s just poor prose. Even worse is Brown’s loggorheic regurgitation of historical facts that have nothing to do with the plot. Imagine that in an episode of 24, Jack Bauer took some time off from interrogating a suspect so that he might ruminate on the provenance of the ropes that he had used to bind his victim. Or paused, in the midst of a car chase, to note the particular style with which the roads had been paved, or the significance of the gargoyles that watched him speed by. It’s hard not to read Brown satirically when Langdon narrowly escapes a surveillance drone only to spend a page describing the Palazzo Vecchio — and not just the fact that it’s a “potent seat of Italian government,” which is essentially an in-text footnote for us uneducated readers, but that:

A replica of Michelangelo’s David–arguably the world’s most admired male nude–stands in all his glory at the palazzo entrance. David is joined by Hercules and Cacus–two more colossal naked men–who, in concert with a host of Neptune’s satyrs, bring to more than a dozen the total number of exposed penises that greet visitors to the palazzo.

The fact that the grammar is stilted and awkward only makes you dwell even longer on the fact that he’s digressing to talk about the number of statuary penii, which is no longer merely an author attempting to show off his architectural knowledge but a genuinely creepy  sign of a writer compensating for something. This isn’t a fluke. Four pages later, in a separate chapter that begins by describing the palazzo’s Hall of the Five Hundred, we’re told that: 

Langdon raised his eyes slowly to the far side of the room, where six dynamic sculptures–The Labors of Hercules–lined the wall like a phalanx of soldiers. Langdon intentionally ignored the oft-maligned Hercules and Diomedes, whose naked bodies were locked in an awkward-looking wrestling match, which included a creative “penile grip” that always made Langdon cringe.

Yes, you heard that right. No, no, not the fact that six is apparently all it takes to make a phalanx of soldiers (it’ll be five later on; Brown loves to recycle even improperly used words), but rather the fact that the author is taking the time to describe something that he is simultaneously telling us is being intentionally ignored. It is so irrelevant that it absolutely must be described, pacing be damned. I thought that Herman Melville and Victor Hugo went on for days and days: at least they were attempting to hide philosophical treatises or deliver a working knowledge of a foreign craft in the midst of engaging plots; is Brown being paid by the word, or is he simply incapable of throwing away any of his research? The editor deserves some blame for these excesses, but I doubt he/she had very much control. Still, it’s hard not to wince considering that only a few chapters later, having already described more than enough, Br0wn decides to once again remark on the the way in which “Hercules was holding Diomedes upside down, preparing to throw him, while Diomedes was tightly gripping Hercules’ penis, as if to say, ‘Are you sure you want to throw me?'” This seems more like a literary contest, in which authors are tasked with working a phrase or reference into their story, than a story, let alone something that fits a full-length novel. And mind you, it’s one thing for Brown to blather on about all the secret passages–real or not–that Langdon crawls through to escape his pursuers; it’s another to fixate on irrelevant details.

Speaking of irrelevant details, however, we must now discuss the plot — and abandon all hope for a spoiler-free essay, all ye who continue to read on here. To begin with, the villain dies in the prologue and, whether it makes sense or not, none of the people running around with guns are actually trying to hurt anybody. The amnesia was induced, so as to trick Langdon into discovering what he’d already been on his way to discovering before he was so rudely (and accidentally) interrupted. The attractive and hyper-intelligent Sienna Brooks, paired early on with Langdon, is revealed to be the lover of the villain, but she’s actually racing to destroy the soon-to-be-released plague (though this is interfering with the WHO’s attempts to contain it), and the smoke-and-mirrors corporation that’s been getting in the way has a change of heart and decides to start helping. The entire third act of the novel doesn’t involve suspense so much as it does a series of calm discussions and architectural observations (in Venice and later at the Hagia Sofia), and Transhumanism is thrown in as a last-ditch red herring (or the remnant of yet another casually researched topic that Brown couldn’t bear to abandon). Never revealed, of course, is why this brilliant scientist, so determined to release a plague that he commits suicide to prevent himself from giving up the location, leaves behind so many cryptic clues as to its location. Not that it matters, of course: the virus, as it turns out, has already been released and the book ends with Langdon and the rest of the world infected with a DNA-modifying vector virus that is designed to ensure that a third of the population remains sterile, so as to rein in the population’s exponential death march.

So. You’ve got poor sentences interrupted by irrelevant descriptions, a baroque plot that doesn’t just tell instead of show but lectures, and a narrative that is rendered as impotent as the characters themselves as it’s all already too late. The misleading synopsis calls this Brown’s most “compelling and thought-provoking” work, which is sort of an insult to The Da Vinci Code, or perhaps just more smoke-and-mirrors, in that this “truth” is meant to be understood as the publisher’s way of warning us that what’s most thought-provoking is how anyone could find this compelling. I try to find things that I admire about even the most deplorable things, so I guess I’ll close by saying that I suppose it’s novel that the heroes don’t “win” in the end, or at least, not in the sense of “winning” that can be summed up with thin, Charlie Sheen-level philosophizing. But come now: do yourself a favor and just read Margaret Atwood’s recent fiction, or (I’m told, and next on my list) Karen Walker’s Age of Miracles.

