Thursday, October 29, 2009

Style and Popular Fiction

I've been amusing myself recently with items from the linguistics blog Language Log (latest posts here). One of the topics it has covered in years past is the writing style of Dan Brown, who for those who don't know is the author of The Da Vinci Code and other apparently quite similar thrillers. I don't follow present-day popular culture any more closely than I can help (just as I try not to tailgate on the freeway--it could be hazardous to my health), but as an art historian, I couldn't help hearing about Brown's book, if only because art historians fight an endless battle with students who think that Leonardo da Vinci should be called "Da Vinci." (Being a specialist in modernism, I've stepped back a bit from this fight because I have the opposite problem, that of training my students to stop calling more recent artists by their first names. And not just artists. I just graded a paper that repeatedly, although not consistently, referred to the philosopher Edmund Burke as "Edmund.")
Well--not to digress too far onto the vagaries of students--these pieces, written by Geoffrey K. Pullum, are highly entertaining even for those of us who haven't bothered to read anything by Brown. I am not linking to every last one of the posts, as there are many and some of them are a bit tangential to Brown's stylistic quirks, but this is a good sampling:
The Dan Brown Code
The Sixteen First Rules of Fiction
Dan Brown Still Moving Very Briskly About
Renowned Author Dan Brown Staggered Through His Formulaic Opening Sentence
Learning the Ropes in the Trenches with Dan Brown
Now, while I thought Pullum's observations were quite funny (not to mention that they have taught me a few things I didn't know about what Mark Twain might have called The Awful English Language had he been writing from a German perspective), it did rapidly strike me that prior to his encounters with Brown, Pullum had evidently escaped acquaintance with the language of American popular fiction.
I don't read all that much popular fiction myself, and very little of what I do read falls into the blockbuster category, but I've read enough of that sort of thing that the quotations from Brown's books didn't sound odd to me. My reaction was not so much "My god, the man has execrable style" (after all, I read much worse style every time I grade papers) but "Hmm, sounds like typical bestseller schlock style." I was a bit surprised, in fact, that Pullum was so appalled at Brown's journalism-inspired habit of saying things like "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered..." It's not a construction I would normally use in my fiction, but then I don't write Brown's kind of fiction.
This might not have struck me so forcefully had I not recently been pawing through a stack of books on writing. A few of them have been on academic writing, but some of them have been on fiction writing, because I am well aware that plotting is hard for me and I thought I might investigate what other writers have said about it.
This bit of investigation quickly reminded me why it has been so many years since I've read books on writing fiction: books on writing fiction are almost invariably designed to teach the reader how to write somewhat like Dan Brown. Whether it be a question of style or plotting, the general sort of thing Brown does is held up as an example of how to write.
I can see why. Brown may have crummy style, but it's vigorous crummy style. When books on fiction writing give examples of good and bad writing, the bad writing is always remarkably inert. Writers like Brown (and to be fair I don't think I've seen a writing text use him as an example, but other thriller writers are quoted liberally) carry the reader along with their energetic words. It may be the energy of an uncoordinated guy playing Whack-a-mole, but that kind of thing clearly appeals to a lot of people.
Since I'm not one of those people, I look at such writing guides and sigh. There may be useful tips in there even for writers of literary fiction, but it's hard to pick them out when the authors are exhorting us to write cliffhangers.
The analyses of Brown's flawed phrasing brought a couple of additional thoughts to mind. We learn to write from the writing we read, and so if popular fiction is full of mangled metaphors and poorly thought out phrasing, how can I expect my students to do better? After all, we're all seeing so many plurals written with apostrophes that it's hard to avoid writing those even when we've always known better. I've had to reality check myself on things I know are correct (I first found Language Log when I felt compelled to verify that "simplistic," a word I am constantly telling students to look up, does not mean "simple").
But also, after looking through all the things that Brown does wrong, I began to get very nervous. There's a general notion that I write pretty well, but the thought of having Geoffrey K. Pullum copyedit me makes me unusually anxious.


  1. I enjoyed looking at the Language Log posts you linked to here, and I have to say I have no desire to read Dan Brown. Still, I think you're right that Pullum can be a bit fierce sometimes.

    I was particularly struck by his criticism of "moving briskly about." First, he says it's a cliche, which always freaks me out a little when applied to some phrase I can't recall ever having heard before, or at least not often enough to think about it. Then he brings in Stephen Potter, who had a character use the phrase "still moving briskly about" with reference to an older woman. Pullum ignores the "still" and claims that "moving briskly about" implies that someone is "extraordinarily old and infirm." Well, maybe it's a British English thing. Maybe all educated British people have read Potter and use the phrase in just that way to the point of making it a cliche, but I haven't and don't.

  2. I had exactly the same reaction to "moving briskly about." I would never have described this phrase as cliche. And I agree that in Potter's usage the word "still" plays an important role.

    As I wrote this post, I kept nervously looking over what I had written in case it showed some imprecision or a construction Pullum had identified as substandard and bizarre. I suspect there are still a few infelicities.