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The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da
by Carl E. Olson | March 14, 2005
"Why write a book about fiction?"
So asks the headline of a recently posted reader's review at amazon.com
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 readerlet's call her "Sue"recently sent me an e-mail
expressing similar sentiments, albeit with more attitude. Sue wrote:
Im failing to understand what all the controversy is about. The
beginning of Mr. Browns 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 mans
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
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 discussionand argumentcenters 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,
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
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).
Finallyonce againit 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 researchonly
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 accuratenot 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.
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.
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:
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 newsa 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
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
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 Dont Think for Themselves. The Da Vinci Code,
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 were willing to
think heretically in order to escape that fraud that makes Browns
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"?
Part 2 of "The 'It's Just Fiction!' Doctrine"
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