Fiction Means It Isn’t Intended To Be True (On Ross Douthat’s Erroneous Interpretation of Dan Brown)

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I noted the religious opposition to Dan Brown’s work in my recent discussion of his book Angels and Demons. An example of this can be found in Ross Douthat’s most recent column. Douthat does take a different view of Dan Brown than I do, as I described his work as escapist fiction that slips in some ideas. Douthat writes:

Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.

It is a bit of a stretch on Douthat’s part to take a line that people are learning from his books to mean he is promoting a position in the way that writers such as Rand are. I find it hard to believe that anyone who has read fiction by both Ayn Rand and Dan Brown would lump them into the same genre. For example, compare the sex scenes. In an Ayn Rand novel the lead characters will break into a lengthy discussion of their political philosophy in the middle of having sex. Characters in a Dan Brown novel are too busy solving mysteries to have very much sex, but when they do there is no philosophy involved. The closest Brown came to mixing sex and philosophy was  when Vittoria Vetra compared having sex with her to a religious experience and “a perfect moment of glorious rapture” due to her experience as a yoga master.

If there is a religious philosophy behind Brown’s books it is not anti-religion as many conservatives believe. Brown actually expresses strong views in favor of religion. What he doesn’t accept is that the teachings from leaders of organized religion are necessarily true. At first I thought Douthat understood this as he wrote:

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

Unfortunately he allowed his personal views to get in the way, later accusing Brown of “dishonesty” as the “secret” history of Christendom in The Da Vinci Code is false. Dan Brown is a fiction writer. His last two books created situations to place Robert Langdon in the midst of a fictional thriller. Fiction by definition is about things which are not true. Creating fictional situations is part of writing fiction and not a sign of dishonesty as Douthat claims.

Even if Brown is trying to use his fiction to promote his views he is basically doing what is done with the stories in the Bible. Perhaps much of the religious opposite to Brown’s work stems from their inability to recognize fiction. The stories in the Bible are stories to make a point and not literal truth. The same types of people who try to take the Bible literally and do not understand its use of fiction are the ones who also fail to understand that Dan Brown’s work is fiction, making it nonsensical to say it is dishonest. The “history” in Brown’s work is not intended to be taken literally any more than the stories of the Bible should be taken literally. This view, also expressed in Brown’s work, certainly contributes to the hostility towards him seen from fundamentalists.

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