Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stieg Larsson, The New Yorker, and the "Good Enough" Theory of Culture

Is there a better entertainment than watching The New Yorker try to understand popular culture? It seems to be the last pocket of the universe that can't wrap its head around a de-coupling of aesthetic merit and commercial success.

This has never been more striking than in 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.

Setting: 10%
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.

Packaging: 5%
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.

Back-story: 5%
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.

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Shop Indie BookstoresVisit Powells.com


  1. I like your breakdown but I think the percentages need a little tweaking. The genre's popularity is certainly a huge factor but I think these books are grabbing people that don't often read thrillers because of WOM, and the WOM exists because of Lisbeth's character. I'd bump her up to at least 30 percent. Larsson's back-story should be around 10 too (I think it compels people to read and savor the whole series because it turns them into a limited commodity).

    Go ahead and take 10 percent away from genre and 5 from chaos theory and we're good to go.

  2. As someone who read the first book in the series and did not like it, I completely understand Acocella also not liking it. I admit, I don't fully understand how people found the first book riveting and awe-worthy, but I do appreciate that people have different tastes and accept that just because I didn't care for something, someone else might for reasons that are no more interesting than the fact that people are varied and like different things. I guess that this where Acocella and I differ, since she doesn't seem to get that. I think it's probably impossible to find a single piece of art (whether it be visual, literary, cinematic, or musical) that everyone universally agrees about. As seen from the above comment, even people who like the series will likely disagree about what about it makes it so enjoyable.

  3. Great post! And I love your point about how the purchase of the book doesn't mean you love it...I enjoyed it, but it's not in my top books of all time. Having said that, there are certain kinds of people I'd recommend it to (and some I wouldn't!) because people who read less than I do often enjoy reading the books many others are reading. It makes sense to me, because those are often the books and characters that become part of our collective cultural consciousness, i.e. Harry Potter.

  4. Joel-
    Yea, I could get behind that. Chaos theory accounts for WOM, since no one really knows what the genesis of WOM really is. But we're not that far off.

    Though the widespread popularity suggests that mainstream tastes align with what this book is doing. That you or Acocella don't like it says more about your taste than popular taste, if that makes sense.

    Yea, cultural momentum is a real thing. I too am not recommending to some people for reasons of the violence, but a ton of people are asking me about it. And just wait until the English-language movies come out....

  5. This whole post speaks to something that I have struggled with since joining the Literary Blog Hop. There seems to be a certain set of people (and by people, I mean literary critics and bloggers), who are so disdainful of anything they believe to be "non-literary" that they can't see past their own prejudices. It reminds me of friends I had in college who only liked a band's music until it got popular-after that they were sell-outs and not worth the price of the vinyl they were stamped on. I love substantive literary fiction-and I also love genre novels, as long as the writing is decent and the story engaging, as it was for me in the Millenium Trilogy. Much like religious fundamentalists, as far as I'm concerned critics can be as devoutly literary as they want-as long as they don't try to push their brand of orthodoxy on me. Write your negative reviews, critics and bloggers, but focus on the book, and leave it's devoted readers alone!

  6. I can't believe you didn't work in a comparison to The Godfather when you had every opportunity, Ape! I haven't read the essay in the New Yorker, but I found your analysis entertaining, whereas I think the article would piss me off. What is really interesting is the amount of intellectual energy expended on parsing the gap between the middle-brow and the high-brow, or the literate and the intellectually pretentious. We should be "minding the gap" between the illiterate and the literate, a more pressing problem for our times.

  7. Heather-
    I know what you mean, and I find it frustrating as well. I think of this way: I don't always eat gourmet food. Sometimes I like Twinkies. And that's OK. Now eating only Twinkies probably isn't good, but every now and again, no worries. The lit-fic champions are like those people who only eat raw, organic, macrobiotic, locally-sourced food. That's great and everything, but insisting everyone eat like that is tyrannical.