18 thoughts on “Here’s What I Mean When I Call Something a Bad Book

  1. Why don’t you just say what you mean for goodness sake? Its easy to criticise. Anyone can do it these days, Just look at the troll attacks on Goodreads and Amazon, most are written by failed writers with an enormous chip on their shoulder, simply because their own efforts are unsaleable.

    • Yes. It’s very easy to criticize. That has nothing to do with the validity of my — let it be emphasized: subjective — claims, none of which you bothered to address or respond to. It appears the only thing easier than criticizing, in fact, is to call someone a troll, which perhaps makes sense for someone who has written an unintelligible one-line post on a YouTube video or who has made an off-topic comment in the thread of a message board, but is a little harder to substantiate when the writer in question has taken the time to write over a thousand words on the subject. I would also say, without reading the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, that most are *not* by failed writers but primarily by disappointed readers, unless you consider that anyone who hasn’t published something — regardless of whether they’ve attempted to write and/or publish — is a failed writer. Understand, too, that when an author goes out of their way to litter their thriller with allusions to Dante’s Inferno, he is going to be rightly subjected to comparisons that demonstrate the difference between high and low literature. There is nothing inherently wrong with this discussion, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the publication or support of a bad book, nor your defense (if four lines can be called a defense) of it.

      If anybody else has an argument for why Inferno is a good book, I’m more than happy to hear it. This particular line of false and ultimately irrelevant accusation makes me more uncomfortable than a discussion of penile-tugging.

  2. Your review does lean too far towards the negative for my taste. That does not make you a troll in my eyes. Writing a heavily critical view of a book you clearly did not enjoy is fine. As a reader, it is your right to do so. I usually prefer to look for a book’s good points, no matter who the author may be…

  3. As a budding author, I’ve been interested in what a real, solid review would be like. Though it leans heavy on the critical side, you have backed it with researched examples and intelligent discourse. I’ve never read this author’s work but you have piqued my interest for two reasons. You’ve made me curious and I want to see for myself what I would get out of the story.

    I was told by my college professor that every writer can learn far more from a critical review than one that praises the work. I realize everyone takes criticism differently, but I find this review far easier to understand, accept and learn from than a hostile shot across the bow or a sarcastic comment. I feel as an author, I can learn only to write better with each review that has honest criticism. Though I will admit, it stings as first!

    • I’m sorry that I’ve made you want to read Dan Brown, but I agree with you that criticism — negative or positive — is a valuable commodity (and rarer than you think, since raw opinion is often mistaken for a considered critique) over the blogosphere. Both empty praise and vapid dismissals are worthless, and as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, if you’re going to write about something, it should be because you feel strongly enough about the experience to want to share it (or argue a contrary position) with others. The fact that I’ve posted so little lately has to do with the fact that few things really get to me, and sadly, it’s much easier to get my attention via my ire than through some sort of magical “experience.”

  4. Man, I just disgorged 7,000 well considered, well informed vitriolic words on this same subject on my blog (call it bloggorhrreah), but yes this is disgusting, AND it happens all the time, ppl fall for it. I’d hang myself (not really) if I thought about it for any length of time. I hope you feel better after writing this. I sort of did. I went to great lengths to inform/enlighten the suckers who’d really LIKE to know what the Inferno is all about (DANTE’S, that is). When finished, I knew it would make little difference

    • I just checked your site and couldn’t find your post on Inferno. I’ll check back later, but I hope that in the meantime, realizing that you are not even close to being alone in your dislike of Brown’s what-passes-as-writing-these-days novel has helped you from the even hypothetical hanging of yourself. That said, I don’t think that people who enjoyed even Brown’s butchered Inferno are suckers: if they’re able to genuinely get pleasure out of a page-turner without thinking about what they’re reading, I admire them. I encourage them to check out the freely distributed copies of the Phone Book, which should take them a few days more, plenty of time to work on that tan. They might consider blowing through the tax code next–lord knows nobody else is. Point is, if a person is satisfied with their free-flipping, good for them. Just as there are cheap drunks, there are cheap readers, too, and all I can pass on to these people is what others have tried to inculcate in my taste for liquor: expose/challenge yourself to/with something a little more rewarding next time, and then go a little bit further. After all, isn’t the Divine Comedy all about, on some levels, a journey?

