How Do You Become a Bestseller like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Sarah Glazer disses the Swedish sensation but wonders how women can do the same.

Can someone explain to me how a novel as tedious as The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo became a bestseller?

Reading this so-called thriller reminded me of the experience of traveling by sailboat, aptly described as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.”

I happily entered into my book club’s suggestion that we read this international sensation, assuming it must be an easy read if millions had bought it. If not for this assignment, I would have abandoned it quickly. The first 200 pages are an agonizingly boring chore. As the author “sets up” the decades-old mystery murder of a young Swedish girl, he feels it necessary to spend pages listing (‘describing’ is too generous a word) the scores of relatives in a multi-generational family tree-- presumably so no possible suspect goes unmentioned. Who can keep all those Swedish names straight anyway?

Then somewhere around page 200, the novel starts to get interesting. But only because the author treats us to a repellent, sadistic man-on-woman sex scene, following by our heroine’s violent revenge. My copy is now hidden in a basket. At page 395, (total novel is 538 pages). I had to give up or else read about an encounter with another sadist as our hero sleuth enters his torture chamber.

Possible reasons it’s so boring: it’s about Sweden by a Swede, it’s a murder mystery, it’s badly written. Possible reasons why it’s so popular: it’s about Sweden by a Swede, it’s a murder mystery and it’s badly written. I’m sure the violence is another draw and will help make the movie popular.

But what explains these accolades from critics on my paperback British edition? “gripping,” “masterful,” “elegant,” “potent” and “brilliantly written.” Was it just a very successful publicity machine?

It may be that the unusual circumstances of the author’s life, who died before finishing his trilogy, had something to do with the initial attention it got in Sweden. Stieg Larsson, a leading expert on right-wing extremists and neo-Nazi organizations, was editor of Expo, the magazine for a project he had set up to combat racism. He began writing the trilogy after work each evening in 2001. He was partway through the third novel before he even considered sending anything to a publisher.

Nick Cohen, writing in the British Observer, offers this explanation to my question about its popularity: “part of the attraction of his books for foreign readers is they show that Sweden is not and was not always the prosperous but dull social democratic haven we imagined. Larsson knew very well that Swedish ‘neutrality’ in the Second World War was a fiction and that his country helped Hitler until the war turned against the Germans. His knowledge allowed him to create a realistic picture of the members of the Vanger family who move down the generations in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from supporting Nazism to abusing and murdering women.”

All of which makes me want to read the book. Except that I already HAVE tried to read it.
The novel was originally titled Men Who Hate Women in Swedish. So apparently it’s supposed to be a feminist novel in that it depicts the horrible, violent sadistic acts men commit against women.

All of this got me wondering what makes a bestseller. Would it have sold as well if it was entitled, Women Who Hate Men? And if it had featured mainly violent sex scenes by women against men? (I wouldn’t have been interested in this version either).

It also reminded me of a fascinating discussion we recently held at my London Salon about women writers and why they’re so bad at self-promotion compared to men. Being seemly and not promoting your work seems to be a uniquely female problem. As Elaine Showalter pointed out, when male writers describe their social set, there’s no such modesty. Just two of them can constitute a “movement;” three’s a “generation.”

Maybe it’s time for women to seize hold of the publicity machine. As Elaine pointed out, if the women writers of certain novels of our age had announced themselves as a new school of “realistic romantic fiction,” they might have escaped the now pejorative label “chick lit.”

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Comment by Ava Bleu on June 26, 2012 at 8:23am

I feel unqualified to speak about this because I haven't read the book or seen the movie.  I have a natural antipathy towards books everyone says I should read.  As you other writers you may agree--the books they call bestsellers are often not that great and the poor little sleepers, like--oh, I don't know--MY book, don't get no love.  Until my brilliant little book gets the credit it deserves, I do not trust the judgment of the people who decide what's worthy of being a bestseller.  I'm hatin' on everybody! 

Of course, if mine ever DOES become a bestseller my opinion will flip like a coin. :-)

Comment by Elizabeth W Gibson on November 10, 2010 at 10:22am
The book has been sitting on my coffee table for months. I couldn't get past the gobblygook before the actually story began and so it just lays there. I suppose I'm of the mind that I want my story to entertain and engage by taking me somewhere else. Whew! Glad to know I'm not the only one. Thanks for the post.
Comment by Kelly Thompson on September 20, 2010 at 11:12pm
I am enjoy your blog posts. I normally just can't read what I consider genre fiction - not because I turn my nose up at it, but, usually, because by the time I get to chapter two I'm bored to death and can see where the plot is going...blah blah blah kind of thing. If I've read one, I've read them all. But the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was different for me. I was enthralled by the main character and SHE is what kept me turning the page all the way through all three books. Beyond being a mystery/thriller series, I liked the social statement the author managed to convey. Of course, the guy hero who befriended and championed the Dragon Tattoo girl did get on my nerves just a bit by the end of the third book. I wanted him to rescue her and, of course, she couldn't have made it without him. But the cool twist is that she could have cared less if she made it or not. I liked the psychology - the way a relationship was built over the span of the three books that finally succeeded in making a small crack in Dragon Tattoo girl's Asperger-like, attachment disordered veneer.
Comment by Jaime Herndon on August 4, 2010 at 10:30am
I am so relieved to read this post and many of the comments. I was in the airport last weekend and had been hearing so much about the series that I was going to buy the book. I flipped through it, started reading the first few pages, and couldn't even get through that much. I wondered if I just didn't "get it", or lost my ability to be "literary", whatever that may mean to you. And maybe some readers will say I don't. But I doubt I'll be reading these books anytime soon...
Comment by Valerie Bonham Moon on July 26, 2010 at 2:26pm
Listeners of the Diane Rehm radio program offered their opinions of the book, along the lines of this discussion, at:

