The Girl With Various Interesting Qualities

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2011 11:14 am

The holiday movie season brings us The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s English-language version of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller, which has already been made into a Swedish movie. Ordinarily you might not want to make a new movie when one based on the same book came out just two years ago, even if it was in a different language; but Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is more than popular enough to carry the load, with over 27 million books sold worldwide.

That popularity really bugs some people. Sales figures notwithstanding, Larsson’s books fall pretty dramatically short on several conventional metrics of literary quality, such as “elegance of writing” and “plausibility of plot.” Early in the first novel, before we really know what’s going on or have been properly introduced to most of the characters, we are treated to a scene that consists of one character telling another about a long series of complicated and shady European business deals, complete with obscure acronyms and names that will never be mentioned again. This keeps up for what seems like pages. And it’s just a hint of the various stylistic crimes Larsson will gleefully commit throughout the series. He loves piling on meaningless details, especially about what his characters are eating and the clothes they are wearing. The prose is clunky and often wearying. The series effectively evokes the brooding coldness of Scandinavian winters, but that’s not always a good thing.

And yet — the books are impossible to put down, as approximately 9 million readers will testify. (I haven’t seen the American movie, although I did see the Swedish one, which wasn’t anywhere near as gripping as the original novel.) So we have a fairly common occurrence in publishing: books that are fantastically popular, but nevertheless are not very “good” by many agreed-upon criteria. In very different ways, think of Dan Brown, JK Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer.

Faced with such a puzzling phenomenon, one can go two ways. One is to go all-out curmudgeon: take Michael Newman’s review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (many spoilers). It’s not so much a review as an extended whine of incomprehension: How can something so terrible be so beloved by so many people?

The other way, much more interesting, is to actually try to answer that question, rather than just repeat it in an increasingly petulant tone. What is it about these books that makes them so irresistible? In our electronically-focused age, when some good old-fashioned printed books reach dizzying heights of popularity, perhaps the thing to do isn’t to complain that they don’t fit into our pre-existing criteria, but to figure out what they are actually doing right. I personally loved Larsson’s books, and am quite fond of the Harry Potter series, but I would ask the same question about The Da Vinci Code or the Twilight books (the first of which I thought was terrible, and the second of which I was never tempted to pick up). It’s a commonplace to bemoan what a “bad writer” Dan Brown is, but that can’t really be true. People read the books with enjoyment and keep coming back for more; he must be doing something right. Not everything, of course — I doubt that it’s necessary to distort history and science so dramatically just to write a compelling thriller. (A special case would be something like Ayn Rand, whose writing is uniformly off-putting; people keep coming back for the politics, not for the prose.)

In the case of Stieg Larsson, Laura Miller gets it right in her own review of Hornet’s Nest. Say what you will about lumbering prose and distracting minutiae; Larsson has created unforgettable characters and put them in compelling situations. This isn’t a cheap skill that anyone can just pull off, or we’d all be living high off our royalty checks. (Or our heirs would be fighting over them.) When books work for people, it makes more sense to appreciate the craftsmanship than to complain that they don’t fit our criteria. I still don’t know how Dan Brown makes people want to compulsively turn the pages, but it’s no mean trick. More power to him.

  • Andy Johnson

    There’s a recent New Yorker article reviewing the Eragon books (among others), discussing Tolkien’s legacy and the recent fantasy genre. It does a good job addressing just this question of why these books become so popular despite their literary shortcomings. But actually much of what sells is of very little literary value. Perhaps the greater surprise is when great writing becomes wildly popular, like Dickens in the 19th century. It’s hard to think of anything recent that is as enduring _and_ popular as Dickens.

  • Chris

    OK I admit I know nothing about this book/movie other than that she has a tattoo which looks like a dragon. But is there physics (or any science) in there?

  • David Galiel

    Couldn’t disagree more. In an age informed more by Simon Cowell than Samuel Clemens, one might resist the temptation to equate quantity with quality.

  • jjdebenedictis

    Novels are entertainment; they have to be enjoyable. Every other literary merit they might possess is optional.

    As long as a sizable fraction of the population thinks the book was fun to read (and the publisher and bookstores give it opportunity to find an audience), it will be commercially successful.

    Also, remember that everybody’s got a different definition of what makes a book “good” or “bad”. We organic systems can be so variable.

