May 15, 2006
CORRECTED: Da Vinci Code’s last secret: how did it succeed?
Please read in paragraph 12 ... Gospel according to Judas
... instead of ... Gospel according to St. Judas
By Arthur Spiegelman
about "The Da Vinci Code" -- how did a work by a near unknown
author and sneered at by some of literature's leading lights
become one of the best-selling novels of all time?
With well over 40 million copies sold worldwide and the
film version of the novel set to open the prestigious Cannes
film festival on Wednesday, it is a question that scores of
authors and would-be ones would love an answer to.
To hear some people tell it, author Dan Brown stumbled on
the literary equivalent of turning lead into gold.
They say his was a formula that mixed clumsy, forgettable
sentences with breakneck pacing, lectures on art, history and
religion, sinister conspiracies, evil villains, puzzles and
cliffhanger chapter endings to produce literary gold.
While some like novelist Salman Rushdie called the book
"typewriting" and others, like critic Laura Miller, called it
"cheesy," book industry professionals refuse to sneer, saying
this was far from a case of good things happening to a bad
It was instead a case, they said, of all a reader's wants
appearing to be conveniently located in a single book,
especially the desire to learn something.
In this case, the teaching was about a highly debatable
thesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendants
continue through the present day.
Nick Owchar, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Book
"My theory is that non-fiction sells better than fiction
and this book has a heavy concentration of history and
purported facts that people have taken to. It doesn't read well
as a novel but it reads well as an encyclopedia.
"The book challenges the familiar story of Jesus's life but
it is also challenges ideas that for a vast number of Americans
are a familiar part of their faith and people enjoy toying with
things that are subversive."
Journalist Peter Boyer, who analyzed in this week's New
Yorker how Hollywood carefully handled the marketing of the
movie, said that at the heart of the book is a thesis that:
"Christianity as we know it is history's greatest scam,
perpetrated by a malignant, misogynist, and, when necessary,
murderous Catholic Church."
Boyer said Brown tapped into a hunger not just for
spirituality but for alternate constructs of faith -- similar
to the public interest in the Gnostic gospels and even the
Gospel according to Judas.
Beyond that, the novel was also boosted by an innovative
marketing campaign that helped it hit number one on the New
York Times bestseller list within a week of publication,
something unheard of for a book by a little known author.
Stephen Rubin, the publisher of Doubleday Books, a division
of Random House, said that he and his staff knew they had
something exceptional the minute they received the first 120
pages of the book.
They sent out 10,000 advance copies of the book to
booksellers, critics, media and advertising people -- a
gigantic number for such an undertaking.
Soon, as Publishers Weekly senior editor Charlotte Abbott
noted, they had enlisted the nation's booksellers as fans of
the book, ready to sell it for all they were worth.
The first reviews were ecstatic -- the New York Times
reviewer summed up her feeling in one word: "Wow," and compared
it to Harry Potter for adults.
Doubleday even ran a teaser ad in the New York Times on day
one of publication. In a corner of many pages of the newspaper,
it ran a tiny box ad that showed the Mona Lisa and asked why
this person was smiling.
A puzzle still to be solved for authors dreaming of writing
the next "Da Vinci Code."