    Damn, I did have several The Godfather openings. I think actually The New Yorker, at least in fiction, is policing the boundary between low and middle brow. It's actually the lack of aspiration on the part of the Larsson books that seems to really steam Acocella.

  8. Its just snobbery in my book. Acocella doesn't like it because she thinks its trashy and so can't understand how anyone else likes it.

    If we all liked the same things the world would be a boring place. Perhaps she needs to think about it like that.

  9. You're right-the food snob comparison is much better than mine (though some of those food tyrants treat it like a religion!). Frankly, with the average number of books read per person per year standing at around five, I'd think the critics would be happy people are reading something...how else do they keep their jobs?

  10. Becky-
    I sort of wish it was just outright snobbery, but it's couched in this "analytical" frame that is misleading and unhelpful.

    Well, to extend the analogy: I think there is something to be said for getting people to read better, just as there is something to be said for telling people to, you know, eat a vegetable every now and again.

  11. Interesting discussion. I have only read the first book and I enjoyed it for what it was - a good thriller, captivating, and a very interesting female character. It helped that it was not badly written.

    My dad loved all three mainly because of the setting and Lisbeth. He is a very eclectic reader (mostly in non-fiction) but likes to get lost in a story.

    Everyone needs a palate cleanser now and then - let's just be real about it.

    And no twinkies here but there is nothing wrong with Peanut Butter Cups for breakfast.

  12. Great post and a topic that springs up time and again, very often anytime a book becomes popular or Stephen King gets a good review. You are absolutely right about the Millennium trilogy - they're not the best books ever published, but the stories, the characters, the packaging, and the author's back story make them compelling, addictive reads. Personally, I loved them. They didn't change my world, but the first compressed time on a trans-pacific flight and the second two gave me a few enjoyable late nights. I find this convoluted attempt to 'explain' why they're so popular laughable - they're popular because they're a critique of Swedish social democracy??? Yes, political tracts deconstructing Scandinavian social order is a certain recipe for low-brow success. Anyway, great comments and thanks for the link to that article.

  13. pburt-
    Thanks for the comment. Maybe there is some literary success version of Occam's Razor (in a nutshell, when there are two equally likely causes, the simpler one is generally true) we should employ.

    I find the revulsion/attraction with this series' success more interesting than the series' itself.

    Yup, had a similar experience with reading the books on the plane; they were like a cognitive Tylenol PM; they took me out of the plane for those six hours and that is not a service to be ignored.

    And I hope would-be novelist sees this series' success and thinks "Critiques of Swedish Democracy is the new trend? Down with vampires! I'm writing a critique of Swedish democracy! It's going to be huge!"

  14. How extraordinary that anyone who dares to criticise these books, and I am one of them who thinks they are the biggest load of crap that have been produced for years, is attacked for their criticism by the Larsson groupies.  We have as much right to our opinion as you do, you know.

  15. It's going to be end of mine day, however before finish I am reading this fantastic piece of writing to improve my experience.

    My weblog :: seo services india

  16. My brother recommended I might like this web site.
    He used to be totally right. This publish truly made my day.
    You cann't imagine just how so much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

    Here is my site :: selling life insurance

  17. Hi there, every time i used to check weblog posts here early in the morning, since i like to gain knowledge
    of more and more.

    Here is my web page - shopping Online

  18. I'm impressed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog that's equally educative and entertaining,
    and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head.
    The problem is something not enough people are
    speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy that I found this in my search for something regarding this.

    Take a look at my weblog :: vitamin supplements

  19. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but
    your sites really nice, keep it up! I'll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the future. Cheers

    Take a look at my web blog: coffee machines

  20. Hi, I want to subscribe for this website to obtain most up-to-date updates, therefore where can i
    do it please help out.

    Feel free to surf to my web-site: Get More Info

  21. This design is steller! You certainly know how
    to keep a reader entertained. Between your
    wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well,
    almost...HaHa!) Fantastic job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that,
    how you presented it. Too cool!

    Check out my site; http://kayjewelersengagementrings.net/top-10-online-wholesale-clothing-shops/