Books | September 16, 2020 9:37 am

Decoding the Decoder: My Summer With Dan Brown, Your Dad’s Favorite Writer

He’s maligned by critics but beloved by people who buy books. What’s his secret?

dan brown writer
You might not like Dan Brown. He probably doesn't care.
Horacio Villaloba/Getty

A phone number pops up on my iPhone. “No Caller ID,” it says. Is a stranger calling me with a secret code I need to decipher? A world-famous art museum asking me to help solve a mystery? A telemarketer telling me I could be saving a lot of money on my boat insurance even though I don’t own one? 

No. It’s just one of the most successful authors to ever walk the earth. 

“Jason?” I hear on the other end of the line. “It’s Dan Brown.”

***

Brown has been just about impossible to ignore over the last 20 years, since he first introduced the world to his most famous character, Robert Langdon, in 2000’s Angels & Demons. Five novels later (six, if you include 2001’s Deception Point, which isn’t part of the Langdon series), Brown is one of the bestselling authors in human history.

William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie have sold in the billions. Danielle Steel and J.K. Rowling have both moved somewhere on the order of 500 million. Stan and Jan Berenstain sold about 250 million copies of their picture books about a family of eponymous, anthropomorphized bears. Stephen King beats out Brown, checking in around 350 million, and a handful of Japanese manga writers are up there as well. But at around 50th on the list, you’ll find him: Dan Brown, American author of just seven novels (Digital Fortress is the only pre-Langdon title), with 200 million sold copies to his name.

And that’s really the thing of it: the sheer economy with which Brown has ascended to that echelon. King has written about 70 books. R.L. Stine, whose Goosebumps series raised an entire generation of millennials, is credited with more than 400 titles to his name. Romance writers like Steel churn out a book or two every year, while crime writer James Patterson — who’s inching toward 300 million sales — has collaborators to help him as he closes in on 100 books under his name. Brown has seven books. Seven. Single digits. That, and a few of them have been turned into films directed by Ron Howard that star Tom Hanks. 

Of course, you know all of this because you’re alive and presumably literate, in which case it’s impossible to escape Brown’s work. The adaptations do great at the box office, and Brown has made a killing off of books that, as one friend put it, “dads love to read.” And while that might sound like an insult, isn’t dad stuff in? We love dad hats and dad shoes and dad jokes — why not dad books? 

I’m sure little of this matters to Brown, whose annual income is reported to be in the $20 million range, according to most reports. To quote Jay-Z, Brown is not a businessman — he’s a business, man. And like the rapper-turned-mogul, Brown also doesn’t get enough love from critics.

Does he lose sleep over this? One would think not, and one would be correct. 

“I have a very specific writing style. Some people love it. Some people hate it,” Brown tells me. “But it’s very, very intentional, and it is designed to draw as little attention to the language as possible. There’s no sort of acrobatics. All the sentences are written in ways they’re very, very easy to understand on your first reading.”

I’ll admit that I was one of the people on the “hate it” side of things. I’m a pretty serious fiction reader. I go out of my way to seek out old U.K. editions of paperbacks I love because I’m a completist; I watch the 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited at the start of every summer and will never stop complaining until I’m able to download every episode of Jeeves and Wooster. I have Toni Morrison’s autograph on a cocktail napkin somewhere in my apartment. A lot of my friends have MFAs. I don’t have one, because when I was in my 20s and considered applying, I decided “nobody can teach me to write.” I often regret that decision. I loved On the Road when I was 15, then disliked it by 25, citing that, well, it reads like speed-addled slop, which, yeah; now I sort of like it again. I see its merits as a Very American Book. I started a book club. You should join

That is all to say that of all the things I could be somewhat snobby about, I’ve been pretty serious about my literary tastes. I don’t engage in Twitter debates on what makes great literature; I don’t care if it’s commercial or literary fiction. I love 100 pages about a guy describing England in the summertime as much as I do books about monsters or thrillers you buy at the airport. But I’m picky — there’s no way I would ever read Dan Brown. 

And then I did. During the first month of quarantine, after both bookshops and bars closed, I found myself wandering a lot. Just walking up and down streets that I’d traveled countless times, trying to make sense of the quiet. Somewhere, not too far from my apartment, I found a welcome sight: a “FREE STUFF” box, just like you saw all the time in Brooklyn before we had to sanitize our hands and wear a mask to walk the dog. I peeked in, and there, along with a few old encyclopedias and some self-help books teaching you how to “crush it,” was Angels & Demons

I thought, why not? My friends are all talking about their sourdough starters and how they’re going to learn to play the guitar while we’re stuck inside, maybe I’ll just read a Dan Brown novel. Weird times call for new things. YOLO and all that. 

