“Ingeniously Bad Writing” (The Da Vinci Code)

by Jimmy Akin

in Non-Catholic Apologists

0385504209Occasionally there is some book that hits it big and has all kinds of people praising how well it is written. I’m starting to get a reflective skepticism of such claims, because I’ve been burned too often by them.

I know, de gustibus non disputandum est, but some things are just poorly written.

This was what happened with the Harry Potter craze. People were going on and on about how well it was written, but when I read the first Harry Potter novel, I was stunned at how poor the writing was. I acknowledge that the book has some interesting ideas in it, but the way in which these ideas were given literary form was utterly incommensurate with the level of praise being heaped upon the book. It made me wonder about the people had who want to put J. K. Rowling up there with Shakespeare. Just how much exposure to literature did they have? Not much, if they thought that Harry Potter was the bee’s knees.

In case you haven’t read it or seen the movie, the basic plot of the first Harry Potter novel involves a young boy who has lost his parents and leads a dreary existence but who then discovers that he is the most famous, most important person in the world. Since readers typically identify with the protagonists of the books they are reading, it’s easy to use this premise as a ham-fisted, over-the-top, delusions-of-grandeur fantasy for the reader. Rowling has noted that she started writing the series while she was leading a rather dreary existence herself and working out her feelings over her divorce. Reading the first Harry Potter novel, I couldn’t help the feeling that on some level she was writing it for her own sons to atone for her divorce, giving them a marvelous escape fantasy from the realities of their broken family.

(If you want to read a sci-fi novel with a smilar premise that is more like what Harry Potter *should have been,* read Jerry Pournelle’s Starswarm.)

So when people started hyping how well written The Da Vinci Code is supposed to be, I was very suspicious. Once again, “interesting ideas” are delivered with an utter lack of literary style. The books is appalling written, but I don’t need to explain why because someone else already did.

Read this analysis from Language Log about Dan Brown’s incompetent wordsmithing.

Favorite quote:

“Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.”

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Elena May 23, 2004 at 1:50 pm

Gotta disagree with you on the Harry Potter books. I thought they were very well written and in fact get better with each book. Ido think she borrowed some ideas from Tolkian.

Shellynna May 23, 2004 at 3:05 pm

Small correction: Rowling had no sons at the time she started writing Harry Potter, just a young daughter. Since re-marrying, she had a son a year or two ago.

Adam May 23, 2004 at 5:02 pm

Rowling does get better as a writer with each new book. But it’s unfair, as Jimmy points out, to compare it with great literature — as has been done too often. Her work could be picked apart for grammatical problems and awkward or unclear sentence structures etc., in much the same manner that the DaVinci Code was picked apart by the writer for the language log (linked to in Jimmy’s post). I’ve read Rowling’s books, enjoyed them and look forward to the next one … but I can tell the difference between Harry Potter and Shakespeare just as I hope we can all see a difference between comic book art (as enjoyable as it is) and a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Elena May 23, 2004 at 5:33 pm

The test of time will determine whether the Harry Potter series becomes a classic, or just a novelty of the early 21st century. Never said it was Shakespeare – but it is a real page turner nontheless. For a real treat- listen to the book on tape. Jim Dale, the narrator, does a superb job!

Anonymous May 24, 2004 at 11:28 am

I’ve enjoyed the HP books, especially the last 3. I consider them on the same level as the trashy Star Wars books I read when I want something light & quick. Rowling is getting better with each book in many ways but she’s also running the risk of self-indulgence, for me at least. The last book was quite good but another 20 pages & she’d have gone over the edge. And, so far, there’s barely anything I’d call gratuitous. I am really getting tired of some of Rowling’s literary tricks, her use of elipses (these things: . . .) especially; it’s just lazy & doesn’t build the suspense she seems to want them to do. It seems she is, too, because her plot devised were more integrated in the story in book 5. Still, they’re fun books. I think they’ll have the same lasting effect that Baum’s Oz books have, & how many kids read them these days? Baum’s books were just as a product of his time as Rowling’s books are of ours. They contain too many coloquialisms to be truly timeless. Tolkien’s books, however, were written in a style that harkens back to the romantic literary epics, like Beowulf, that the professor specialized in & so are more successful at what they set out to do.