  • Buhallin

    Interestingly, the complaint about minutia and meaningless, boring detail is what drove me away from that (supposedly) great American classic, Moby Dick. I hit a block of description on whales, whale species, hunting techniques and tactics that went on for something like 30 pages, and just gave up. I wonder what Newman would say about that?

    IMHO, critics are at times deeply offended that people just want to be entertained, and that entertainment can come from bad implementations of art. I saw a video a while back that dissected the big chase scene from Dark Knight, complaining about perspective shifts and how many rules of filmmaking it broke, and how bad it was. Nobody really cares, though – did it make for intense viewing that drew you in? Heck yeah.

    When critics like Newman ask “Why do people like bad art” that’s not the real question… What they’re actually asking is “Why doesn’t anyone care what I think?”

  • Z

    Perhaps you’re ignoring some obvious reasons why many things in life, which by objective criteria are “terrible”, are nevertheless highly popular: marketing and popularity.

    Sometimes the reason something is popular is because it is popular, i.e. a sociological feedback effect since humans are social animals. Hollywood executives know this phenomenon well, and it seems the publishing industry has caught on too. People buy books on the NYT best seller list because they’re on the best seller list. The story and content just has to be passable for _anything_ to rise to join the ranks of the highly popular after some marketing/hype. It’s almost like an anthropic principle of popularity operating in a multiverse of stories. You could even model an “inflation” of popularity if the rate of change of popularity is proportional to popularity, heh.

  • David

    The Da Vinci Code is compelling because Dan brown came up with one of the best story premises in a long time. If it weren’t for that how many people would have read that book? Not many I wager. If the story is good enough people will tend to forgive whatever flaws the book might have.

  • Puppetmistress

    Yet ANOTHER depressed goth/punk stereotype. It’s odd that almost all of the goths in media are depressed, or criminals, or act the way they do because of abuse. This isn’t true. In my experience, most goth/punk people are far more open minded, well adjusted and less insecure than their ostensibly normal counterparts. Most people who are as depressed as goths are portrayed don’t have the volition to dress themselves up every day.

  • Micah

    @7: Since the basic plot of The Da Vinci Code has been around for a while (e.g., it gets covered in about two pages in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum) I don’t think that’s it. I think Brown’s success comes down to some combination of:

    1) He’s good at making his readers feel smart, either implicitly by writing about highbrow stuff in a way that feels accessible, or more explicitly by making mistakes and letting them feel smug about noticing them. This sounds kind of like an insult, but I actually mean it as a compliment. My favorite puzzle games have exactly the same thing going on. (For example, I remember playing through Portal, feeling really clever about figuring everything out, and then going through it again with commentary and hearing the designers talk about exactly how they’d cued me to figure out all those things I thought I was being so clever about.)
    2) He’s got the pacing thing down to an art form. A ridiculously suspenseful art form.

  • Mutant Dragon

    I think you’ve got a really good point. I can’t stand Dan Brown myself, but obviously many people like him. A writer’s whole goal is to produce a book that’s fun to read — a book that people like. So if he’s found a formula that sells and that people like, he’s doing his job. Writing a book that millions of people will enjoy is more difficult than the critics imagine. It takes a certain kind of talent to write something like “The Da Vinci Code” — not a kind of talent I admire or aspire to share, but talent nonetheless.

  • G

    Slow day on the science front?

  • Jim Harrison

    I recall hearing about how a bunch of naval officers stuck on a South Sea island in WWII were delighted when a crate of books showed up until they looked over the selection: “O shit! It’s literature!”

  • HP

    Reminds me of Ringu. Extremely popular Japanese novel, made into a South Korean movie, which played in Japan as a foreign film, then made (independently) into a Japanese film with a global audience, which then inspired an English-language remake (The Ring) without reference to the original novel at all. There apparently exists a whole series of South Korean sequels, which, AFAIK, have never been released outside South Korea, in addition to the Japanese sequels and the American The Ring 2, all of which are different.

    I eagerly await The Girl with More Dragon Tattoos.

