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Dan Brown breaks record, gets break from critics

September 17, 2009

the_lost_symbolThe Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s long awaited follow-up to The Da Vinci Code is exceeding already high expectations with record-setting sales, while critics, disdainful to be sure, seem to be taking pains to find something nice to say.

Released Tuesday, the new book, featuring Brown’s famous fascination with occult symbols and arcane secrets, sold more than one million copies its first day on the market, according to Reuters. An additional 600,000 copies have been ordered, bringing the total number of the first edition print run to 5.6 million.

While this is a record for an adult hardcover book, it falls short of the all-time sales record, held by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series, which sold more than 8 million copies its first day in the U.S. alone.

What’s more, Breaking Dawn, the last installment in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight teen vampire series, sold 1.3 million copies its first day, according to the Guardian. The previous adult fiction sales record was held by Thomas Harris’s Hannibal.

Still, Brown’s sales figures are a welcome boost for his publisher, and for booksellers, who have seen the $25 billion American book market mired in a slump — not only due to the weak economy but also because of competition from online retailers and alternate forms of entertainment.

How much The Lost Symbol’s phenomenal sales will help traditional bookstores, though, is open to question. CNET News reports the electronic version is outselling the printed edition. That most benefits Amazon, maker of the Kindle, by far the dominant e-reader.

Significantly, Amazon.com saw its stock price rise yesterday by $7.19 to $90.70, earning it a “buy” rating from Merrill Lynch.

Meanwhile, reviews were predictably dismissive, yet a surprising number of them bent over backwards to say something nice. The Miami Herald‘s Connie Ogle finds The Lost Symbol wanting even compared to The Da Vinci Code, saying the new book “feels more like a lecture that’s occasionally interesting.” But she allowed that “plenty of fans will enjoy it” anyhow.

Henry Sutton, at the Mirror.co.uk, is kinder still: “OK, he’s not Tolstoy, but he does have an extraordinary talent for hooking a reader.”

Malcolm Jones, writing in Newsweek, notes: “But complaining that he doesn’t do well with the usual conventions of fiction is like complaining that Manny Ramirez is not a great left-fielder. It ignores what he is good at.”

At Times Online, Andrew Collins says, “It’s true, his style is as baldly prosaic as legend, but there remains a heft to his potboilers that is hard to imitate.”

Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times, complains that Brown “uses so many italics that even brilliant experts wind up sounding like teenage girls.” But, she adds: “Then again, Mr Brown’s excitable, hyperbolic tone is one of the guilty pleasures of his books.”

In a review that verges on being actually positive, Thom Geier writes in Entertainment Weekly that Brown’s protagonist, scholar Robert Langdon, “remains a terrific hero, a bookish intellectual who’s cool in a crisis and quick on his feet, like Ken Jennings with a shot of adrenaline. The codes are intriguing, the settings present often-seen locales in a fresh light, and Brown mostly manages to keep the pages turning.”

Admittedly, none of these reviews are what you’d call glowing, but there is a distinctly conciliatory tone. Reviewers, a notably heartless breed, may feel a bit guilty for piling on poor Mr. Brown, a too-easy target. I also suspect they may be motivated by respect for Brown’s readers, who don’t deserve to be made to feel small just because they enjoy an undemanding thriller.

Finally, as Jean Hannah Edelstein argues in an interesting if slightly muddle-headed blog at the Guardian website, a sense of writerly identification may be at work. Brown, who studied creative writing at Amherst alongside critics’ darling David Foster Wallace, no doubt writes as well as he can every time he sits down at the keyboard , she says– just like every other writer in the world.

Few of us, Edelstein notes, will be the next David Foster Wallace: “And yet would we keep writing at all if we didn’t still have a shred of hope, deep down, that it might be possible that we might be brilliant? We are all Dan Brown. Except for the staggering wealth.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    September 17, 2009 2:58 pm

    “Except for the staggering wealth.” Um, that’s a big difference. I don’t know. I have respect for readers everywhere who read anything. But somehow it seems to me that if Dan Brown was a better writer, then he wouldn’t be the best selling author that he is. It seems to me that the bad and the staggering wealth go together. For the same reasons that Dave Matthews Band is huge and people like John Prine are respected in a fairly small but significant way.

  2. Tommy permalink
    September 17, 2009 3:56 pm

    The Dan Brown’s and Bruce Springsteen’s prove that this really is A Big Old Goofy World. What shocked, intrigued and made my heart race more than anything written by Brown was the jump in Amazon stock prices. $7.19 to $90.70! With a ROI like that this aspiring writer could spend all his time composing (or at least attempting to compose) great works of fiction. Alas, I missed the money train. Which might be for the best. Their is no conflict inherent in being extremely wealthy.

  3. Candice permalink
    September 17, 2009 9:24 pm

    Any publicity–whether good or bad–sells books. That’s what I learned in NYC book publicist on-the-job-training 101.

  4. November 25, 2010 2:32 am

    reading books is my hobby and Dan Brown is one of the best authors that i have known ::`

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