So I started reading about Langdon’s adventures. About the mysterious call in the wee hours of the morning that sends the middle-aged “handsome in a classical sense” Harvard professor who drives a Saab 900s on a journey that would sell hundreds of millions of copies and make the guy who wrote it super rich. And when I finished, I realized that not only had I enjoyed reading the book, but I was a bit curious to see what happened next, and thankful that I hadn’t seen the film version of The Da Vinci Code.

Reading Dan Brown was easy. His intentions worked, it seemed. By the start of summer, I casually polished off the first three of his books at my leisure. After years of looking for weirdo large-novel writers like Thomas Pynchon or short-story masters like Deborah Eisenberg or Grace Paley, dead Russians from the 19th century or anything on New Directions, I let down my guard for a few weeks and had a nice time doing it. Before that, I read because I wanted to; now I was reading because what the hell else did I have to do? Brown’s books are perfect for that. 

Dan Brown with his good buddies Tom Hanks and Ron Howard in Rome (Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage)
WireImage

“There’s certainly a place for literary fiction where you sort of say, ‘Wow, after I read that the fourth time, that is a beautiful image or sentence,’” he says. I obviously don’t disagree. I like pondering over parts of a book. But Brown, like any writer of a certain brand of conspicuously consumable commercial fiction, has it down to a science. When I’m reading his books, I don’t have to think about that science, the process that I find myself overthinking when I read so much other, more critically acclaimed fiction. “I write in a way that ideally the reader doesn’t realize he’s reading, [he] just sort of gets transported to a location and there’s people talking, and you’re not really paying attention to language,” Brown tells me. 

The thing that gets me is how breezy his books are considering the subject matter. A Harvard professor uncovering a global conspiracy involving the Illuminati and the Vatican isn’t exactly something you just sit down and write over afternoon tea. It takes research, something that Brown is quick to point out he does a ton of. From what I gather, he probably spends as much time researching a book as he does writing one. 

And with all that research comes a lot of errors. By “a lot” I mean there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the criticism of The Da Vinci Code, from Brown getting the Tribe of Israel Mary Magdalene belonged to wrong to the part about Pope Clement V burning the Knights Templar to death and scattering their ashes over the waters of Rome. In her 2009 review of The Lost Symbol, Maureen Dowd — who seems to be a fan of Brown’s — takes him to task for not uncovering enough about the Masons. She writes that there isn’t enough payoff at the end of the book, unlike a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which also takes mythical, mystical items and ideas and has a bunch of bad guys going up against an incredibly handsome professor of archeology with the fate of the world resting in the hands of whomever can claim it, but ends with a bunch of Nazis melting. 

Still, Brown sits in the most comfortable no man’s land any writer can really hope for. People are always going to be critical of his work, and yet it’s still going to sell copies by the truckload. Stephen King can call it bathroom reading, but he’ll still be looking up at it on the bestseller list. The Catholic Church can condemn Brown all it wants; he’ll be fine.

Brown is the type of success you can only imagine in the 21st century, one essentially above the critics, who started publishing his work at the exact right moment, just as Americans started regarding conspiracy theories about who runs the world not as silly and troubling, but as the most likely state of things. In another era, people maybe would have said his books are made for the tin-foil-hat crowd; today, you can turn on the TV and there’s a president saying that windmills cause cancer. Taken in that context, maybe the idea that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had some kids whose descendants are roaming the earth today is … plausible. Nothing is weird because everything is weird.

Brown’s meteoric rise, which really took off with the 2003 release of The Da Vinci Code, shows that he was the right writer for the right cultural moment, with the perfect everyman-turned-superhero to act as his proxy. Tom Clancy gave us Jack Ryan in the 1980s, a marine-cum-stockbroker-cum-professor-cum-CIA agent who eventually becomes President of the United States. The ‘90s had characters like James Patterson’s Alex Cross (psychologist-cop-FBI agent), who went into his practice as a shrink when it was all said and done. And out of that mold steps Robert Langdon, a brilliant mind who is also absolutely fearless, both the kind of person you can see yourself in, but also debonair enough to be played by Tom Hanks or some Hollywood heavyweight. Brown understood how thrillers work — the “science,” as he puts it — and then got really lucky with the timing. His books started gaining popularity at a time when everyday Americans would shut off their televisions after another day of horrible news and wonder if there would ever be an antidote to all the horrible things happening. In Langdon’s world, bad news also exists — but there is always an explanation, and he always finds a solution.

Works of fiction can tell you a lot about the real-world societies from which they are born. Certain authors had their finger on the pulse, often reluctantly. Jack Kerouac with American postwar disillusionment, James Baldwin summing up the Black experience in this country, past, present and future, or David Foster Wallace capturing a sort of overstimulated and totally underwhelmed Generation X point of view that younger writers either love or loathe. But their audiences are, for the most part, niche. The popularity of thriller writers like Brown, on the other hand, points to something larger and more enduring. America’s id and ego are on full display in the work of whatever thriller writer is currently moving the most copies and getting their books turned into blockbusters. 

