Stieg Larsson Was a Bad, Bad Writer

I was on vacation last week, and since it involved spending one day flying across the country and another day flying back, I decided to bring along the galleys of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest that had been taking up space in my bookshelves since the first one arrived two years ago—reading and shedding, that was the plan! I was ready to see for myself what all the fuss was about… except, as I quickly discovered just a few pages into the first volume, the Millennium trilogy is the worst batch of fiction to reach #1 on the bestseller lists since—well, I don’t know how long it’s been. If you’ve known me for a long time, you know that I don’t think much of Dan Brown as a prose stylist, so when I say that Stieg Larsson isn’t even remotely as good a writer as Dan Brown, you have some sense of exactly how bad I think he is.

But let’s make it plainer: I don’t know how the editors at Alfred A. Knopf expect me to view a novel in which the narrator uses the construction “irrespective of whether [A] or [B]” as resembling anything like a display of literary prowess, and frankly if it weren’t for having read Carl Hiaasen’s excellently satirical Star Island just before going on vacation, I would have to seriously consider the possibility that the publication of Stieg Larsson was evidence of a lack of literary discernment on Knopf’s part.

(I am emphatically not blaming “Reg Keeland,” the translator of the three Larsson novels, for the atrocious prose, because Steven T. Murray has been quite vocal about how the British editors tampered with his first pass at the material, and enough British English remains in the Knopf editions that I doubt they spent much time or energy on making things better.)

Some background: Last year, Lee Goldberg broke down the problems with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—“a book that’s heavy on dull exposition, glorifies rape & torture while pretending to disapprove, and is written in unbearably flat, cliché-ridden prose”—and The Girl Who Played with Fire—“overwhelmed with dull exposition…, ridiculous coincidences, and pointless scenes that neither move the story forward nor reveal character.” He also helpfully provided several examples of the inept prose. Around the same time, Larsson’s misogyny-masquerading-as-feminism was further analyzed by Melanie Newman for The F Word, a British feminist blog.

The acceptance of Larsson’s exploitative trash—which barely rises to the level of “Ms. 45 with pretensions of Social Commentary”—as a bold strike against the patriarchy is especially bewildering, given that Mikael Blomkvist, the hero of the three novels and an obvious Mary Sue fictionsuit for the author—who apparently fantasized about himself as some sort of Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein/Ralph Nader superhybrid with amazing pheromones (given the number of women he has sex with over the course of the three books). Larsson’s “feminist” solution to violence against women is, in just about every iteration I can recall seven days later, for women to physically assault their tormentors and then blackmail them into submission… or, in at least one case, kill them. The one major exception to this rule? A near-ritualistic humiliation of the Evil Male in a court of law, culminating in his public arrest for a particularly vile crime which Larsson in all likelihood simply ascribed to the character because it made him that much more Evil. Revenge fantasies may have a visceral appeal, but they hardly constitute a viable moral philosophy, no matter how many times Larsson has the men in Lisbeth Salander’s life declare that she lives according to her own morality.

In her blog post, Newman discusses how Larsson is simply the latest in a line of male thriller writers whose books dwell obsessively on misogynist violence with a flimsy veneer of “retribution,” but I wonder if it might not be interesting to take that conversational thread further: While we don’t know the exact gender breakdown of the readership of those novels, what we do know, at least about the American public, is that women are the ones who buy novels. Now, maybe men buy thrillers a bit more readily than they buy other types of fiction; somebody somewhere must have done a study to determine the validity of that hypothesis. Either way, though, women consumers are integral to Larsson’s success (and to that of the other authors Newman cites), and what does it mean that so many women are buying (and possibly buying into) these terrible, terrible stories?

20 August 2010 | uncategorized |