      • Sorry, Aaron. I posted two sort of essays/ fulminations on this phenom, a rather squirrely heist that is commonplace in commercial fiction, one not surely isolated or only a Dan Brown thing. In my rant/tirade I give credit for his routine predictable brand-writing of ripping plot-driven thrillers (in this case n the back of Dante’s masterpiece) He usually delivers on his promises: thrills, chills, cliff hanger suspense, often to the last chapter. He’s is entertaining and a welcome relief from millions of people’s daily cares and confusions.

        The titles of the two pieces are “Our Words Indict Us” and “Raising Some Hell: The Inferno and Its Often Hellish Translators” I will try to get you the links. Both pieces have been widely viewed, though perhaps I just stupefied most and they stomped off. I’m a professional book reviewer and lit critic. I insist on the fine points, attribution, support, other’s views if worthy are always acknowledged. Many people aren’t interested in that, but only my point 🙂 Cut to the CHASE, you know You could scroll to them It’s late I may not have time to get you the links, will tomorrow Thx for your interest. I appreciate and like your blog MJL

  5. I stumbled across your blog by chance but thought it rude to not to contribute before I left. I find it quite incredible you would call Dan Brown’s writing style pretentious given what you have just written.

    Your hatred of Dan Brown clearly didn’t derive from reading Inferno, which suggests you a risky read the book just so you could criticise it. Really? You have the gall to condescendingly criticise Dan Brown readers for their alleged love of cheap thrills, when you yourself must’ve spent hours on end reading the book to get quotes so detailed, just to criticise it. That is a far cheaper action than reading the book for pleasure.

    I greatly enjoyed the book. It wasn’t perfect and had its pitfalls but that’s not the most important thing about a book. A book should be about taking you away to another world so successfully you don’t even realise it. Books make you feel.

    I also like Dan Brown’s style which you so deplore. It has introduced many things I was previously unaware of but now have great interest in; from noetics to Hermetic teaching and now Dante.
    Any writer that brings such great writers, thinkers and ideas to the fore should be shown more respect than you are giving.

    I don’t understand your motives. Who are you to judge what people who read this book are like? I enjoyed this book. I guess that makes me a ‘cheap drunk’ in literary terms. I won’t even begin to tell you what I read (probably because I’m embarrassed you’ll judge me!).

    All I want to ask you is who are you to judge what makes other people happy? Why because someone enjoys something does it mean they also conform to all the vicious and quite frankly absurd stereotypes you posted above? Your criticisms are completely valid and I agree with one or two. Your personal statements though?

    I hope one day you can learn humility for your own sake.

    • Nic, thanks for your comments, even if I can’t say that I quite understand them (and I hope you’ll come back to clarify). I didn’t feel that what I’d written was a personal attack on Dan Brown readers, so much as a clarification of my own tastes, i.e., what I consider a bad book. (It’s right there in the title, in case that was unclear.) If you’re talking about my comment to Margaret, in which I compare cheap drinks to cheap readers, you may have misread it: I’m defending the readers who enjoyed this book, not judging them. I’m hoping only that they’ll be motivated to try something other than what *I* consider to be bottom-shelf liquor; as you mention, this has made you interested in Dante. Great; I hope you’ll read the actual Inferno then.

      You also seem to have skimmed through the majority of my points, since you respond only to the slightest generalization of them, rather than the essence. However, since you seem confused on this point, I’ll clarify that “Any writer that brings such great writers, thinkers, and ideas to the fore should be shown more respect” is a non-argument; if I write a poem about Ovid, is it automatically worthy? If I discuss Beethoven, am I as brilliant as he? This is why I mention literary name-dropping; it’s a convenience that attempts to gain the author UNDUE respect. To that end, you also believe that I dislike Brown; I read Inferno because I liked Da Vinci Code. I disliked Inferno because it exaggerated the weaknesses (writing) from Da Vinci while losing out on the more coherent — or at least interesting — mythology that his earlier books contained. After all, the plot here’s extremely shallow, stretched out by what’s ultimately an amnesiac MacGuffin: a guy created a fertility-killing virus and spread it at a concert, and although he’s obsessed with Inferno, nothing in the plot really has anything to do with that. (And seriously, why does he leave all these clues in the first place, especially since the virus has *already* been released?)

      So, in summation: (1) I haven’t judged what makes other people happy, I’ve judged what makes *me* unhappy to see in a book with this much publicity behind it. (2) My motives in writing about the book are pretty clear; it’s a huge release, and I’m treating it with the respect it deserves in actually *talking* about it at all. It’s a part of the public conversation, and all I’m doing is extending that — this right here is part of that conversation. Welcome! (3) Given that we agree about the criticisms but not about the personal statements, I’m a little unsure as to why you’ve littered your response with so many apparent attacks on *me* and my lack of humility; I assure you (as you’ll see from reading just about anything else here), I’m well aware of my own meager talents (and their limits) and I’m only here, unpaid, to talk about the things that interest me.

