Sunday, November 21, 2010

The man who created The Girl Who ...

You knew this was coming. A new book about Stieg Larsson includes an exchange of e-mails between the author of the Millennium trilogy and his editor, two of which the Wall Street Journal has published (a hat tip to Loren Eaton for calling the article to my attention).

One of the e-mails reveals disarming humility from Larsson on points his detractors have singled out:
"I am not altogether confident of my ability to put my thoughts into words: My texts are usually better after an editor has hacked away at them, and I am used to both editing and being edited. ... I think the first few chapters are a bit long-winded, and it's a while before the plot gets under way."
Elsewhere he is less humble. "I have used some techniques that are normally outlawed," he writes, according to Laurie Thompson's translation from the Swedish. That sounds to me like a man a little too proud of what he thinks he's doing.

Some of that pride comes from Larsson's handling of gender roles.
"I have also deliberately changed the sex roles," he writes. "In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical `bimbo,' while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical `male' characteristics and values."
Fair enough, if rather rough, elementary and schematic. Contrast Larsson with Megan Abbott, a better writer by orders of magnitude, talking about her novel Queenpin in a 2008 interview with Detectives Beyond Borders:
"The men are in there primarily to mediate the two women's relationship with each other, much as female characters function so often in classic noir triangles. Ultimately, though, the gender switch changed everything and nothing. On the one hand, it struck me how little difference it made; that mentor/protégé relationships are always about power and ambition, and this was no different. On the other hand, the particular complexities in relationships between women really interest me, as do the forms female power can take, forms that may be different from male power."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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27 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Glad you found it interesting! I haven't actually read Larsson yet and don't plan to for a while. Jeff VanderMeer, Charlie Huston and Declan Hughes are much higher up on my list.

November 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Resisting hype is a good idea. I'd rather read a book because I hear specific good things about it than because everyone is reading it.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter, Loren

Thanks for this. Could one the "outlawed techniques" be having a classic locked room mystery but not giving the reader all the elements to solve it himself the way the 1930's would have done?

One or two lines when Blomqvist was looking at the photographs of the cars in the parking lot the day after the disappearance would have eliminated this concern.

And I really think the breast implants in book 2 was a disastrous error of tone.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

1930's authors I meant, Dame Agatha and her ilk and actually the way Val McD, Ruth Rendell, PD James still would...

November 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I thought of you (and others) when I put up this post. Some of Larsson's comments suggest that he just might have been less fetishistically worshipful of his work than some of its promoters are today.

I wonder if Larsson might have been more receptive to editing had he lived -- more receptive than you suggested his literary executors turned out to be.

I agree that the mystery element in the first book was not handled espeially well or convincingly. Well and good; that was not Larsson's main interest. That's where I fear his disdain for some crime-fiction conventions, the heady feeling he must have got from defying them, and the (possible) lack of posthumous editing may have hurt the books.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I have also deliberately changed the sex roles," he writes. "In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical `bimbo,' while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical `male' characteristics and values

Getting rid of 'typical' sex roles would be something worth doing. Merely, swapping them, which is what Larsson suggests he's doing is hardly worth the effort.

I've never understood why the word bimbo is attached to females. Male intelligence more often reaches extremes than female intelligence. We males have more geniuses, but the downside of this is that we also have more morons. Just think of the prison population, or the population of insane asylums, of the addicts or the losers in society. Preponderantly male. A real bimbo is more likely to be male than female.

Of course, we live in a PC world where sex differences are presumed not to exist. You should disagree with me, Peter, as a matter of course. You might be fired from your job if you don't.

November 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'd agree that Larsson's comment, plus his first novel at least, could lead a reasonable person to believe that he was merely swapping sex roles. That would be a perfectly respectable way for a beginning novelist to experiment. I'm not sure rabid Larssonians would concede that the books might have been just that -- experiments, dry runs.

The male counterpart of "Bimbo" is "loser," "jerk" or "asshole." The last two especially are never applied to women.

Swapping sex roles can produce good results, too, as long as the author understands the nuances involved -- that such a swap is more complicated than simple one-for-one substitution. That's why I like what Megan Abbott had to say. It helps that I liked the novel in question.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

But all my complaints about the flawed central mystery, the wildly over the top description of the rape, the clunkiness of the clockwork, the embarrassing sexual antics of the author's avatar, the tedious, old fashioned left wing anti Americanism/anti capitalism etc. are really only nit picking, my main problem with Dragon Tattoo was just how dull I thought it was. I really am at a loss to understand how anyone could have enjoyed that financial subplot for example. But, I guess, they do...

About the only thing I really liked about DT was the description of the Swedish prison. It seems like a perfectly charming retreat that we all could enjoy.

November 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember your having remarked that such a prison would be a good place for a vacation. No wonder Blomkvist seems gloomy and resigned rather than scared shitless over the prospect of going there.

