Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Steig Larssen and the Feminist/Misogynist Dichotomy

I'm revisiting Steig Larssen's book The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo these days, and not of my own volition. I reviewed it on my book review blog some time ago, and recently received a comment in response to my review of the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire.

As the commenter pointed out--I said I hated Dragon Tattoo and yet I gave it a B+. Which startled me. I remember hating it, and I have absolutely blocked out why I would have given it a B+. Is grade inflation so prevalent that I would give such a good grade to a book I would warn people away from reading? I mean, not only can't I recommend it, but I can't even go with the relatively moderate "Give it a shot and tell me what you think of it."

No, I found Dragon Tattoo to be so overwrought, so offensive, and so stupid on so many levels that I feel it is my public duty to save people from picking it up. "You will never get those hours back again," I would tell anybody. "Well, I might recommend it, except for the fact that the main character is an idiot and a Mary Sue with an inexplicable success rate with women, and the fact that much of what passes for prose is actually shopping lists, and that the mystery solution is so obvious that you will guess the perp about five hundred pages before the hero does, and the fact that there is a disturbing amount of horrific torture and murder of women which is graphically detailed. . .Actually, there really IS no reason to read this book, and there is no explanation for why it has been so well reviewed."

And I thought I had been harsh when I told someone that another book "was not a complete waste of time." I think Dragon Tattoo is a complete waste of time.

Now, Dragon Tattoo is the subject of a thoughtful article about the state of book publishing: "Dead, brutalized women sell books." Apparently the received wisdom in the world of publishing is that people like to read about rape, torture and murder of women--so much so that even a book where the victim is male has a woman's (dead) body on the cover.

Obviously, this is disturbing. I, for one, do not like to read torture porn, and I read a lot of fiction. Yet somehow the sense at the end of the article is that rape and murder and mutilation of women is about all that is keeping book publishing solvent. That can't be true, can it? It was only about a year ago that we learned that women buy and read a substantial majority of fiction in the country, and really, how many of them would choose violence if they had a realistic choice?

I can believe that women like to read thrillers, or mysteries, and the ones that are being published are also increasingly violent--which they read because they are what is available. That makes sense to me. The Silence of the Lambs was incredibly gory, but it also had a psychologically complex relationship at its heart, and maybe the torture was something some readers waded through to get to the parts that interested them: the relationship between Clarice and Lecter.

Unfortunately, the lesson taken seems to be "Gore sells" and we get a rush of other books that have all the blood and none of the relationships. And we read those books, because they are reviewed as the best of what is now being published.

There is a debate about whether the Steig Larssen books are "feminist" because they contain a strong female heroine who fights against the bad guys who are murdering and raping other women. Does a kick-ass dame in a leading role redeem a novel from being torture porn? Does the use of fictive violence against women serve as evidence of cultural disapproval of such violence, or is it a way to make such violence marketable in a way that straight misogynistic horrors couldn't be sold?

When an author wrestles with horrors, the activity is fraught with risk. I mean, there is a justifcation for representing the problem one is condemning, at the very least so the reader knows just what the writer is against. The problem comes when the writer turns out to be better and writing about the problem than writing about the condemnation of the problem. And I think that is what happened in Dragon Tattoo. The prose about sexual mutiliation, dismemberment and torture was so much more lively and engaged than the rest of the book that I was left with the sensation of having been subjected to a creep show under false pretenses.

Maybe that's why I was so generous with my grading--after all, my sense was that Larssen enjoyed writing about the violence, and that enjoyment overwhelmed the "moral" of the book. However, I seemed to be in the minority, since so many reviewers had recommended the book, they must have experienced it as more balanced, less celebratory of violence against women than I did.

There is an old, hoary joke about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln during the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater. In it's entirety, the joke goes: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" In the case of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I find myself in Mrs. Lincoln's shoes--there is no way to consider the book "other than that."


margelle said...

I think your criticisms are justified, yet there is more to the book than the "feminist/misogynist dichotomy"
I am a feminist, and one who rarely reads light fiction and would never have bought a book with a title like that anyway. It was recommended to me by the book-store associate and on impulse, I bought. it. I found it entertaining and ended up acquiring and reading the two sequels. Larssen is a talented writer with a style all his own which is actually a mixture of a few recognizable twentieth century fiction genres.
Looking at the trilogy and the scope of its comment of contemporary life and the world of publishing and politics, you can see why the books have become popular.

Cate Ross said...

The third one hasn't been released in the US yet, so I can't look at the entirety of the trilogy yet. I didn't hate the second one (Girl Who Played With Fire) as much as I hated Dragon Tattoo, but there are just too many moments when I felt myself screeching "SERIOUSLY?!?!" Certainly Lisbeth is the most interesting character in the two books, but did she really need to go and get breast implants in order to be interesting? And does Blomqvist have to be such a Mary Sue?

There are some interesting things about publishing and politics, but then Larssen doesn't really address those, but turns to the tired shoot-em-up tropes of mystery thrillers, and based on the critical love these books have been getting, I had hoped for more.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but that's got to be damning with faint praise, doesn't it?

MFM said...

Both books are about a girl struggling to fit into her own skin. The breast implants aren't for titillation (hee hee)- they are her way of trying to conform - her way to meet what she considers the ideal set by others.

I also had trouble with the believability on many levels (would a police department really invite a PI firm to "help" the investigation?)and frankly, none of the characters are genuine.

But...the books beat what is on TV most nights! I am looking forward to the 3rd one.

Cate Ross said...

Well, I gave the breast implants a pass myself--I could believe that she might have wanted to look older than 12 and that was an efficient way to do it. In retrospect, though, it seemed less like something Salander would do and more like something that Larssen did to boost the marketability of the books. The opening "teaser" of Played with Fire was creepy and inappropriately sexualized, and well--no wonder Salander isn't comfortable in her own skin. The whole Larssen universe is pretty hostile to women and I don't feel that Larssen is fully believable in his feminism. His writing just doesn't resonate for me as truly about women so much as it is about "women as victims." And I don't think he's able to make the leap to see his female characters as three dimensional human beings.

So you might be right about better than TV--I hardly ever watch myself. But there are better books out there, aren't there?