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."