The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine | Carl E. Olson

The "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The Da Vinci Code
Carl E. Olson | March 14, 2005

"Why write a book about fiction?"

So asks the headline of a recently posted reader's review at of The Da Vinci Hoax, the book that Sandra Miesel and I wrote about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The reviewer continued:
Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code is a novel and not a fact based book. It is only a book of fiction and not to be taken seriously. It is entertaining in its outrageous attitude to convince [readers that] what he is writing is based on fact. Anyone who reads his book should not even consider anything, but be entertained in the fast moving read.
Another reader–let's call her "Sue"–recently sent me an e-mail expressing similar sentiments, albeit with more attitude. Sue wrote:
I’m failing to understand what all the controversy is about. The beginning of Mr. Brown’s book clearly states that it is a work of fiction. As such it stands to reason that various facts and historical data in the book should not be taken literally. It is a book meant to be read for pleasure, not to be taken out of context as one man’s idea of factual historical events. This is like saying that someone actually believes a Stephen King book to be fact! … Writing a "response" to a fictional work seems totally ludicrous to me. Now, if The Da Vinci Code were touted as FACT I could understand. This is all silliness to be all up in arms over a work of fiction.
These are typical statements of what I call the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine, a nifty piece of polemical rhetoric coined by numerous fans of The Da Vinci Code. The argument is simple: Dan Brown's best-selling book is "just fiction," so why worry about it, write about it, criticize it, or react negatively to it? Even people who admit they didn't care for the novel are prone to using it, often with bemusement or puzzlement. More often than not, however, the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine is uttered with some measure of anger, contempt, and loathing.

Perhaps those most annoyed by The Da Vinci Hoax and its critique of The Da Vinci Code will ignore this essay. But for everyone else, here are some reasons that the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine is untenable and problematic.

What are people really talking about?

When the vast majority of Code readers talk about the novel, what do they discuss? The intricate intellect of Robert Langdon? The mysterious past of Sophie Neveu? The "24"-like structure of the plot? The psychological profile of the albino monk Silas?

None of the above. Time spent reading reviews, blogs, and discussion forums reveals that most discussion–and argument–centers on the historical and religious claims of the novel. Even people who have not read the novel and know little about its characters and plot are usually familiar with its central claims: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married; they had children; this has been kept secret through force and terror by the Catholic Church; clues about this "fact" were left in Leonardo da Vinci's artwork. Television programs (on ABC, History Channel, National Geographic, etc.) featuring lengthy specials on the Code spend mere seconds or minutes on the characters and plot, instead focusing on the historical and theological claims made by the characters and which support the plot.

There are various reasons for this. First, the characters and plot are generic, thin, and of little or no interest. Secondly, the story is clearly a vehicle for beliefs that Brown apparently takes very seriously (more on that below). Finally–once again–it is the factual claims of the novel that interest readers, critics, and everyone in between.

A perfect example of this can be found in another reader review at, written by a "Top 100 Reviewer":
Once I began this extraordinary book, I could not put it down. The Da Vinci Code is so much more than a gripping suspense thriller. Dan Brown takes us beyond the main plot and leads us on a quest for the Holy Grail – a Grail totally unlike anything we have been taught to believe. With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for one, had never known existed . . . or even thought about. I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown's research–only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me. And my quest for knowledge and the answers to questions that the book poses, paralleled, in a sense, the quest of the book's main characters.

Leaving aside the issue of "impeccable research," Brown does indeed introduce "aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity" not known to many readers. As Sandra and I show in The Da Vinci Hoax, these "aspects and interpretations" are not new or original, nor are they accurate–not even close, in most cases. They are also not "fiction" in the proper sense of the word; they are not stories, but numerous pseudo-scholarly assertions artlessly fitted within a story. The whole point of the Code is go "beyond the main plot"; in fact, the main plot does not exist without those assertions.

Give us the facts! Sorta. Kinda. Maybe.

The main reason that The Da Vinci Code has sold some twenty-five million copies worldwide and remains on or near the top of best seller lists is that people are enamored with its historical, artistic, and theological claims. Staunch fans of the novel admit this is so in a variety of ways.