    In the early days of sound films, before dubbing and subtitles, they used to make the same film over from scratch in different languages. Probably the best known is the Spanish-language Dracula, filmed shot-for-shot on the same sets as Tod Browning’s classic, but with a different cast and a different director.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I honestly have tried exactly what you’re suggesting with Dan Brown: figure out whatever the Hell it is that made him a rich man. I’m stumped. I loathe his work. And I don’t think it’s a guilty poseur’s loathing, either. It’s the real deal. I found the Da Vinci Code repellent. Some of that had to do with the fact that I once studied the Mary Magdalene phenomenon rather in depth, and hence consider Brown to be little better than a plagiarist. But I can dig a skillful thief, and forgive a great deal if I’m entertained. I like a lot of stuff I happily acknowledge is utter crap, from food, to books, to music, to movies. So what the Hell is it about Dan Brown??? I seriously, sincerely Don’t Get It.

  • George

    Sorry I must disagree with one aspect of your take. Not by any means impossible to put down, but impossible to keep reading. I was bored, not intrigued and yes found the unnecessary details (Mac Powerbook … whatever) off putting. I have one on kindle not read. I tried and spent a good half hour on a train from Frankfurt to Bern reading. Never touched it since that.

    My view is by no means, obviously, the consensus.

  • Ted

    Most people read to be entertained and to escape their normal routine. They really don’t care about violations of writing style, factual inaccuracies, or unnecessary detail. Creating compelling characters in an interesting scenario is all that matters. I very much enjoyed reading the Millennium series and many of Dan Brown’s books. They were interesting and fun to read.

  • Drew

    Sean, the dichotomy between “popular” and “literary” is nebulous and often difficult to define – perhaps that is why the whole discipline of literary criticism exists in the first place. You mention “pre-existing criteria” but you don’t mention which criteria: New Criticism? Post-modernism? Feminism? First you must situate a novel in a particular school before you can evaluate it on that school’s principles. Northrop Frye attempted this in his “Anatomy of Criticism.”

    Keep in mind, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was widely popular at the time and is also considered to be the paramount of American fiction.

  • Lorena

    There is a time and a place for everything. I have read things by Saramago, and sometimes it’s just too much, I just want to read something light that I can understand without having to think too much. And Harry Potter, may not be the greatest piece of literature, but the story, the places, the spells, the creatures and that fantastic world she created it’s what makes it irresistible. It’s like music, one day I want to listen to Mozart, maybe tomorrow I will listen to Evanescense and Enrique Iglesias and perhaps later on I will put in one piece by Schoenberg followed by Debussy.

  • TJ

    I’ve not read this book, nor have I ever really felt the need. I did see the Swedish film, it was an alright film but I have no desire to see the American remake. I generally find American remakes in general to be dumbed down and over produced with poor screen writing and more special effects than plot or decent acting. I am starting to get off topic though and my disdain for holywood is a rant all it’s own. The fact is that today fewer and fewer people are even bothering to read, so while what has become possible may or may not technically be great literature the fact that it even has people reading and thinking is far more important than the quality of the work. This being said nobody ever said an entertaining book had to be well written; at the same time noone ever said a well written book was going to be entertaining. I am an avid reader and on the whole much prefer the so called classics over what is being published today, yet while I can see why the writings of Tolstoy have become regaurded as classics, I find Tolstoy to be a tedius read. I honestly find some of Mark Twain’s books to be reather tedius as well. Especially Huck Finn, though some of that is the phoenetic spelling of the southern dialogue which gives me a headache. Let’s also not forget that many of the so called classics were not exactly what one would call well written by the standards of the time. Standards change, and novels are not bound to the same rules of grammer and syntax as essays or text books. Rather than sit there complaining about other peoples taste, just shut up accept the fact that your taste differ’s and just be happy people are actually reading something.

  • Michelle

    Who decides what is great literature? English teachers and English professors, based on what their teachers and professors told them and their own biases. Schools of literary criticism? I can’t think of a more useless way to waste a student’s time than to have to learn about them (I have a degree in English, so I know). Personally I hate much of what has been decided upon as the “must read” list in high school. I can’t stand The Great Gatsby ((a soap opera) and Catcher in the Rye (gack, more teenage angst!) Reading Dickens is like having your teeth pulled…okay, I did like Great Expectations, but Dickens was paid by the word so he stuffed as many words into his novels as he could. The Bronte sisters? Ho-hum.
    Today’s popular literature has a way of becoming tomorrow’s classic literature. So will the DaVinci code be read in 100 years as a classic novel? Maybe, but I hope not. We have better to offer from this era.