      In any case, I think you’ve simply misinterpreted or fixated on what you perceived to be a slight against you, so know that no such insult was intended, and let’s all happily move on!

  6. This is a brilliant criticism of Inferno. I haven’t finished reading the book, and hence I had to leave your review at the point where you ask your readers to “abandon all hope for a spoiler-free essay”. But your perspective is in complete harmony with my own point of view. The plot is highly incongruous, and the architectural details extraneous. It’s highly disappointing, considering that it comes from the same guy who authored the wonder that was ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

    • Thanks for the comment; I hope you’ll come back and finish the discussion once you’ve staggered your way through the remaining levels of Inferno. Disappointment’s the right way to sum it up–it’s not as if the guy can’t write, or that he doesn’t know anything; it’s that he’s been struggling to find a mythology as interesting as the one he used in “The Da Vinci Code.”

  7. I’ve finished the book yesterday, so I just read this. You are right about the plot-holes, but I felt the hatred in your words, so I must disagree.
    When I’ve read the book I found some mistakes in it (I’m Hungarian so it could have depended on the translators as well), for example that Hercules scene, where was Hercules, who is Achilles – no Hercules never was Achilles. So I agree here.
    But, for God’s sake it’s a thriller, a brainy one. It’s not for spread the truth or something! (I’ve akways said the same to those who criticized “The Da Vinci Code” because it was about Jesus and Mary Magdalane.)
    So, again it was written to entertain people, and as it’s a thriller, in my opinion it’s exciting and if not the best, at least a good book and full of plot-twists.
    Well I don’t want to argue, ’cause probably I won’t search for this site again in my life (I’ve just found it somehow), but one more thing.
    To understand the villains thoughts (because it seems you don’t understand why would he leave hints), add to it he was ruled by his own madness in the end, so… Just like Malakh in “The Lost Symbol” he did crazy, unpredictable things.

    Finally I want to apologize for my English and thank you.

    • I appreciate the response–you’re absolutely entitled to disagree with me, and your English was just fine. Hatred is too strong of an emotion, though you’re perhaps reading into my disgust with the fact that a book like this–which is comparatively bad, even if you’re only comparing to Dan Brown’s other novels, or to other thrillers, like Ben Mezrich’s recent “Seven Wonders”–sells far better than other works of fiction. I enjoy a suspense novel as much as the next, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that it does something slightly more than have twists and turns–if you go back and read Tom Clancy’s early novels, for instance, you’ll see that they actually developed characters and mapped out the political climate far more than his later, more rushed novels, and many authors who make it big are guilty of churning out what they think readers want, or what their publishers will settle for (because they know it will sell).

      So yeah, a bad book can be entertaining. I just wanted to better define to readers where I was coming from when I make notes on the general quality of an object.


  8. I’m only reading this book now, having been given it by an avid, eclectic reader who reads just about anything.

    Dan Brown writes cracking page-turners, as rushed and exciting as the Jason Bourne franchise and I’d say they’re essentially screenplays for the inevitable movie.

    Sure, they’re low-brow with gratuitous “historical” references but it’s made me want to visit Florence because it sounds like a fantastic city. Florence Tourist Board take note.

    I agree he does get a bit carried away with his own cleverness sometimes and, as a Brit, I don’t like the American spelling and literary clichés but surely this isn’t meant to be Huxley, Orwell, Atwood, Arthur C. Clarke and certainly not the late Toffler. It’s a fast fictional adventure, not an educational allegory or Treatise, and can be read and enjoyed that way. As with Da Vinci Code, Danté’s Inferno is just a peg to hang it on and add a bit of colour. Why not?

    • When I was a child, I was fascinated with the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan novels. Even now, I find myself compelled to read the latest entries penned by his successors, although it’s increasingly out of morbid curiosity. I understand that these novels aren’t meant to be brilliant prose but rather diverting thrillers, but I don’t think that’s a reason to just let them slide. After all, we can tell that some Tom Clancy novels are better than others; wasn’t what we liked about “Gone Girl” that it wasn’t just a series of regurgitated cliches? Wasn’t the refreshing nature of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in the way that it had lively, compelling new characters?

      I’m glad you enjoyed “Inferno.” I certainly don’t mean to suggest that you can’t or shouldn’t. But for me, that novel failed even as a thriller, largely because of the way it kept interrupting itself to toot its own professorially “researched” horn. If we want something lively that moves at a clip, isn’t Ben Mezrich’s “Seven Wonders” just as good? Put the two books side by side, strip out the character names, and you’d be hard pressed to identify who wrote each because they’re both operating from a standard template, not all that far removed from the way the Stratemeyer Syndicate used to crank out compelling yet identical novels.

      There are so many good novels out there, particularly debuts, that get overshadowed by brand-name novels, and I think that’s where my rage at the time came from. That’s my reasoning behind the “Why,” when you ask “Why not?” Hope that clarifies!

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