Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes


Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen was so incensed by the glowing review of Dan Brown’s latest opus by Janet Maslin in the New York Times that she waxed long and eloquent about what she calls “the way celebrity authors …can induce a kind of 'Emperor's New Clothes' approach to literary criticism.”

Let me say right off that I myself have not read The Last Symbol. But this isn't really about Dan Brown; it's about all authors/actors/directors who have achieved such a stellar level of popularity that it seems to intimidate reviewers into what can only be called a state of dishonesty. For those who don’t know her, Peters is the owner of very successful bookstore in Phoenix. The Poisoned Pen is so supportive of mystery authors that they actually began their own press for authors of favorite mystery series that had been dropped by New York. So Barbara is not a disgruntled author; she’s a bookstore owner who’s evidently finally had enough of a phenomenon we’ve all noticed: bestselling authors who are given a pass for lousy books simply because no one has the guts to stand up say “the emperor has no clothes”.

The reason? According to Barbara, “The pressures can be financial (from the newspaper or the publisher or...), or editorial (lots of pressure points here), or a fear of being the only one to point out how bare-assed the emperor may be. Who of us wants to be caught naked in public?

“I really hate to think an adulatory review of a bad book is penned because a critic's reading faculties have done a meltdown. And I do allow for variations in appreciation of voice or subject or narrative drive..... But terrible writing speaks for itself. Any of you can recognize it.

“The sad truth also is that with a celebrity author two things can come into play: 1. It's uneconomic to put the effort into editing bad writing as the book will sell anyway. 2. The editor will get no reward in his/her house for alienating an author with criticism and perhaps driving the author to seek another publisher. If you contemplate how bad some bestsellers are, or how surprisingly some writers you have read with enjoyment have deteriorated, apply these two points.

“Brown, under contract to deliver The Lost Symbol back in 2005, sent in a book that is so poorly written, and then has been published with so little if any editing (one hopes no editing since if the submitted text was actually edited the mind boggles at what the draft of the novel might have been), [that he] has done himself no favor. Those who bit on The Lost Symbol -- and I am one, I did buy it to read since I really enjoyed Angels and Demons, the first for symbologist Langdon -- will in large numbers not buy Brown again.

“So in the end, a "rush job" (Why, one asks, is a book over four years late a "rush job"?) like this does no one any favor other than say for Maureen [this reference is to a biting review by Maureen Dowd, who has never been intimidated by anyone’s celebrity] who clearly relished every word she set down in review. Maybe the humorists benefit deriving one set of riches while Brown and Doubleday enjoy their profits at the bank.”

For the curious, Maureen Dowd’s review is here .

All I can say is, Ouch.

And a hat tip to Sphinx Ink for the link.


Plano Soprano said...

I am in the middle of reading The Lost Symbol. I'll finish it only because (1) I paid for the book, and (2) if I'm going to eviscerate a book, I need to know what I am talking about. So far, this is one of the worst pieces of drivel I can remember reading in years.

Either some authors are too big to risk offending (Stephen King and John Grisham come to mind), or many editors don't know how to edit. I do think that lack of editing skills may be partly to blame. I'm a tech writer/tech editor who learned my craft through years of reading well-edited writing and struggling to produce my own, but then I'm over 50. I find that younger writers in our company -- and younger editors -- simply do not know any better. They see writing not as an art, but as a utility. The idea that words are a fabric to be cut and shaped and molded is foreign to them.

I just found the St. Cyr mysteries a couple of months ago, but I am already a fan. I've got What Remains of Heaven on preorder from Amazon, and I am looking forward to reading it.

Linda Furlet

cs harris said...

Linda, I think Barbara Peters nailed it when she said some writers are just too big to risk offending. Plus they are always overworked, so they probably figure why bother editing a book with a built-in readership and that few reviewers are going to have the courage to criticize anyway. I have to admit that I'm curious to take a look at it.

And I'm so glad to hear that you enjoy the Sebastian series. I'm just finishing up my thriller now and am very anxious to get back to him!

Lainey said...

Maureen Dowd review link "Not Found."

Plano Soprano said...

Dowd's review is here.

Lainey said...

Thanks PS!
I had thought perhaps Dowd's column was subscription only.
Anyway, while at the NYT site, I read Janet Maslin's review of TLS.

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't even opened a copy so I don't have an opinion. Most of the time I doubt (without much evidence) that he's as bad as some say or as good as others say.

Steve Malley said...

LIke a torso-sized bag of cotton candy, I enjoyed the DaVinci Code even as I hated myself for enjoying it.

I've pretty much decided to give Brown's next (and previous, and future) work a miss.

Steve Malley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cs harris said...

I've tried to fix the link to Maureen's review and can't, so thanks, Lainey. Not sure what my issue is.

orannia said...

I haven't read The Lost Symbol and I honestly wasn't planning too...too many other good books in the world that I definitely want to read :)

This sounds like the opposite of tall poppy syndrome...

cs harris said...

Orannia, I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right, it is the opposite of the tall poppy syndrome.

Barbara Martin said...

After reading a first printing of The Da Vinci Code which had not been edited, it is unlikely I will ever read another Dan Brown book.

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