About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci Code
Carl E. Olson | March 14, 2005

Print-friendly version

"Why write a book about fiction?"

So asks the headline of a recently posted reader's review at amazon.com of The Da Vinci Hoax, the book that Sandra Miesel and I wrote about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The reviewer continued:
Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code is a novel and not a fact based book. It is only a book of fiction and not to be taken seriously. It is entertaining in its outrageous attitude to convince [readers that] what he is writing is based on fact. Anyone who reads his book should not even consider anything, but be entertained in the fast moving read.
Another reader–let's call her "Sue"–recently sent me an e-mail expressing similar sentiments, albeit with more attitude. Sue wrote:
I’m failing to understand what all the controversy is about. The beginning of Mr. Brown’s book clearly states that it is a work of fiction. As such it stands to reason that various facts and historical data in the book should not be taken literally. It is a book meant to be read for pleasure, not to be taken out of context as one man’s idea of factual historical events. This is like saying that someone actually believes a Stephen King book to be fact! … Writing a "response" to a fictional work seems totally ludicrous to me. Now, if The Da Vinci Code were touted as FACT I could understand. This is all silliness to be all up in arms over a work of fiction.
These are typical statements of what I call the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine, a nifty piece of polemical rhetoric coined by numerous fans of The Da Vinci Code. The argument is simple: Dan Brown's best-selling book is "just fiction," so why worry about it, write about it, criticize it, or react negatively to it? Even people who admit they didn't care for the novel are prone to using it, often with bemusement or puzzlement. More often than not, however, the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine is uttered with some measure of anger, contempt, and loathing.

Perhaps those most annoyed by The Da Vinci Hoax and its critique of The Da Vinci Code will ignore this essay. But for everyone else, here are some reasons that the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine is untenable and problematic.

What are people really talking about?

When the vast majority of Code readers talk about the novel, what do they discuss? The intricate intellect of Robert Langdon? The mysterious past of Sophie Neveu? The "24"-like structure of the plot? The psychological profile of the albino monk Silas?

None of the above. Time spent reading reviews, blogs, and discussion forums reveals that most discussion–and argument–centers on the historical and religious claims of the novel. Even people who have not read the novel and know little about its characters and plot are usually familiar with its central claims: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married; they had children; this has been kept secret through force and terror by the Catholic Church; clues about this "fact" were left in Leonardo da Vinci's artwork. Television programs (on ABC, History Channel, National Geographic, etc.) featuring lengthy specials on the Code spend mere seconds or minutes on the characters and plot, instead focusing on the historical and theological claims made by the characters and which support the plot.

There are various reasons for this. First, the characters and plot are generic, thin, and of little or no interest. Secondly, the story is clearly a vehicle for beliefs that Brown apparently takes very seriously (more on that below). Finally–once again–it is the factual claims of the novel that interest readers, critics, and everyone in between.

A perfect example of this can be found in another reader review at amazon.com, written by a "Top 100 Reviewer":
Once I began this extraordinary book, I could not put it down. The Da Vinci Code is so much more than a gripping suspense thriller. Dan Brown takes us beyond the main plot and leads us on a quest for the Holy Grail – a Grail totally unlike anything we have been taught to believe. With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for one, had never known existed . . . or even thought about. I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown's research–only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me. And my quest for knowledge and the answers to questions that the book poses, paralleled, in a sense, the quest of the book's main characters.

Leaving aside the issue of "impeccable research," Brown does indeed introduce "aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity" not known to many readers. As Sandra and I show in The Da Vinci Hoax, these "aspects and interpretations" are not new or original, nor are they accurate–not even close, in most cases. They are also not "fiction" in the proper sense of the word; they are not stories, but numerous pseudo-scholarly assertions artlessly fitted within a story. The whole point of the Code is go "beyond the main plot"; in fact, the main plot does not exist without those assertions.

Give us the facts! Sorta. Kinda. Maybe.