For example, this curt statement from a heated fan of the Code: "You self-righteous catholic freaks are going to try and debunk a book that lets the world know the true nature of your religion!" And this e-mail, from his apparent twin:

It doesn't surprise me that a Fundamentalist such as yourself would be so closed minded as to not believe that even the possibility of something such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code could possibly happen. You people have the inability to think outside the box.
Others parse their declarations with more nuance, seemingly torn between the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine and their conviction that the novel does tell the truth. For example:
Just to let you know, I think you get very bothered over works of fiction. Is The Da Vinci Code real? NO, it's a fictional piece. Is there anything factual in it? YES. Is there a lot of theory and speculation? YES, but only that. It seems you read the book as you would read the front page news–a statement that is infallible and fact. The truth of the matter is that it is not. It is a novel for entertainment purposes and it does nothing more than bring some interesting ideas to the table.
So: The Da Vinci Code is not real. But it does contain facts. But these are really only theory and speculation. Which means they aren't "fact." Yet these ideas remain "interesting"–but not "real." Get it yet? If not, the same reader struggles to explain further: "Dan Brown wrote a good story with some interesting theories. But theories nonetheless. Theories that can be neither proven nor disproven just because they are that: theories." However, even a general, non-technical use of the word "theory" indicates that there is some sort of concrete, legitimate evidence to support said theory. Unless, I suppose, we are talking about a conspiracy theory, which always thrives best when no evidence exists for it.

Interest in the Code has been explained well by one of its most public fans, Dan Burstein, editor of Secrets of the Code: An Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code (New York: CDS Books, 2004). Burstein, who runs a venture capital firm, is not shy about his obsession with Brown's novel, stating: "I was as intellectually challenged as I had been by any book I had read in a long time." He recounts making his way through "scores of books that had been mentioned or alluded to in The Da Vinci Code: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Templar Revelation, Gnostic Gospels, The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, The Nag Hammadi Library, and more." None of those books, of course, have anything to do with the art of creating characters, devising plot, or forming one's own unique voice as a novelist.

Burstein admits that the Code is not well-written, but explains that literary quality is beside the point: "Say what you will about some of the ham-fisted dialogue and improbably plot elements, Dan Brown has wrapped large complex ideas, as well as minute details and fragments of intriguing thoughts into his action-adventure-murder mystery." There you have it: "large complex ideas," "minute details," and "fragments of intriguing thoughts." Burstein is correct in stating that those are the main attractions of Brown's novel. And such ideas, details, and thoughts are not presented as "just fiction," nor are they taken as "just fiction" by a large number of readers.

An even more intriguing and vulnerable examination of this is found in a November 2004 article from the Village Voice, titled "Faith Off" and written by Curtis White, author of The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. The Da Vinci Code, he argued,
is important as an expression of a desire for a spirituality that cannot be had within the confines of the institutionalized church. More simply yet, it is the popular expression of a desire for a kind of meaningfulness to life that is missing for most of us. . . . Beyond the scandal and the sensation and the heavy-handed fiction, it is this assumption of our shared sense of spiritual fraud and the assumption that we’re willing to think heretically in order to escape that fraud that makes Brown’s deepest appeal to his readers.
Reader "Sue" had stated that she failed "to understand what all the controversy is about." Here is what the controversy is all about, ably expressed by Curtis White, who is not only a fan of the novel, but laments that Brown doesn't have the courage to go further. He writes that the Code
first holds out the possibility of a vast reimagining only in order to betray it in the end through a re-establishment of the familiar (in this case, the jaded world of the bourgeois scandal/commodity). In short, it suggests redemption without ever having the courage to destroy anything.
Does it sound as though White thinks this is "just fiction"? And do you think that Dan Brown thinks his novel is "just fiction"?

The Brown Ambition

I suppose the response to this might be: "C'mon! Dan Brown simply wrote a work of entertaining fiction. That's it. It's not his fault if some readers take it too seriously." Or, as Sue wrote, "Now, if The Da Vinci Code were touted as FACT I could understand."

The Code is, in fact, touted as FACT. When readers open up the novel, they find that it contains a very prominent page titled "FACT". The page states that "the Priory of Sion–a European secret society founded in 1099–is a real organization" and makes statements about the Les Dossiers Secrets and Opus Dei. It concludes by stating: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate". So Brown is saying that all descriptions of the Bible, the Gnostic "gospels," the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci, Gothic architecture, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jewish Temple, and much, much more are accurate. It is a confident, bold claim.

Some fans have tried to explain that this just a fun literary device (wink, wink!) or that Brown does actually provide accurate descriptions of "artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals," so critics should lighten up and stop reading too much into the "FACT" page. But critics don't need to put words into Brown's mouth–he has done it himself.

In a June 9, 2003, interview on The Today Show, host Matt Lauer said to Brown, "You ask the reader to–to challenge certain long-held beliefs or truths about religion." Brown answered, "Yes." He then went on to say that while some readers have found the Code to be "a little bit shocking," the majority of readers "love it." The "shocking" ideas found in the novel include a number of radical feminist notions about the so-called "sacred feminine" and ancient goddess worship.

