Back, White and (50 shades of) Grey

It was easy back in the day. Books were bisected into fact and fiction and never would the twain mix.

A factual book contained facts. Any percolation of fiction or unsubstantiated material into the final draft would leave the author discredited.

On the other side of the taxonomical tree, a fictional book meant you were delving into the imagination of the writer. One definition of fiction reads, ‘something feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story.’ For sure, in order to be engaging, it had to be grounded in the real world and pull all the right emotional strings. The more vivid the scenes, the more realistic the dilemmas, the more intimately the reader would relate to the work leading, ultimately, to a compelling read.

After the most rip-roaring romp of a read, you’d stick on the kettle, perhaps recreate your favourite scenes, reconsider the decisions taken by the protagonist and imagine yourself in his/her shoes. But, ultimately, you knew it was fiction. It was – to quote Nelly – just a dream. When EL James, the author of the best-selling Fifty Shades trilogy, was asked what her favourite aspect of Mr. Gray was, she replied that he doesn’t exist! He was a figment of a vivid imagination – the personification of many a girl’s fantasy.

So, what’s changed?

Well, a short confession here. I’m woefully late to the party when it comes to Dan Brown. Shamefully, I’ve only recently read his The Da Vinci Code, in which Robert Langdon finds himself thrust into the centre of a two-millennia-old quest to locate the Holy Grail. We learn the Holy Grail is, in fact, not an inanimate object but Mary Magdalene. Jesus, apparently, married this lady who fled to France following his execution and was protected by the resident Jewish diaspora. A sect named the Priory of Scion vowed to protect the royal bloodline, and thus the plot proceeds (I’m conscious not to include any more spoilers!).

The phrase page-turner is bandied around far too often, but this book merited it. I couldn’t put it down and upon completion was left sunk in my sofa with the stupefied feeling one gets on concluding the final page of an epic. It’s no wonder it’s one of the best-selling books ever.

That got me thinking. Why?

The prose was mediocre, as was the dialogue. The characters weren’t bad but, like Fifty Shades of Grey, it was far from a masterpiece.

There was something else, more than the exciting twists that had me glued to my sofa contemplating skipping meals, and that was the deeper philosophical undertones to his story. Dan brown has arguably created a new genre of writing that lies somewhere between fact and fiction. Let’s call it grey.

Now, let’s not get overly taxonomical! Grey could arguably be a subset of fiction but the salient point is that Brown has blurred the boundaries between what is true and what is fictional.  This was a deliberate ploy, as litigation reveals that,

‘[h]e chooses a subject which is not black and white but rather contains a grey area where there is no clear right or wrong no definite good or evil and makes for great debate.’[i]

‘…he wishes to create “grey” areas not black and white.’[ii]

He is at pains to cloak his work with the veneer of fact. He wants to evoke the: did that really happen? Is it really true? questions, thereby compounding the reader’s intellectual and moral quandary. The opening pages of The Da Vinci Code boast a list of facts (which ironically are hotly disputed in academia), thereby drawing the reader into his nexus of grey before the story has even begun. The themes draw loosely from theories (albeit weak ones) that do exist in academia, and may even be known to the more erudite reader. Thus the casual reader is left stimulated, not only by a suspense-ridden thriller, but with Dan Brown’s secret sauce – the grey matter. The reader is left feeling as if a real-life two-millennium secret has finally been revealed to the public and its associated philosophical conundrums have been resolved.

There are some who will, if one excuses the pun, take his book as Gospel. They believe that the themes (if not characters and plot) are literal truths. The explosion in research enquiries into the book’s themes is testament to this. The Louvre has even created a dedicated da-vinci-code page[iii], possibly to mitigate against the surge in enquiries and concomitant strain on resources.

Thus Brown has managed to uncover the Holy Grail of how to write the ultimate thriller. In doing so, he has created a new genre.

Throw in a major publisher, cracking publicity and a world backdrop of deep suspicion towards the Catholic Church and you have in your hands an epic.

Well done, Dan!

So here’s my obiter dicta. Far be it for an aspirant author to condemn a fellow author for achieving the dizzy heights of success! Every author seeks to craft his work in such a manner that (s)he feels will engage his readership. With the proliferation of information due to technology, readers’ expectations are high. An inconsequential inaccuracy will be noticed and diminish readers’ trust in the author. The precision in describing places and processes has undoubtedly improved over the last two decades. But I feel uncomfortable with this new grey genre. I see parallels with the growing problem of false-news and the phenomenon of a post-truth society.

Take Donald Trump’s America. We are witnessing in real-time the ramifications of a society whose anchor in veritable truth and fact is loosening. The dangers will shortly be realised in terms of open bigotry and discrimination towards demonised communities who have been vilified by interest groups in control of information. Post-Brexit England (fuelled by hard-right patriotic jingoism – ‘take our country back’, ‘kick our immigrants and foreigners’) has experienced a surge of racist attacks on scapegoated communities. Eastern Europeans and Muslims have suffered a torrent of verbal and physical assaults, right up to and including murder.

When the mass media blurs the line between fact and fiction, dresses factoids as if they were facts, society is exposed to pernicious manipulation.

Of course, Dan Brown is not a journalist, nor is he peddling hatred. He is an author writing enjoyable novels. But in blurring this very line between fact and fiction, in a different realm I feel he may be, entirely innocently and unwittingly and from an entirely unrelated angle, diminishing the necessary distinction between academia, fact and fiction.

Let there be black and white. I’ll pass on the fifty shades of grey.

Put in Dan’s situation, would I be able to resist the magical allure of the grey genre?

Time shall tell.

That’s my take. What’s yours? Please let me know in the comments section.

Seb King, in a Starbucks coffee shop

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Image credit to Darren and Brad on Flikr (CC by 2.0)

[i] English High Court judgment: Neutral Citation Number: [2006] EWHC 719 (Ch); Case No: HC04C03092

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] [accessed 13-Dec-2016]


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