Monday, January 23, 2012

The Girl with a Beef against The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I don’t like this book. There are a lot of reasons, though the more controversial elements of the novel (like the fact that it has more rape in it than ten issues of a DC comic book) are actually pretty low on the list for why I think it’s no good. I’ll let others argue about whether it’s effective in its themes and message, whether it’s actually feminist or merely exploitive. There are lots of blogs out there already tackling that. My reason for disliking TGwtDT boils down to the writing.

This post will probably make a lot more sense if you’ve read the book, though if you haven’t you can still read it and be entertained by me ranting against the work of a dead guy who can’t refute my points. I try to avoid major spoilers here, but I do talk about later scenes in the book so be warned.

Show don’t tell. It’s such an overstated piece of writing advice that it’s become an empty cliché in itself, an example of the very thing it advocates against. But it’s still good advice. Larsson just tells tells tells. There’s no character motivation too small, no thought too trivial, no emotion too blatant that he doesn’t spell out for the people at home. So many sentences start out with ‘She felt...’ or ‘He thought...’ and then proceeds to tell the reader in the simplest terms possible what the character felt/ was thinking at that particular moment. When not leave it out and, I don’t know, let the reader try to figure it out for themselves? 

It’s one thing for the narrator to play Basil Exposition, but when the characters themselves start doing it as well it gets old fast. The people in this book talk like walking encyclopaedias. They speak in straight-forward chunks of pure information with no colour or individual flair. Take for example, this section on pages 62 and 63 where Lisbeth tells Armansky, her boss, that she doesn’t like him ‘like that.’

‘ “Wait, let me speak. You’re sometimes stupid and maddeningly bureaucratic, but you’re actually and attractive man, and...I can also feel...But you’re my boss and I’ve met your wife and I want to keep my job with you, and the most idiotic thing I could do is get involved with you.”'

She continues:

‘ “I’m aware of what you’ve done for me, and I’m not ungrateful. I appreciate that you actually showed yourself to be greater than your prejudices and have given me a chance here. But I don’t want you for a lover, and you’re not my father.”’

Everything Lisbeth says here- that Armansky is by-the-book but a nice guy- has already been made clear through his interactions with Salander (well, to be exact, from Larsson telling us about those interactions). There’s no need to state it over and over again: just show us these two working together and we’ll get the idea of what their relationship is like. Though really, poor Armansky turns out to be pretty inconsequential to the overall plot, so you could even cut his whole section, must not grip about the pacing! I have enough on my plate dissecting the writing as it is.

Though I admit I do like the ‘...I can also feel’ line. It’s a good example of leaving things open to the reader’s interpretation, a rare example of it in this novel. Usually instead of subtle lines like that we get expositions bombs like this:

‘ “Lisbeth, you have a photographic memory,” Mikael exclaimed in surprise. “That’s why you can read a page of the investigation in ten seconds.” ’ page 606

“No one talks like that!” Shannon shouted in anger.

It’s a shame, because I do think there is a good plot at the heart of this book. Sure, it takes four hundred pages for it to really get going, but I liked the core mystery (everything else, not so much). The characters not only solve a forty-year-old cold case, they do so in a way that is believable while still being interesting. That’s good stuff.

But God, the writing. There are times when it’s better to tell rather than show, when the simple power of stating outright what the character is thinking or feeling gives it a greater impact than it would if you went the long way round. But doing it all the time just dulls that. Continuously telling the reader what the character thinks or feels deprives the reader of figuring it out for themselves. Spelling out the aspects of a character leaves no room for the reader to let their imagination run free, no space for them to fill in their own blanks, no room to breathe their own life into the character.

You have to leave room for the reader. Consider this scene near the end of the book. Lisbeth and Mikael have gone through hell together and as they sit together drinking coffee Lisbeth actually tells Mikael she likes him.

After ten minutes she said, reluctantly, “I like your company.” (Pg 722)

Any reader who’s gotten this far knows that this is a huge moment. Lisbeth has worked all her life to keep people out, but now she’s letting someone in. Her words don’t sound like a big declaration but they show how much Blomkvist means to her.

And then the author hits us over the head with the point.

Those were words that had never before passed her lips. (Pg 722)

We get it! We’ve spent 700 plus pages with this girl! I want my cathartic moment without interference from the narrator! Don’t you dare take this from me, Stieg Larsson!

And then, just to make things worse, we get another redundant infordump from Mikael.

‘“The fact is, I’ve never worked with such a brilliant researcher. OK, I know you’re a hacker and hang out in suspect circles in which you can set up an illegal wiretap in London in twenty-four hours, but you get results.”’

We know all this already! We read that part of the book. It’s not like a TV show were you can wander off to get a snack and miss a scene. Also, compare it with the part above where Lisbeth talks to Armansky. It’s like every character has to have this ‘talk’ at some point, where another character flatly lays out their flaws and strengths (mine would probably be something like ‘Her sister looked over. “Shannon, I know you value good writing and you’re dedicated to nit-picking this book, but you focus too much on the little details and miss the forest for the trees. Besides, shouldn’t you be working on your own stories?’)

Maybe this book sound beautiful in its native Swedish and its poetry just got lost in translation. Maybe the author improves with the subsequent books, I don’t know and I have no plans to read them (I barely have time to hide all the bodies read books by authors I actually enjoy, let alone seek out books by authors who didn’t wow me the first time around). But despite what I’ve posted here, I’m glad I read this book. A lot of the things that I accuse Larsson here of, such as not trusting the reader to make their own conclusions, are problems that I’ve had in my own work. It has made me look at my own work in a different light so that I can try to learn from my mistakes. Then again, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became a global phenomenon selling a gajillion copies, being made into film twice, and spawning it’s own H&M clothing line, so maybe Larsson actually got it right all along. 

For anyone who cares, I am referencing the Canadian Penguin 2008 paperback edition of the book.


  1. I agree with you about the writing, I think even putting aside translation issues some of the exposition borders on ridiculous. (There is a twenty page section in book three where a guy basically has a thought about the complex inner workings of the Swedish government!) Also, for a while I thought that perhaps Lisbeth spoke like she did because of her Asperger's, but unless the rest of the characters also suffered I was probably was me giving the book too much credit.

    I liked book one for the story alone but thought as the series went on the writing became more cumbersome and intrusive. My one defence would be that it was the guys first fiction work and he never had a chance to edit it or get some constructive feedback on the craft side before he died.

  2. Oh, the sections on Sweden's economy nearly did me in. Though as lackluster I found the first 2/3 of the book, for the last two hundred pages I couldn't put the book down (a bit of a back-handed compliment when your book is over 700 pages, but still, Larsson could do suspense).

    It would have been interesting to see Larsson's writing develop, and it's a shame his early death means that will never happen. Writers are often told to write what they know, and this guy clearly knew corporate intrigue. With his background as a economic journalist he probably had a whole slew of ideas for interesting plots and characters.