Everybody's a critic

"He was laid-back and blond, a surfer dude in manner if not literal truth, a California kid who believed a double-double burger from In-N-Out was nature’s perfect food..." Also, 7 other things.

Remember Dan Brown’s 2004 mega-bestseller The Da Vinci Code? Here’s the very first sentence:

“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.“

Brown’s books have sold more than 200 million copies. Conservatively, he’d pull in $3 per copy. Even post-divorce (long story), he’s probably approaching billionaire territory.

Despite that success (or let’s be honest, probably because of it), Brown’s work has been harshly criticized—HARSHLY—for both the research that went into his novels and his writing ability.

“Brown's writing is not just bad. It is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad…” complained one critic who zeroed in on the opening:

His very first sentence, indeed the very first word … told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time. This might be reasonable text for the opening of a newspaper report the next day:

“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière died last night in the Louvre at the age of 76.”

But … it doesn't work here. It has the ring of utter ineptitude. … The writing goes on in similar vein, committing style and word choice blunders in almost every paragraph (sometimes every line).”

Ouch! Let’s cut it off before it starts to get mean, right? It occurs to me this might be the second most-criticized opening line in literature, right after Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 19th century novel, Paul Clifford:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I have empathy for these writers. Opening lines are hard! I struggled to find one for the start of my first book. Finally, I took (ahem) inspiration from the opening of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which I’d read several times since high school.

Here’s how Wouk began his 1951 novel, describing main character Willie Keith, a naval reserve officer in his early 20s during World War II:

He was of medium height, somewhat chubby, and good looking, with curly red hair and an innocent, gay face, more remarkable for a humorous air about the eyes and large mouth than for any strength of chin or nobility of nose.

Thus inspired, here’s how I began my 2008 work of narrative nonfiction, In a Time of War, about West Point, describing one of my main characters, Todd Bryant, an Army officer in his early 20s during the Iraq War:

He was laid-back and blond, a surfer dude in manner if not literal truth, a California kid who believed a double-double burger from In-N-Out was nature’s perfect food. Five foot nine and stocky, he was known in high school for decent golf, mediocre football, better grades, and outrageous pranks.

Once you get past the first paragraphs, the books have little in common. Wouk’s was fiction (and won the Pulitzer Prize); mine was narrative nonfiction (and was somehow overlooked).

Also, like most authors and creative people, part of me cringes when I go back and look at my earlier work—even though I still get a couple of nice notes from people each month telling me that they’ve just recently found In a Time of War and enjoyed it.

I wrote to Wouk afterward, thanking him for his inspiration and telling him how I’d riffed off his work. I never heard back (and to be 100% honest, while I vividly remember writing to him and signing a book to send to him, I don’t also vividly remember that I ever actually mailed it.)

Now, if you’d like to know something funny and behind-the-scenes-y, it’s that I’m now nearly 600 words into this newsletter, and I’ve yet to mention what inspired it.

That would be the news that Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, actually wrote a secretive, earlier book that almost nobody can now find, and that he probably doesn’t miss.

It was called, not joking: 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman.

Sure enough, there it is on Amazon—although half of the story now is about how if you try to buy this book, you’ll wind up getting random other titles in the mail instead: things like Bill Cosby’s 1992 book, Childhood, or a 1980s book on how to be better at sales.

The problem might be the result of a mix-up with bar codes that resulted in the same book registration number (called an ISBN) being used for multiple books in the 1990s.

But then again, it’s fun to imagine that it might really just be about Brown, of all people, keeping eyes off his early work.

“If I’m using my Dan Brown brain,” Chloe Gordon, a 32-year-old filmmaker who has been posting on social media about her attempts to get a copy of the book, told the New York Times, “it’s obviously Dan Brown putting the bar codes on fake books so that no one ever sees this really embarrassing book that he wrote in the ’90s.”

Call for comments: Are you embarrassed about some of your early work (regardless of what kind of work you do)? Have you read Dan Brown’s work? Have you read The Caine Mutiny? Heck, have you read my stuff? Let us know in the comments. I’ll be checking in there today, probably on and off between noon and 2 pm ET.

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Thanks for reading, as always. Photo credit: Charles Schultz via fair use. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.