  • Emma

    Ayn Rand’s writing is divine. Personally, I go back for the prose; the politics are more of an extra treat.

  • Dude

    I have a feeling that this movie will be too “hollywood” and take away from the actual intent of the original film, which i thought was amazing. As far as who considers what to be “good literature”…it just doesnt matter. Everyone has opinions about everything, so just enjoy it and be glad its not another sparkling vampire flick lol.

  • Matt Bright

    jjdebenedictis: there is a vital difference between ‘enjoyment’ and ‘entertainment’ that falls at the heart of this sort of debate. Particularly, I think, in contemporary culture where we’re surrounded by stuff that’s meant to keep us constantly entertained. In that milieu, I’d argue that the purpose of great literature – of any great art – is to remind us that there are other things to feel than pleasure, excitement and stimulation. There is a virtue – in these times, I think, an absolutely vital virtue – in using art to explore non-entertaining things like disgust, confusion, boredom, anxiety and melancholy.

    Dan Brown, meanwhile, is in a category of his own for me. I gave it a go for the sake of cultural curiosity and literally couldn’t bear it. I don’t even understand the claims that it ‘slips down easy’. I’m a science fiction fan, and that often means encountering – particularly from Golden Age writers – a fair bit of skilfully styleless writing whose sole purpose is to tell you who people are and what they are doing without any mucking about, and this wasn’t it. Each sentence drew such noisy attention to its own shoddy construction that my brain felt like Sideshow Bob stepping on a series of rake-handles

  • Drew

    @Michelle: Nobody “decides.” That presupposes that there is some ultimate authority on the matter. Criteria is based on reason, and we can evaluate different criticism based on reason. You’re right in that “must-read” novels were often the result of the Ivory Tower passing on old white men, however, the 20th century saw a huge influx of post-colonial and other marginalized voices into the canon.

    Without some form of criticism we are left with pure relativism – in which everything can be considered “great” – both Danielle Steele and Shakespeare.

  • new earth

    The key to the popularity of these books is that it is very easy to follow the characters and the plot. The characters and the plots are simple. The engaging element is the easily identifiable villain, who you learn to hate from the get-go, and the also so easily-identifiable hero who you learn to love also from the get-go. The big classical books are difficult because they require additional thinking, and positioning in time and space whose etiquette and nuances are so different than today’s. The reason the great books were recognized as great books, is because in their times they were popular, because the people who read them easily identified with the characters, their line of thinking aligned with the behavior of the characters easily. For them it was easy to identify the villain and the hero too. I think that the value of the great books and great music for that matter is that they were used as a medium to communicate disagreement or mockery even with the status-quo. No ‘New York Times’ bestseller book has that quality, and it mainly stems from the fact that we live in a country where mockery and disagreement are not taboo. There are plenty of poorly written books who are considered great books for having that one quality alone, for allowing a breathe of fresh air in otherwise stagnant regime (think Eastern Europe)

  • Scott Aaronson

    Hi Sean, I assume you wouldn’t say exactly the same about the traditional religions, or about (say) New Age self-help books: “so many millions of people have found meaning in them, there must be something worthwhile there that I don’t understand … rather than being curmudgeonly, I say, more power to them!” Obviously, there’s a difference between a work explicitly labeled as fiction and one that isn’t. But when someone like me gets curmudgeonly about (say) hundreds of millions of people going crazy over the Harry Potter books (as I do :) ), I suspect what goes through my head is similar to what goes through yours in the case of religious or New Age books (or for that matter, Ayn Rand novels). Namely: “yes, I realize people love this book because the ‘message’ resonates deeply with them … but it’s a wrong, bad message, one that shouldn’t resonate with them!”

  • Sean

    Actually, I am extremely interested in understanding why traditional religions and New Age self-help books resonate with so many millions of people. Appreciating their literary and persuasive techniques, as it were. They are undoubtedly doing something right, and I would like to know what it is.

    Note that I didn’t actually use the word “worthwhile” or anything synonymous. I really do believe that there is something called literary quality, and Dan Brown’s books don’t have it. So what is it that they do have?

    Of course there is an important difference between enjoying a novel and believing false claims about reality.

