Joan Acocella's recent attempt to account for the popularity of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, "Man of Mystery" (sub-heading: "Why do people love Stieg Larsson's novels?"). The piece serves as one-stop shopping for newcomers to the series, those who, presumably, have seen the books on subways and in airport bookstores but have little sense of what the fuss is about. The resulting discussion, I think, tells us more about Acocella's literary sensibilities than sheds the faintest photon on America's taste for these novels.
Her distaste for the series, its success, and perhaps even the story she is writing, suffuses her discussion, right from the first sentence:
"[h]aving got American readers to buy more than fourteen million copies, collectively, of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books-“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008, American edition), “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2009), and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)-the management at Knopf has decided that it would like them to buy some more."Let's ignore the stylistic clumsiness of "having got" and instead focus on her view of the matter. Readers haven't wanted to read these books; they have been "got" to buy them. That the content of the books should generate such interest befuddles Acocella, so she looks for forces other than readerly pleasure, up to and including the ability of publisher to manufacture a literary blockbuster. Her project seems to be to catalog her own problems with the series ("The loss of Larsson's style would not be a sacrifice, "the most crippling weakness of the trilogy is its hero," and "[l]ike many mediocre novels, the trilogy is far better on the screen than on the page" among other complaints) more than it is a think-piece on its wild success.
Even as she turns to her conjecture about the phenomenon, she can't help but couch it in condescension: "It is clear that people like these movies, but what accounts for the success of the novels, despite their almost comical faults?"
And what does "account" (notice the weird passivity of that verb) for this success? First, she does concede (not without a dig) that "Larsson may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller." One might expect that this begrudged attribute might be supported by the same kinds of evidence she used to detail the awkwardness of some of the dialogue, but not one specific instance of this story-telling ability is offered.
This, unfortunately, is the high-water mark of her analysis. Acocella's subsequent reasons for the series' popularity are, in order: the popularity of the revenge genre, the supposedly widespread male sexual fantasy of rape, the rise of the "woman warrior," the inclusion of modern technology, and, I kid you not, Larsson's critique of Sweden's social democracy. I find this somewhat less than persuasive.
I suppose the logic for such grasping is something like this: if something is hugely shocking, then the causes of said event must be equally unlikely. Acocella starts from a point of finding Larsson's success confounding, so the contributing factors must be likewise abstruse.
After reading and enjoying the series, I don't find the success all that unexpected, so would take the opposite tack and assume the reasons are relatively familiar. Here's how I would parse the pieces:
Pre-Existing Popular Taste: 45%
This is crime/thriller fiction, arguably the most popular brand of adult literature. Grisham. Patterson. Ludlum. These dudes move trucks and trucks of books, and Larsson, himself a fan of the genre, is operating in this vein. I don't think Larsson is really any better of a writer than these guys, but I don't think he's any worse, at least in English translation, either.
Lisbeth Salander: 20%
This, however, is not a character we've seen much of. Acocella calls her a "punk-fairy": I would describe her more like a "techno she-devil." She is at once vulnerable and fiercely competent, with a serious nasty streak: equal parts Debbie Harry, Bill Gates, and The Punisher.
There is something oddly compelling about the atmosphere of Larsson's Sweden, especially in the first book. Its cold austerity has an almost monastic quality, which plays nicely against the twisted passions of the villains.
I'm sure people who work in publishing would be able to describe this better, but the look and feel of the series captures a certain modern urbanity that separates them from your run of the mill gold-embossed trade paperback thriller. Look at GWTDT next to Patterson's latest.
I've seen that Patterson cover 974123469 times. I've never seen one quite like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. This matters.
Larsson's biography and death are definitely fascinating. He came out of nowhere and stayed there. I don't discount this sort of thing; I've seen it too many times. Cobain. John Kennedy Toole. Sylvia Plath. That guy who wrote RENT. We can't get enough of a tragic and mysterious success. This could be higher than 5%, actually.
Chaos Theory: 10%
Sometimes, the ingredients bake up in just the right way at the right time—an inscrutable emergent property that is as palpable as it is unknowable. Maybe a tiredness with a popular genre created some room for a variation of it. Maybe everyone has a tattoo and a Mac now. Maybe we all hate flying so much that the page-turning immersion these books provide is especially welcome. Maybe it's all of these, maybe none. How else can you explain the popularity of Hypercolor t-shirts in the mid-1990s or the sudden rise of bacon? I mean, bacon's always been good.
All in all, I’m not sure there’s a great and powerful Oz behind this particular curtain.
One last comment: I think we might find a clue to Acocella incomprehension in the word choice of her sub-heading, “Why do people ‘love’ Stieg Larsson’s novels?” The thinking is that if a bunch of people buy something, then they must love it. My experience, and that of many of the people I know who have read the books, is not really one of love; it was one of “hey, pretty fun read. That made my flight 28% less painful.”
I read somewhere, though I can’t find it now, that the most rated movie among Netflix subscribers is Miss Congeniality: not challenging, a likable lead, familiar, and yet slightly different. Not going to piss too many people off, but also not likely to be named to anyone’s favorite movies of all time. That doesn’t make it bad or worthy of scorn—just hugely popular.
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