I kind of liked Larsson's rants about financial journalists and his portrait of the journalism world.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

It reminded me too much of being 18and getting lectured by Socialist Workers Party hacks while I was trying to enjoy my - no doubt completely evil - Frosted Flakes.

BTW como es bien sabado (as they say in Sweden) he is of course a hypocrite. The guerillas that Larsson helped bring to power in Eritrea have banned the press, free elections, all opposition parties etc. etc.

Eritrea? I hear you ask.

For a broadly sympathetic look at Larsson's African adventure, there's a nice story in the Guardian here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/15/stieg-girls-with-grenade-launchers

Wikipedia and Index on Censorship has the goods on the Eritrean government and its attitude towards journalists.

November 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect his fans will find it easy to brush aside or explain away that knowledge. I don't need convincing because, based on the first novel, I am baffled by the books' success.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I liked the trilogy, but book three better than the first two, no abuse of Salander, sane, competent, intelligent people, including several women characters (plus Blomkvist and a good doctor) save the day and help Salander, expose the conspiracy, etc.

I can nitpick also as I couldn't stand a lot of the misogynistic, anti-Semitic and fascist-type violence in books I and other violence in book II, so I skipped parts or speedread through them.

I liked the financial wheeling and dealing and the parts on Swedish journalism.

Anyway, I am written and talked out on Stieg Larsson, and have moved on to other Scandinavians--Nesser, Nesbo (new to me), and back to the greats--Sjowall and Wahloo.

I have a question on copyediting or editing. I was proofreading something which used the word "fellow," as an adjective, meaning associate or colleague, but it was about a man referring to a woman.

I don't think I'd mind that word if it were referring to a man, but I took it out. The sentence stood on its own without it.

I looked at an online thesaurus but couldn't find exactly the right word. What would you do?

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Solo:

I've never understood why the word bimbo is attached to females.

Living in south Florida, I see lots of "himbos" all the time.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you wound up in a good place with Sjowall and Wahloo. And I know you know about Arnaldur.

I was proofreading something which used the word "fellow," as an adjective, meaning associate or colleague, but it was about a man referring to a woman.

I don't think I'd mind that word if it were referring to a man, but I took it out. The sentence stood on its own without it.


I'd likely have taken it out and tried to write around it if "fellow" referred just to a woman.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, you've enlarged my vocabulary. Thanks.

November 22, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I have only read the first two Larssen books. The second was markedly better than the first, which deserved all the criticisms mentioned above. Probably one big reason for its near-failure is the "bimbo" protagonist. The reason for its success is the female with masculine traits.
Readers these days are mostly women. They like to see women behaving as forcefully as men. They probably also like the contrast of emasculated men (or over-the-top monsters). The message is loud and clear in the Larssen books: Beware! We'll get you bastards.
What can I say? It sells books.
The same feeding frenzy took Dan Brown to the top: create a female-centric faith and go after the Catholic church (who makes a good whipping boy at the moment).

I agree on Wahloo & Sjowall. Never could understand why people attacked them for their politics. I haven't found them at all intrusive. (By comparison with Larssen or Mankell)

November 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am baffled by the books' success."

THANK GOD I've finally found someone else who thinks this! I've only read the first one and I thought it was recycling a lot of old detective novel devices. Wealthy sinister family with a secret? Check. Socially-challenged and/or traumatized, but brilliant, detective? Check. (This goes all the way back to Sherlock Holmes, for God's sake.) Woman-chasing detective? Check. Isolated setting for a crime? Check. Corrupt establishment? Check.

And Larsson's writing is not only clunky, he sometimes undercuts the point he's trying to make. The opening scene with old Vanger getting the flower, for instance; if you want to portray Vanger as unsympathetic, which later on he definitely did, don't start your book with him breaking down in tears.

But my main problem with Larsson is that he and his followers talk like they've just discovered abused women and no mystery writer ever wrote about this topic before. Which is garbage. One of Ruth Rendell's Wexford books dealt with a battered wife (can't recall which one). Robert B. Parker's Stardust and Denise Mina's Garnethill also did this very well. I'm sure we could all name other authors who have written on this, and done it better.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I was surprised at how little politics intruded in Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel and the one Sjöwall and Wahlöö book I've read to date.

This whole forceful-woman argument is interesting. Peter O'Donnell had great success with Modesty Blaise, and by all rights, a Modesty revival even bigger than the recent, er, modest one ought to be riding Stieg Larsson's coattails. (I'm not the only reader who has seen Modesty Blaise as a Salander prototype.) Maybe Lisbeth Salander resonates more with contemporary readers because of the immensity of the issues at stake. Or maybe it's the over-the-top violence.

There seems to be little arguing with your crediting Salander with the first book's success. I don't think anyone claims anything else is responsible, and I liked the article in Slate that said the character deserved a better author than Larsson.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I suppose it would be possible to see the books as a crude revenge fantasy dressed up in political seriousness. I'm not saying that's what they are; I'm just guessing based on arguments I've seen, both pro and con.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, Val McDermid suggested that Larsson did a brilliant job synthesizing elements of stories that others had told before. This may be a politer version of your argument; I have not read the full interview or article from which her statement was taken.