Gene Branaman May 24, 2004 at 4:53 pm

Sorry, that comment above was me.

Tom K May 25, 2004 at 12:44 pm

I am looking for good reading for my 14 year-old daughter. I had hopes about “Starswarm”, but now have concerns for the following reasons:
When I read the review of the first book in the Jupiter series, “Higher Education”, at the Amazon web site and found that multiple complaints about sexual content appearing throughout the book, it leads me to ask the following:
1. Is this par for the course throughout the series?
2. Is “Starswarm” different or does this parent need to look somewhere else for a science fiction series that either does not discuss sexual morals or at least does so in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching?
Tom K

Jimmy Akin May 25, 2004 at 5:22 pm

I can’t speak to the Jupiter series as a whole (which seems to be a collection of unrelated novels under the same imprint), but I would not recommend Starswarm for people still at the age of innocence.
There is no sex in the novel, but there is a two-page section where the topic of sex is discussed. No details are given about how to have sex, and the passage does not conflict with Catholic morals, but it would still be inappropriate for people below a certain age. A parent could read the book to a child and simply omit the relevant part, but kids would run into it if they are reading on their own.
I wish Pournelle hadn’t included the passage, as I would be able to recommend the book for children, because it is otherwise very well written and otherwise suitable for young people.
In general my recommendations are for adult Catholics who are secure in their faith, which I take it are the people reading my blog. If someone is not an adult or not a Catholic or not secure in their faith, my recommendations don’t apply–unless I mention another group specifically.
Hope this helps!

Tom K May 25, 2004 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for the feedback.

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B. March 30, 2006 at 3:37 pm

Fr. John Wauk is a real priest of Opus Dei, and maintains a blog concerning “The Da Vinci Code”.
He profiles himself as follows.
My own story seems to connect – perhaps “collide” would be the better word – with The Da Vinci Code in several ways.
I’m an American priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, living at the real headquarters of Opus Dei in Rome (the one that’s not in NY), which has been my home for the last ten years. I studied Renaissance history at the real Harvard University (the one without professors of “symbology”), and now I work as a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, where I teach a course on literature and Christian faith.
His blog is at:

Daniel May 7, 2006 at 11:33 am

Wow… if the Catholic Church had even put HALF of the energy they’re putting into bashing some guy’s silly book, towards the problem of priests raping little kids, I might care about what they have to say on this. Until then, to me, catholicism is just organized and sanctioned child molestation.
I’ll check back in with you guys when you get your shit together.
Good luck.

Tim J. May 7, 2006 at 11:37 am

Another living, breathing example of invincible ignorance.

Leo Nation May 22, 2006 at 7:34 pm

In the talks I have given on the Da Vinci Code, the most effective single item is showing the Last Supper from http://www.danbrown.com and telling people that Leonardo DID include a conventional chalice. After a pause I tell them that the chalice is on a ‘shelf’ above the head of the leftmost Apostle.

Stevie June 13, 2006 at 7:04 am

I like the Harry Potter books but I don’t think they’re anything special. Every generation finds a series that clicks, like C.S. Lewis’s books.
Concerning Brown, I learned that a certain author named Perdue wrote a book entitled The Da Vinci Legacy over twenty years ago, and he thinks Brown stole his ideas. If you read his site, you’ll find a lot of similarities between the two Da Vincis. Brown’s book did well because he exploited Christian fears and tied together a whole bunch of incredible events. Anytime an author portrays Jesus in an unChristian manner, there will be controversy, and sales.
The publishing industry, like the music industry (see American Idol – actually, don’t see it) doesn’t give a hoot for art. It publishes what sells. Would books like Moby Dick have been published if written today?

R.B.Pravin August 19, 2007 at 9:15 am

my thoughts about Dan Browns Da Vinci code and Angels n Demons.

Tim J. August 19, 2007 at 9:22 am

Oh, please… no more drive-by plugs for your own blogs, people. If you have something to say, say it in the combox and then maybe a URL would be more appropriate.
There are just a few folks who do this regularly trying to drum up traffic for their own blogs, and it’s annoying.

anonmymous December 4, 2007 at 1:38 pm

wow…you are an idiot

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