***

Given his formula for writing his books, Brown doesn’t come off as ever having been too precious about his prose. He went to Amherst and majored in creative writing, where he ended up taking classes taught by the novelist Alan Lelchuk. “A literary guy,” Brown calls him. Sitting in the same class was none other than David Foster Wallace. Lelchuk “saw the genius there,” Brown says, “where the rest of us kind of felt like this guy’s kind of weird.”

It’s an interesting little aside in American literary history: one of the most obsessive and obsessed-over fiction writers of the last few decades in the same room as one of the most popular, a guy who would outsell him 100 times over, who probably never spent much time agonizing over how best to describe the sound a toilet-stall door makes when an especially robust and sure-handed man latches it into place. Brown admits that while he didn’t get it at the time, “Years later, you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I wasn’t mature enough to understand that he was light-years ahead of all of us.’”

But Brown’s college and post-college experience is very telling of the writer that he would go on to become. He didn’t see himself as a literary guy, and when he got out of college he saw two paths: “I thought, ‘Well, I know I want to do something creative. Should I write books or write music?’ And I thought music would be much more fun.”

He cut an album called Synthanimals, full of synth-driven songs for kids. After that, he made the move to Los Angeles and put out an album for adults called Perspective that he says “really never did anything.” The music career didn’t pan out, so Brown switched to the other career path he’d envisioned after a short sojourn teaching at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, the same New Hampshire school his father taught at and Brown himself graduated from. It was during his time teaching that Brown says he picked up a book by Sidney Sheldon, the television writer who created hits like The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie in the 1960s, then pivoted to become one of the best-selling authors ever, writing 21 novels and selling an estimated 350 million to 600 million copies, depending on whom you ask. Brown, having tried out one of his two post-Amherst career ideas, decided to turn around and go down the other one.

In 1998, St. Martin’s Press published his debut, Digital Fortress. The book fits into the same late-1990s post-cyberpunk canon that gave us movies like Hackers and shows like The X-Files, but isn’t as entertaining. It’s a plot without a whole lot of edge that is nonetheless very forward-thinking in its pre-9/11 critique of government surveillance. Two years later, he put out Angels & Demons, and the rest is publishing history. 

Save for the fact he’s going through a very public divorce that sounds … messy, things have come full circle for Brown. The kid’s album he worked on a few decades back, Synthanimals, is the basis for his latest project, Wild Symphony. Performed by Croatia’s Zagreb Festival Orchestra, the entire album is very much the lighter side of Dan Brown, comprising 21 classical tracks called things like “Wondrous Whale” and “Clumsy Kittens.” For Brown, the project was a labor of love. “I really wanted to find a vehicle through which I could share my love of classical music with young people,” he says, adding, “It’s really nice to have children’s music that can be on that we don’t just hate. It’s not ‘Baby Shark.’”

***

Dan Brown wakes up at four in the morning. He meditates for half an hour and then gets to work. He doesn’t check email or look at the news, he just sits and tries to work until noon or so. Sometimes it’s writing, approving things, making sure the business that is Dan Brown runs smoothly. He’ll take a break and then “sort of deal with the rest of the world, which is publicity or attorneys or all the business stuff that you’re like ‘Oh, that’s right.’ It’s not all creativity.’”

Brown takes creativity seriously. He mentions his brother is a professional musician and his sister a professional painter. He sprinkles in some of his philosophies during our conversation, like when I ask him the difference between writing music and books and he tells me the two complement each other in a lot of ways, but that “writing a musical line is about asking a question and giving an answer.” 

It’s a simple bit of dad-like wisdom from the king of the dad-book writers, a guy who understands how to use a formula for success, and then rinse and repeat it until there are a few additional zeroes at the end of his bank statement.

I think about that as I hang up the phone with Brown, his “way.” I’ve read a few of his books now, and am still on the fence as to whether I’ll ever finish the Langdon series. The thing is, I don’t have to. I can take Dan Brown’s books or I can leave them, just like somebody left that copy of Angels & Demons on a stoop like you would a pamphlet or a takeout menu. Whatever it is, they take from it what they want from the experience. Maybe it changes their life, but most likely it doesn’t. It’s a fleeting thing, a nice way to fill up some idle hours during an especially dreary summer. And these days, while we’re all still stuck in our homes, not really able to be around other people and yearning for something to do that doesn’t involve doom-scrolling through our phones, a formulaic thriller that doesn’t take much thought sounds pretty good, actually.