The main reason that The Da Vinci Code has sold some twenty-five million copies worldwide and remains on or near the top of best seller lists is that people are enamored with its historical, artistic, and theological claims. Staunch fans of the novel admit this is so in a variety of ways.

For example, this curt statement from a heated fan of the Code: "You self-righteous catholic freaks are going to try and debunk a book that lets the world know the true nature of your religion!" And this e-mail, from his apparent twin:

It doesn't surprise me that a Fundamentalist such as yourself would be so closed minded as to not believe that even the possibility of something such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code could possibly happen. You people have the inability to think outside the box.
Others parse their declarations with more nuance, seemingly torn between the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine and their conviction that the novel does tell the truth. For example:
Just to let you know, I think you get very bothered over works of fiction. Is The Da Vinci Code real? NO, it's a fictional piece. Is there anything factual in it? YES. Is there a lot of theory and speculation? YES, but only that. It seems you read the book as you would read the front page news–a statement that is infallible and fact. The truth of the matter is that it is not. It is a novel for entertainment purposes and it does nothing more than bring some interesting ideas to the table.
So: The Da Vinci Code is not real. But it does contain facts. But these are really only theory and speculation. Which means they aren't "fact." Yet these ideas remain "interesting"–but not "real." Get it yet? If not, the same reader struggles to explain further: "Dan Brown wrote a good story with some interesting theories. But theories nonetheless. Theories that can be neither proven nor disproven just because they are that: theories." However, even a general, non-technical use of the word "theory" indicates that there is some sort of concrete, legitimate evidence to support said theory. Unless, I suppose, we are talking about a conspiracy theory, which always thrives best when no evidence exists for it.

Interest in the Code has been explained well by one of its most public fans, Dan Burstein, editor of Secrets of the Code: An Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code (New York: CDS Books, 2004). Burstein, who runs a venture capital firm, is not shy about his obsession with Brown's novel, stating: "I was as intellectually challenged as I had been by any book I had read in a long time." He recounts making his way through "scores of books that had been mentioned or alluded to in The Da Vinci Code: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Templar Revelation, Gnostic Gospels, The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, The Nag Hammadi Library, and more." None of those books, of course, have anything to do with the art of creating characters, devising plot, or forming one's own unique voice as a novelist.

Burstein admits that the Code is not well-written, but explains that literary quality is beside the point: "Say what you will about some of the ham-fisted dialogue and improbably plot elements, Dan Brown has wrapped large complex ideas, as well as minute details and fragments of intriguing thoughts into his action-adventure-murder mystery." There you have it: "large complex ideas," "minute details," and "fragments of intriguing thoughts." Burstein is correct in stating that those are the main attractions of Brown's novel. And such ideas, details, and thoughts are not presented as "just fiction," nor are they taken as "just fiction" by a large number of readers.

An even more intriguing and vulnerable examination of this is found in a November 2004 article from the Village Voice, titled "Faith Off" and written by Curtis White, author of The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. The Da Vinci Code, he argued,
is important as an expression of a desire for a spirituality that cannot be had within the confines of the institutionalized church. More simply yet, it is the popular expression of a desire for a kind of meaningfulness to life that is missing for most of us. . . . Beyond the scandal and the sensation and the heavy-handed fiction, it is this assumption of our shared sense of spiritual fraud and the assumption that we’re willing to think heretically in order to escape that fraud that makes Brown’s deepest appeal to his readers.
Reader "Sue" had stated that she failed "to understand what all the controversy is about." Here is what the controversy is all about, ably expressed by Curtis White, who is not only a fan of the novel, but laments that Brown doesn't have the courage to go further. He writes that the Code
first holds out the possibility of a vast reimagining only in order to betray it in the end through a re-establishment of the familiar (in this case, the jaded world of the bourgeois scandal/commodity). In short, it suggests redemption without ever having the courage to destroy anything.
Does it sound as though White thinks this is "just fiction"? And do you think that Dan Brown thinks his novel is "just fiction"?

Read Part 2 of "The 'It's Just Fiction!' Doctrine"


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius