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.”