Googling 'violence women Stieg Larsson' brings up other sites with similar discussions.
Comment by Susan Barrett Price on July 23, 2010 at 7:23pm
@Erica, thanks for the link -- very helpful. I'm halfway through the book and, from my reading, the story does present violence against women as an outrage. The guiding idea seems to be corruption beneath bland appearance (or at least deceptive appearances): neutral Sweden as a Nazi collaborator during WWII, the reputable guardian as rapist, the "mentally disabled" Lisbeth as sharp avenger, etc. as well as a common trope about the secrets of pretty little villages.

Could the book have been written by a woman? How would a woman write it differently? What if it were a woman's true-life memoir -- would our reactions to the jarring violence be different? Would a memoir be about finding the voice to express the horror, while the imaginings of fiction (esp by a man) seem gratuitous and twisted? I don't want to beat a dead horse, but since we're all writers the questions seem worth exploring.
Comment by Erica W. Jamieson on July 23, 2010 at 4:40pm
I just wonder what it says about the world readership as a whole that literary (if we call it that) depiction of violence against women is not considered an outrage. I understand that there is an underbelly of Swedish culture that may need to be dissected in words, to explore, condemn perhaps, fix, hopefully, but this novel was the author's bent fixation on some twisted sexual fantasies. It was violence on top of violence with no end of violence in sight! And as a novel, not a trilogy, some of it came out as purely gratuitous. Without giving anything away, characters simply disappear. They apparently come back in volume two, but the novel portrays some very sadist activity without real resolution. Characters get beaten and voila, we never hear from them again. There is no public justice for any of the crimes. In the end, you might even say that everyone (except the financier) gets away, to some degree, with their crimes. No one is brought to bear responsibility for their actions. I don't get it.

I agree, however, that looking at the success of this novel raises some really significant issues for women writers. Marketing, genre, quality of writing. And some philosophical ones as well. In terms of discussing domestic abuse in Sweden, does this book do it? Is it just a thriller at the end of the day? How do we assure that taking a more literary approach to such subjects will get taken seriously if most readers (male and/or female) want the most jolt for their money -- ropes and tasers, shackles and murders left unanswered! Think back on this year in books. Is this the one we really want everyone talking about?

Just as a note, here is a link to a 2005 article about domestic abuse in Sweden that helps to put the novel along a historical date line, Stieg Larsson's writing of the trilogy was before 2004.
Comment by Susan Barrett Price on July 22, 2010 at 4:44am
@ S. Ramos O'Briant: Thanks for providing a thoughtful review. It's helpful.
Comment by S. Ramos O'Briant on July 21, 2010 at 7:55pm
Good characterization throughout, especially with the women. A thriller with layers and layers of subplots, but the central mystery uncovered is about a serial killer. The author creates a truly kickass heroine who may or may not have Aspergers, but who is tattooed and pierced and not someone who will put up with the abuse and mistreatment of women. There's also some friends with benefits type of sexual arrangements between various people which I have not seen in a mainstream thriller. Is this indicative of lifestyle in Sweden, where it's set? One can only hope.

Also liked the high-finance description of Swedish corporate life, the look at investigative reporting there, as well as the glance at their judicial system particularly in regard to "guardianship."

On a side note, we see a lot of the mundane side of life in small town Sweden, and the food that goes with it. The cuisine was abhorrent. I could handle the lamb chops cooked in red wine sauce, but the kipper, cheese and pickle sandwiches I'll skip on a visit there. They drank so much coffee in the book, I felt an attack of acid reflux imminent.

The book suffered from poor editing, and the translation seemed stilted in parts. Still, the author kept up the suspense and once we got past the boring details of financial misbehavior, there was sufficient momentum to carry the reader into the real mysteries of the Vanger family's assorted Nazis, social isolates, misogynistic paterfamilias, alcoholics, and cold-hearted mothers.

Here's my review of The Girl Who Played With Fire:
Comment by Susan Barrett Price on July 21, 2010 at 6:29am
I'm confused. Is this book a best-seller because it's Dan Brown trashy or because it's a character-driven exploration of provocative themes? I'm about 1/3 of the way through the Audible version and am totally engaged. For me, so far, the author is creating a realistic world (with a history) and well-drawn characters (with baggage) -- that hooks me. Maybe it's a thriller the same way John LeCarre's "Absolute Friends" is a spy novel.


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