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.