I'd add Arnaldur Indriðason's Silence of the Grave to the list of crime novels that deal movingly with the consequences of domestic abuse of women. (Arnaldur is one of the world's best crime writers.) Christa Faust's Angel Dare exacts fearsome revenge in Money Shot, and she doesn't pretend to be saving the world while doing it.

Your highlighting Larsson's recycling of detective-story devices is interesting in light of his declaration that he was defying crime-fiction conventions.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Anonymous

I remember something John McFetridge said about Dragon Tattoo's resolution "the neo Nazi psychopathic incestuous killer is the twenty first century equivalent of the butler did it".

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I remember that remark. It was one of Fetch's best.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous: I should add, of course, that a skilled, graceful writer can do all kinds of fresh, wonder things with crime-fiction conventions. Peter Temple is the example discussed most recently in this space, at http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2010/11/peter-temple-stupid-critics-and-crime.html.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

If only Larsson 's editors had been more brutal! There's a book -- or two or three -- that could do with a lot of condensing.

However, Salander is a very special creation that harks back to , I guess, some of the most fascinating female characters in fiction and Larssen's attack on misogyny is very consistent. She is more credible by far than, say, Sara Paretsky.

But on the relationships Abbott touches on -- I find the noir film classic, The Big Combo a fascinating exploration of women and power and impotence rather than simply being a chorus variously sourcing lust or evil. Coincidentally I have just picked up my first Megan Abbott and find the noir edge a logical exercise.

It's like the seeming traditional sexist attitude of much pulp fiction has been consciously turned on its head and there is hardly a gumshoe to be had who hasn't today got a women buddy to share in taking out the bad guys.

But Salander overturns passivity absolutely and credibly so I think she deserves more credit than the novels she is forced to inhabit.

November 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, your comments are consistent with much criticism of Larsson's books: Salander is a fine character, and the books could have used some trimming. I linked recently to an article (I think it was in Slate) that said Salander deserved a better author than Larsson.

Megan Abbott has written an academic study of white masculinity in hard-boiled fiction and film noir. I wonder what she would have to say about The Big Combo and any number of other movies and books.

"It's like the seeming traditional sexist attitude of much pulp fiction has been consciously turned on its head and there is hardly a gumshoe to be had who hasn't today got a women buddy to share in taking out the bad guys."

That's an interesting comment, and I highlighted a word of special interest. If every gumshoe has a female sidekick, then the phenomenon is likely to lose interest -- perhaps a good thing if it indicates authors take for granted and readers accept women in non-traditional roles. But some writers probe the sexual dynamics more deeply or at least do more interest things with it. Megan Abbott is one. So is Ken Bruen, with P.C. Falls in the Brant and Roberts novels, but especially with Ridge in the Jack Taylor books.

November 27, 2010  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

I was thinking of the likes of James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly. So maybe 'gumshoe' wasn't strictly correct.

In many ways this take is a celebration of Feminism rather than just registering the social phenomenon of more female investigators. It is proactive and affirmative.

Compare that to the atitudes and plot lines negotiated by Salvo Montalbano (written by
Andrea Camilleri) and you have this strange hesitancy and ambiguity about women at the crime fighting coal face.

Then with Easy Rollins the angst about black men and womens relationships fuels a intense theme that runs through the full series.(Easy even rapes his partner at one time) But it is consciously conservative as it is pitched as a sort of historical study thrown up for consideration in the present.

It's a dialogue.

(Although Walter Mosley tackles some frank erotica in his novel Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel (2006)

Ken Bruen is interesting as he is as brutal on his women characters as he is on his males. Even handed. And in a -- please excuse me -- rather Irish way, ensures that addiction -- alcohol or drugs -- displaces the need for a sex in-the-bed subset storyline .

I always have to laugh in the way that Billy Wilder takes up the relationship between Holmes and Watson in The Privte Life of Sherlock Holmes as it is mature study by Wilder (and he wasn't always mature) of Holmes (and men's) relationship with women.

November 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Whether or not you used gumshoe in the strictest sense, the comment was interesting. I'm not sure the ubiquity of female sidekicks is a celebration of feminism as much as it is an expression of social and professional situations that feminism made possible. And that, in turn, is worth celebrating.

Rarely (though not never) will a woman turn up as a crime fighter in Camilleri's Montalbano stories. And Montalbano embodies a wide and interesting range of male attitudes toward women: lust, apprehension, tenderness, respect. He certainly deserves a place in any case study of male attitudes in crime fiction.

Mosley has said he intends to take Easy through to age 80, which would bring him awfully close to our own time. It's interesting to think that stories conceived as historical studies must be consciously conservative. Does this hold even if they examine that same old historical situation from heretofore unexplored angles?

Yep, not much sex in Ken Bruen's novels. That would, if you'll pardon the expressions, let the characters get off too easy.

November 27, 2010  

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