The Lost Purpose

September 22, 2009 – 16:45

I recently read Dan Brown’s new thriller novel, The Lost Symbol.

I promise not to reveal any plot twists or surprise endings. However, I will say that there was only one plot twist that I found truly surprising, and that is indicative of my feelings about the book as a whole.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve always found Mr. Brown’s thriller writing to be workmanlike, the product of a studious journeyman rather than the output of an accomplished master of the genre.

To give credit where credit is due, he absolutely has figured out the formula for commercial success, and I, for one, am not going to denigrate him for making the choice to pursue that path rather than die penniless on a park bench in fruitless pursuit of artistic purity.

His current work, The Lost Symbol, will undoubtedly be a large commercial success and be made into another blockbuster movie. The upside is that discounted sales of the book may increase brick-and-mortar retail book store foot traffic and online referred book activity, thus driving sales of other titles. And in today’s publishing market, that would be a very good thing for all involved.

However, no amount of marketing millions will change The Lost Symbol into the thriller it could have been with one simple change. Merely by deleting somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of its content, The Lost Symbol would be a much better book.

What 30 to 50 percent of the content should be deleted? It is the same 30 to 50 percent of unrelated content that ruined the later titles of Tom Clancy, another thriller writer who lost his way.

There seems to be a law of the universe at work here that states, “Once a writer earns a few million and begins to believe the accolades of their fans and the brilliance claimed in their publisher’s press releases, the writer feels entitled to preach rather than teach, cajole rather than captivate and provide indoctrination rather than insight.”

What Mr. Clancy and Mr. Brown share in this regard is they are no longer writing books to entertain and perhaps, just a little, educate; they are writing books to advance a very specific agenda. While topics such as social politics, sexual politics or belief systems have long provided conceptual and foundational elements of drama and storytelling; they are best used, and by far most effective, when they are used as plot and character development elements, not topics of shrill and unrelenting browbeating.

No matter how much I or anyone else may agree or disagree with the subject of Mr. Clancy’s, Mr. Brown’s or any other thriller writer’s latest pet cause, the inevitable result of filling a large portion of a thriller novel with material that is more about advancing that cause than advancing the plot is a much weaker work and a diminishment of the genre as a whole. The purpose of a thriller is to thrill, not to indoctrinate.

While it is almost certain that authors who pass over the tipping point of believing they are uniquely suited to lead the masses towards enlightenment regarding their particular cause du jour do so in good faith; they are, when viewed objectively, much more likely to slip into the category of the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. That’s a title most people would shun, since it is shared with another writer of novels and plays, the PhD. and thought leader, Paul Joseph Goebbels.

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