  • floodmouse

    Religion and popular art have this in common: They both grab you by the emotional cajones and shake the stuff that really matters. Open any popular book, including the Bible, and you will most likely find death, sex, deceit & betrayal. The protagonist learns to deal with all the left-field pitches thrown by life (or fails to do so at his or her peril). People who are already happy rent comedies. People who feel something is deeply wrong or flawed–either in society, or in their personal lives–tend to be drawn to darker genres. “Quality” only comes into it like “sanding” comes into making furniture. The basic shape of the genre (or the coffee table) remains the same–only the degree of finesse differs, so the critics have something to argue about. The fact is, people prefer a chair with a comfortable shape than a strangely designed objet d’art with an exceedingly high polish on it.

  • Wade

    My wife loves Brussels Sprouts, but to me, they don’t even taste like food. Not good, not bad, but certainly not like anything that someone would eat. The difference in taste seems to be genetic. I believe that I’m able to taste some chemical in this plant that she can’t.
    Not knowing that, would it make sense for me to try to understand what she sees in Brussels Sprouts that I don’t?

  • Anchor

    “I really do believe that there is something called literary quality, and Dan Brown’s books don’t have it.”


    “So what is it that they do have?”

    They (not just this story, but all lesser-grade literature) have an appeal for a good many particular reasons, but all of them have this in common: they’re habit-forming. In other words, they are addictive in the same way empty stimulation is continuously sought out, as in a pleasant sensation. Novelty, for no reason other than the sake of shaking up the startle relex, is but one example.

    “They are undoubtedly doing something right, and I would like to know what it is.”

    There’s the incorrect assumption: that they must therefore be “doing something right”. They are simply providers, and t-yeah, they rake in the bucks alright. But it doesn’t take much sophistication to recognize what people are attracted to and to keep them in good supply as the demand dictates. The error is in thinking that they’ve figured out something profound about human taste which you aren’t aware of. It isn’t aesthetic taste, a cognitive phenomenon generated in large part by the frontal lobes which is being solicited. Its the basist possible appeal to the appetite, the hunger-center, which needs no conscious consideration which the brain-stem or reptilian cortex cannot provide. The error is in thinking that success must indicate the application of an unknown nutritve factor of aesthetic quality, instead of something as banal and unsavoury as, say, that near-rancid and re-used oil used to fry french fries at the local fast-food makes them so irresistable some can’t eat just one. Of course, the demand is insatiable.

  • Magoonski

    “Bad writers” are popular because we (the majority) are ‘bad readers.’ Look at the audience that picks up these books. We aren’t academics with English and/or literary degrees. Nor are we trying to challenge our intellects. We simply want something to distract us from the world around us for a little while.
    There’s also a disconnect between what is considered “well written” and how people actually communicate. Sentences beginning with “And,” “Because,” and “But” often come up in everyday conversation even though it’s grammatically incorrect.
    Finally, what is considered a “well written” novel? I bet it’s probably based off of classics written over a hundred years ago, right? Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen…all great authors but I’d rather watch the movies than read the books. Why? Because when I try to read them I fall asleep (and I have tried). The books I read now have a lot of dialogue and action sequences in comparisons to these ‘literary masters.’ Even J.R.R. Tolkien’s writting I found incredibly drab. Really, there’s only so many times that walking around, building a fire and cooking food can be interesting when NONE OF THE CHARACTERS ARE SAYING ANYTHING. I think I made it to about page 100 or so before I threw my fifty dollar copy of all three combined “Lord of the Rings” books into the charity bin. I don’t mean to insult these authors, it’s just a difference in taste. I’d just rather have a ‘sandwich and chips’ for my read then sit down for a ‘nine course meal.’

  • David Brown

    Readers of this blog might be interested in the following: 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time | DISCOVER magazine (Dec. 2006) Francis Crick’s “What Mad Pursuit” .

  • JimV

    Wish-fulfillment fantasy covers a lot of the ground, I think. Superboy/man comics appealed to me as a child because I could fantasize being invulnerable and able to fly. (If I recall correctly, some boys of my generation actually threw themselves out of windows in the faith that they too must have super powers – or maybe that was an urban legend.) Lizbeth Salanger could read a few math books and figure out an independent proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, as well as beating up bad guys twice her size, and hacking into any computer system.

