Hey all! Since I haven’t been able to post anything these past couple of weeks, I just thought that I should at least give y’all a bit of content seeing as I’m on break so I don’t have the excuse of not having enough time to write. Well, this isn’t content written specifically for Outlet but it is an essay we had to do for an English Literature class. However, since it fits the theme of Outlet and it’s recently written, I thought I should post it here albeit in a slightly altered form. If you guys have read some of my other articles, you can see some recurring ideas and points that I will make again in this essay so yes, I am aware that I reuse examples sometimes, especially when it comes to Dan Brown (if you can’t tell by the title) and the Spanish-American War. Lemme know what you think and if you agree or disagree and let’s jump right into it.
When it comes to controversial pieces of literature, the authors behind those pieces are often accused of ulterior motives. In the case of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, he was blasted for discrediting the biggest religion in the world while pushing his “feminist” agenda, all using information taken from a questionable source that had been debunked to high heaven. Yet, despite the expert opinions of specialists in both literature and history against him, The Da Vinci Code remains a book eagerly received by the American public. Some critics say Dan Brown took advantage of the social and political turmoil after 9/11 and sold his books when the American public needed for everything to make sense. As one critic puts it, “When bad things happen, Brown reassures us, it is probably because of the machinations of a 1,000-year-old secret society which is quietly running the world, though often in conflict with another hidden organisation.” However, what I want to argue against isn’t about Brown’s lack of literary common sense but how he has managed to seduce the American public into pushing the book to become the second-most popular in modern literature by taking advantage of human nature.
Dan Brown’s success was by no means a fluke. Predecessors before him, like Ayn Rand, took advantage of the social sentiment of their time and used it to spread their message and sell their books. Ayn Rand took advantage of the political unrest and fear of the rise of the USSR and communism in the global arena to sell her books and spread her ideals. Mark Lawson, the critic whose assertion that the events of 9/11 were the main reason Brown’s novels have sold well, says as much, “But the success of this book is due not to the writing but to post-9/11 therapy. It tells so many Americans what they want to hear: that everything is meant.” Nobody likes to admit that they have no idea what’s going. No one wants to believe that things happen at random. There has to be a bigger picture somewhere and that’s what Dan Brown sells us. While I have to admit that, yes, the insecurity after 9/11 helped to contribute to a national mindset that was more receptive to books centered around conspiracy theories and an everyday Joe turned savior of the world, The Da Vinci Code would have been at least moderately well-received in any case. With the main character being a college professor with a quirky Mickey Mouse watch (that, Dan Brown doesn’t fail to remind you, was given to him by his mother when he was ten although it has no impact on the story or Langdon’s character whatsoever), it gives any person the room to dream that they may also be able to become a Robert Langdon. In insinuating the machinations of secret organisations as the root of world strife, it gives people the simple answer they want. No one wants to talk about why establishing Israel in Palestinian land was politically and ethically questionable, or talk about the Persian Gulf War or the continuous conflicts in the Middle East when it could all be explained away by the fact that the US government wanted an excuse to wage war against Iraq and Afghanistan to gain access to their fossil fuel resources. Hence, conspiracy theories. What’s worse about the book besides the fearmongering and the offering of a deceptive truth to complicated events (like the interpretation and the “true” events behind biblical stories) is the fact that Brown dared assert that his books are factually accurate. It is an atrocious claim. This not only allows his readers to fantasise about such simple solutions to what’s going wrong in the world, but it also gives them ground to bring that thinking to the real world and that encourages thinking rife with logical fallacies, which, in all cases, is never good when looking at real-life situations and trying to solve real-life problems. So it’s not that 9/11 was responsible for this way of thinking, it is human nature to want simple answers. In this case, Occam’s Razor isn’t the way to go — the simplest solution is NOT the best solution. The machinations of humans are rarely so neat or premeditated.
Even when there is no threat, people have been known to create monsters out of shadows, so to speak, and sometimes due to a sudden unexplained psychosocial phenomenon called mass hysteria. For example, the most prevalent example of a phantom threat in history can be seen in the late 1800s when the rivalry between two newspaper tycoons caused the Spanish-American War. In that case, the careless remarks and actions of a Spanish ambassador were sensationalised by the newspapers who tried to outcompete each other by seeing who could rile up the most amount of people possible over what amounts to a diplomatic blunder. That is, until the explosion of a US ship in Spanish-controlled Cuba seemingly confirmed their distrust. The political and social landscape during those times weren’t strenuous; the American populace was largely cohesive with the political climate being stable and the social order upheld and what policy disagreements there were over dealing with Cuba were being remedied between the two countries so there was no need whatsoever to even think that the already weakened Spain had any ill intentions towards the US. The brain’s ability to see patterns is a great skill and a great weakness. It is what gives conspiracy theories that irresistible ring of truth. So, the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code couldn’t be attributed mostly to 9/11 because despite the lack of any meaningful stimulus, people have somehow still overreacted in the past. In playing into the cliche of an ordinary man defeating age-old evil organisations through a series of amazing coincidences, Brown has managed to tap into people’s subconscious need for order, simple explanations, and the fantasy of being involved in something bigger than themselves. There doesn’t need to be any external motivation. Despite the bad reviews from the professional world, Brown and his books have survived and even managed to get adapted into film. This just goes to show that its appeal hasn’t diminished even over a decade after 9/11.
Dan Brown’s books, particularly his most popular, The Da Vinci Code, all follow the trend of being easy to read, self-important, and lacking any real originality. However, in following this trend, they are also ensured a loyal readership because familiar subjects and familiar plots make the readers feel safe in said familiarity while allowing them to enjoy afresh what they liked about other books. In doing this, with the addition of an interesting opening premise and the promise of a satisfying ending with the hero’s victory, Dan Brown has managed to secure (most) of his readers’ loyalty and keep them coming back for more books and movies to help explain away the confusing and out-of-reach aspects of life and experience. While the occurrence of a traumatic event like 9/11 certainly did strengthen the public’s need for order and simplistic explanations, people’s psychology would have drawn them to the book regardless. Since Brown often asserts that false facts are true, it is then imperative that his readers draw a line between his stories and the real world because the fact is that what the world needs to fix problems is not a man solving puzzles and outsmarting evil secret organisations; the real world solves problems by having well-informed citizens who rely on themselves and their diplomatic ability to reconcile their wishes with opposite parties and what is realistically plausible. We don’t need people to rely on unconventional heroes to save the day because then, the very source that makes unconventional heroes becomes dry: the common citizen who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and tries to fulfill his desire for a better world for all.