A major theme of Brown’s novel is a call for the recovery of the "sacred feminine" and a revitalized worship of a goddess or goddesses. Brown stated in another interview:

Two thousand years ago, we lived in a world of Gods and Goddesses. Today, we live in a world solely of Gods. Women in most cultures have been stripped of their spiritual power. The novel touches on questions of how and why this shift occurred…and on what lessons we might learn from it regarding our future.
In a July 17, 2003 interview with CNN, Brown emphasized this point more than once, stating, "In the early days . . . we lived in a world of gods and goddesses. . . . Every Mars had an Athena. The god of war had the goddess of beauty; in the Egyptian tradition, Osiris and Isis. ... And now we live in a world solely of gods. The female counterpart has been erased."

He continued: "It’s interesting to note that the word ‘god’ conjures power and awe, while the word ‘goddess’ sounds imaginary". Then, revealing his understanding of how his novel might affect "traditional" Christians, he remarked, "There are some people in the church for whom this book is a little bit shocking. But the reaction from the vast majority of clergy and Christian scholars has been positive". He added: "Nuns, in particular, are exceptionally excited about the strong feminist message of the book."

It might be argued that Brown is just saying all of this as a way of keeping up appearances; that is, there is a wink and sly grin behind this heavy talk of alternative spiritualities and goddess worship. But on May 18, 2004, Brown made a rare public appearance, giving a talk at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, New Hampshire (Brown lives in New Hampshire). He again preached the gospel of the sacred feminine. Eagle Tribune, the local newspaper, reported:
Brown described his book as an exploration of why the world has left women behind in religion, going from worshipping gods and goddesses to only gods, and how that shift affected culture. "I simply explored a story about how and why the shift occurred, how it shaped our past and more importantly, how it may shape our future," he said. "In the major religions of the world, women remain second-class citizens. Why is this a problem?"

Interviewed in 2004 for a National Geographic Channel documentary, Unlocking Da Vinci's Code: The Full Story, Brown did not waver in his beliefs. "I began as a skeptic," Brown said, "As I started researching The Da Vinci Code, I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and holy blood and all of that. I became a believer."

So Brown frankly admits what his critics (and many of his fans) already knew: his novel wasn't ultimately about Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, but about being a "believer" and embarking on an "exploration" of religious and cultural beliefs. The fiction writer clearly doesn't think his novel is "just fiction."

MSM and the Ivory Tower

Many in the mainstream (and not-so-mainstream) media and the world of academia also believe that the Code is much more than "just fiction." Part of the proof is in the critical pudding.

The novel was described by New York Times as a "riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller" and has garnered effusive praise from numerous reviewers. The Library Journal raved, "This masterpiece should be mandatory reading"; the Chicago Tribune stated that the book contained "several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation"; Salon magazine described the novel as "an ingenious mixture of paranoid thriller, art history lesson, chase story, religious symbology lecture and anti-clerical screed."

magazine marveled: "The Da Vinci Code shines–brilliantly–in its exploration of cryptology, particularly the encoding methods developed by Leonardo Da Vinci, whose art and manuscripts are packed with mystifying symbolism and quirky codes." Numerous critics opine about how "smart", "intelligent", and well-researched the novel appeared to be. "His research is impeccable," stated New York Daily News and The Mystery Reader noted that the "smart suspense novel . . . incorporat[ed] massive amounts of historical and academic information." Just fiction? Not on your life–the Code is as a textbook for hip, smart people looking for answers to ancient, troublesome questions.

Considering its controversial nature and politically-correct themes, it's no surprise that the novel now appears on the syllabi of various colleges and universities. Students attending the University of Arizona, for example, can take a class, "Women Mystics and Preachers in Western Tradition," that requires a complete reading of the novel alongside Gnostic texts and the works of female mystics. Hartford Seminary in Connecticut offers a course, "Spirituality as a Source of Hope," that includes required texts by controversial theologian Marcus Borg, New Age guru Matthew Fox, and . . . novelist Dan Brown.

An online course called "The Da Vinci Code Demystified: A Scholarly Perspective," is offered by Alllearn/Alliance for Lifelong Learning, and is taught by three professors from Yale, including Harold W. Attridge, Dean of Yale University Divinity School. Classes at many other schools also feature the novel, almost always in courses on theological or metaphysical subject matter.

The Nature and Meaning of Fiction

Very few, if any, college or university English courses utilize the novel–perhaps because it is so poorly written, as has been pointed out by some intrepid literary snobs. Regardless, those who hold to the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine play a perilous game. They betray, even if due to impatience, a failure to appreciate the value, influence, and nature of fiction.

I suspect that many fans of the Code think that fiction is simply another form of entertainment. Period. There's little doubt that many people view fiction in that way. Fewer and fewer people read fiction, and many reading it go for light fiction, not dusty works by Dickens, James, or Hardy. For many Americans, fiction is what you read on planes, in trains, and on lunch break. Fair enough. The point is not to disparage light fiction, but to point out a lacking appreciation of fiction.