  • Baby Bones

    Most people are not entertained by reality; that’s where drama comes in: to entertain the masses. Stripped of it’s themes, drama becomes melodrama, and melodrama then sprouts genres. Genres, codified melodramas, are essentially devoid of content. They are codified against themselves, that is, they must restrict themselves, and this growing restriction shows up as a progressive increase in sophistication of plots and plot elements and a growing submersion of codified elements in characters (so that we maintain suspension of disbelief). From such genres reappear dramatic themes, from time to time. These themes have been twisted, however, to serve only the purpose of entertainment. Such brief re-emergences in individual works of genre tend to make people believe that the genre has a heart or is not dead yet. That is untrue; Genre is the death of drama.

    Blame Poe, or better yet, blame Conan Doyle. If an essential aspect of drama is that it is a story about the most important event in someone’s life, melodrama and genre negate that completely. Hence, the sequel. Hence, the same central hero, again and again. Genre is a worthy substitute for religion since the hero lives on and on.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for genre and genre writers. It’s better, for one’s health and popularity, to be an Umberto Eco or to have been a Henry James than it is to have been a Franz Kafka.

  • Phillip Helbig

    First, I haven’t read Larsson’s books, so my comments are just general.

    It is certainly possible (don’t know whether that’s the case here, though) that the original is good and the translation bad. Good translations are expensive: one has to know both languages well and know how to write (and, for technical translations, have an understanding of the subject as well).

    Note that the titles of the first and third books are not literal translations. The first should be Men who hate women. The last, Luftslottet som sprängdes, is a bit more difficult to translate. The last word means “was blown up”, i.e. “was destroyed in an explosion”. The first is “castle in the air” which connotes wishful thinking without basis (not sure if it has this connotation in English).

    There is a long tradition in Sweden not just of detective stories (in the broadest sense) but also in using them as a means of social commentary.

    Of course, the reason for the remake is that most folks in the USA don’t want to see movies which were not made in the USA. Since Larsson’s books are well known, people knew about the Swedish movies (is “film” appropriate if it is done digitally?). However, many other foreign films have US remakes. When I’ve seen both, the remake is usually worse.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Dan Brown? I bought The Da Vinci Code in a bookshop in Gothenburg, Sweden when I wanted to buy something quickly. (Countries with well educated small populations are good places to buy books in various languages. People can read the original, so there is less need for a translation, which might not be financially viable considering the small population anyway. The fact that people can read the original means even less reason for a translation, and dearth of translations might encourage people to read the originals.) I had bought The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in a bookshop in Birmingham, England when I wanted to buy something quickly in 1984—before an important part of it was shown to be a hoax (not by the authors; they were duped). (Of course, the fact that the hoax stuff is false doesn’t mean that the rest of the book is necessarily false. In fact, much of it is true or at least plausible, and indeed many points had been raised earlier by others. However, while well written in any case, it is more fun to read if one doesn’t know about the hoax.)

    I ended up reading The Da Vinci Code while in hospital undergoing chemotherapy, so that might colour my perception somewhat. (At the same time, I read Light, which I just didn’t get at all (I don’t mean the various allusions, but rather the point of the book itself).) While it contains many factual errors (not just the historical woo, but basic stuff which one should get right in a book such as this, even if it is not essential to the plot), as light entertainment (I hope it is not intended as anything else), it is not “bad”, whatever that means.

    Of course, popularity and quality are mostly orthogonal. However, there are people who think it is stupid to buy music because it is in the charts but determine whom to hire on the basis of bibliometry. 😐

  • slw

    There are three feelings people find extremely pleasing: awe, power and smugness. So, you take a bunch of mystical themes, imply there is deep underlying mythology to them(anything Dan Brown, Hogwart’s, Vampires). This invokes feelings of awe. Your protagonist must be inherently talented, possibly a “chosen one” or possess gifts normal people do not. No matter what, you can’t ever imply that your protagonist did any hard work to get to where he is, it needs to be cosmically granted to him. This serves to empower the reader if he identifies with the protagonist. And then you must make your protagonist, or even better, his entourage, do incredibly stupid things, stumble into the most obvious traps and take far longer at figuring out things than the previous point would suggest they would. This breaks the fourth wall and enables the reader to feel smug about knowing the obvious. However, you can never let the reader know that you intended for him to know this.

    Yeah, it’s basically giving your reader’s ego a blowjob.

  • Jim

    I don’t find smugness pleasing..?? I find that an odd claim?

  • slw

    You find self-satisfaction unpleasing? Smugness is not pleasing if it’s someone else being smug. If it yourself being smug, it is very pleasing, pretty much by definition.

  • Phillip Helbig

    For what it’s worth, the remake remake gets a very good review from a critic who usually agrees with me.

  • chris y

    Not by any means impossible to put down, but impossible to keep reading. I was bored, not intrigued and yes found the unnecessary details (Mac Powerbook … whatever) off putting.

    Mon semblable, mon frere! I forced myself to finish the first of these as a courtesy to the person who gave it to me, but the whole set are now sitting in a charity shop and the later ones are uncracked. And I speak as one who loves trashy crime fiction.

    Over and above the unnecessary details of the surrounding hardware, I couldn’t take the unnecessary details of abusive misogyny. I’m aware that Larsen intended the books to stand as a condemnation of the misogyny prevalent in Swedish society, but you can only get away with doing this by writing loving and lingering depictions of rape if you’re an extremely skillful writer. Larsen was not. If your principal characters are Gary Stu and Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you end up writing extremely unpleasant porn, and your intentions count for nothing.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Larsen intended the books to stand as a condemnation of the misogyny prevalent in Swedish society”

    While that might be true, it is important to point out that there is less misogyny in Sweden than almost anywhere else. Of course, where it is really bad, people who complain about it get killed, so there is a bias here. (One could almost say that criticism is necessary where it is not allowed and vice versa.) Painting a picture of Sweden from detective novels is probably even less of a good idea than painting a picture of the US from television sitcoms. In recent years, attempts to eradicate misogyny and lack of equal rights have in some cases caused the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.

  • Richard

    As to the science of it, isn’t the complete title The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest: Programming Drag Effects into Apiarian Projectile Trajectory Modelling. ?

  • David

    I enjoyed the diversion from the normal flow. I think we human just like to hear a good story. It worked for Homer.

  • Lake

    Stories are often very popular if they feature superheroes doing impossible things, uncovering secrets and righting clear-cut wrongs, and in the process attracting desirable mates. Stories like this feed naive fantasies, and the naivety of the fantasies is why more sophisticated readers deplore them.

  • ohwilleke

    As literature, Dan Brown books are pretty thin gruel. But, viewed as art, art history and intellectual history lectures dressed up with a bit of a plot and some characters to give them life and relevance, his books do quite a bit better than the straight non-fiction treatment. How many people would even know that there was a Gnostic heresy or that there were non-canonical Gospels or that the symbol laden monuments of Europe and Washington D.C. even existed without Brown’s introduction?

    Dan Brown is also tapping into one of the oldest successful genres of writing, the divine mystery. A claim that something supernatural might exist, with clues and an absence of a quick resolution attracts attention, and an easy reading level makes works like his available to readers who don’t have access to more prestigious treatments of similar ideas.

    Re Moby Dick. If a modern editor had gotten their hands on it before publishing it, it would have been much shorter and a better work of literature. I’m afraid that instead, my copy ended up as a friend’s ballistics experiment. Moby Dick is proof positive that rough drafts should not be published until they are edited. However, given the dearth of early American authors, it is still read today in dramatic proof of the fact that culturally, first in time works can have disproportionate impact.

  • CIP

    Buhallin: ‘When critics like Newman ask “Why do people like bad art” that’s not the real question… What they’re actually asking is “Why doesn’t anyone care what I think?”

    Might if I frame that and put it on my office door?

    Re: Moby Dick. Those who think it too long and digressive are nuts – the descriptions of the whaling life are essential and critical elements of the art. They make it real and vivid. Editors who would cut those elements would want to publish Les Miserables and War and Peace as pamphlets. I, on the other hand, would have published Gravity’s Rainbow as a textbook with humorous and other asides.

  • maja

    I loved the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the subsequent books became very hard to read, and I finished the third book only because I liked Lisbeth Salander, she is a bit like a superhero.

  • Nicola Jones

    For a highly entertaining look at the art of creating a best-selling novel, read the novel “How I became a famous novelist”. You have to read it with a cynical squint to get the most out of it :)


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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