Simply put, there is not such thing as "just fiction." Whether light or heavy, pulp or classic, short or long, there is really only good fiction and bad fiction. Good fiction shows us something about the human condition; it reveals something about human nature. "Human life," wrote Eudora Welty, "is fiction's only theme." Edmund Fuller, in Man In Modern Fiction, argued that "all fiction is a comment upon the life and nature of man–though not necessarily consciously so. . . . The writer cannot be wholly coherent, as artist, unless he possesses a wholly coherent view of man to inform, illuminate, and integrate his work."

Fuller then noted: "Explicitly or implicitly, every novel reflects an opinion about the nature of man, even if the author hadn't know he had one." This is why there is no such thing as "just fiction"–all fiction says something about man, the human condition, and the purpose of living. But good fiction reveals; it doesn't lecture, hector, evangelize, or bully the reader. Good fiction is truthful, but it doesn't lay out facts and make arguments as an academic thesis or op-ed might. G.K. Chesterton remarked:

People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease even to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a recognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. (Heretics, ch 14)
In Mystery and Manners, her classic collection of essays on writing, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "It is true, I think, that there are times when the financial rewards for sorry writing are much greater than those for good writing." I think The Da Vinci Code proves this point with change to spare. But regardless of its literary quality, the Code does say something. The very fact that it is a work of fiction means that it communicates a perspective, an attitude, a belief system–as every novel does. And a large part of that perspective, as The Da Vinci Hoax shows in great detail, is ideological: anti-Christian, pro-"sacred feminine," and relativistic. It does this not despite being fiction, but because that is the intellectual and philosophical basis that Brown, I think, knowingly built the novel upon.

There is another problem. If the Code, as "just fiction," is merely entertaining, we should ask: How and why do people find it entertaining? In what way, for example, is it entertaining to think that Jesus was married and that the Catholic Church is a violent, nasty, woman-hating institution? If it's because you enjoy the possibility of that being the case, we are back to the question of historical and theological truth. If it's because you enjoy asking "What if?", we are again back to the question of historical and theological truth.

It is, then, a matter of truth. Is truth revealed or defiled in the Code? Since these questions are so important and since twenty-five million copies of the Code have been sold, is it not reasonable to examine the historical and theological claims, questions, and issues contained within the Code? Is it really so ridiculous, or unfair, or unprecedented to critique the style and substance of a novel that makes bold claims–and has so obviously influence many readers?

A quick glance at the reaction to another best-selling work of fiction might be helpful here. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the first Left Behind novel. There are now thirteen books in the Left Behind series, with some sixty million copies sold. Tim LaHaye. the creator and co-author of that series, has been candid about the purpose of the books: to use a fictional format to convey a particular interpretation of "biblical prophecy" and explanation of the impending end of the world.

Rather than brush the novels off as "just fiction," a number of critics have written serious critiques of them. Titles include: Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire by Michael Standaert, Marks Of The Beast: The Left Behind Novels And The Struggle For Evangelical Identity by Glenn W. Shuck, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America by Amy Johnson Frykholm, and Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series by Bruce David Forbes. Each of these books examines the various claims and themes found in the Left Behind series, the apparent agenda and beliefs of the authors, and the impact the novels are having on popular American culture. In other words, they are doing exactly what we do in The Da Vinci Hoax.

-breaking lit crit

This brings me to my final argument against the validity of the "It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine: if you apply it one work of fiction, you need to apply to every work of fiction. If you say that The Da Vinci Code is just fiction, you need to say it about Hamlet and Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle and Oliver Twist. Each is a work of fiction–and yet dozens, even hundreds, of essays, article, theses, and books have been written about them. Such is the world of literature and literary criticism. This is part of the work of literature departments at colleges and universities: to study and critique fiction. Does anyone think that the tens of thousands of teachers and professors who dedicate their lives to such work think that they wasting their time and energy on "just fiction"?

There are countless books written about fiction. Some focus on style, others on themes, and others on structure and development. Some criticize authors for their misuse of facts and others examine a novel or story in the larger historical and cultural contexts. Most ask, in one way or another, "Why was this written? Why does it succeed? Why does it influence? What did the author intend it to say?" In The Da Vinci Hoax we ask many of these same questions about Dan Brown's novel. We take the Code, its claims, and its influence very seriously–and we think that others should as well.

So, when asked, "Why write a book about fiction?", perhaps it's best to ask in return: "Why read a book if it is 'just fiction'"?

Related links: - Information about The Da Vinci Hoax.
Interviews with Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel about The Da Vinci Code.
Other articles by Carl Olson about the Coded Craziness.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at .

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