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Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus

By posted at 6:32 am on September 10, 2010 100

covercovercoverAn investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer. A journalist’s creed is more like “tell, clarify, prove, cite, reiterate.” When a writer moves from journalism to fiction without swapping in the appropriate creed, the result is prose so burdened by over-explanation that it threatens to overshadow the action it’s describing. Such is the Millennium trilogy by investigative journalist Stieg Larsson, composed of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which currently sits atop every bestseller list in the country. It’s also one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read.

The Millennium trilogy, so named for the magazine where he works, is the story of Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his frenemy and sometimes collaborator Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive computer hacker who most likely has Asperger’s (and definitely has a dragon tattoo). It’s a thriller told with a journalist’s obsessive devotion to detail, classification, and explication, so that it reminds me of nothing so much as intermediate fiction, where a good deal of stating the obvious is common. Stieg’s characters respond to plot twists with broad, stock reactions taken straight from the repertoire of middle school plays. Their eyes bulge, they freeze in terror, they audibly gasp. When one character learned of a murder of good friends, she “put her hand over her mouth” and “sat down on the stairs.” She was surprised, you see.

Then there’s this description of happiness – “Her smile grew bigger and she suddenly felt a warmth that she had not felt in a long time filling her heart” – that makes you wonder if Stieg was an alien who learned about human emotions from a dictionary.

Most other useful information is inserted awkwardly into dialogue, such as when a patient is wheeled into the emergency room with a gun shot wound to the head, and the brain surgeon tasked with saving her life turns to a nurse and delivers this inexplicably detailed, full paragraph:

There’s an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Goteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He’s a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?

In fact, although much has been made about Stieg’s unique heroine, she spends a large part of the second book in hiding and most of the third book in the hospital. The majority of those two books is told through the dialogue of other characters. Here’s one crackling exchange between Armansky and Bublanski:

“Armansky…Russian?” Bublanski asked. “My name ends in –ski too.”

“My family comes from Armenia. And yours?”


“How can I help you?”

Stieg will never let anything happen in his book without telling you about it at least 97 times. No coincidence goes unremarked, such as in this conversation between a writer and his editor:

“I stumbled across something I think I had better check out before the book goes to the printer.”

“Ok – what is it?”

“Zala, spelled with a Z.”

“Ah. Zala the gangster. The one people seem to be terrified of and nobody wants to talk about.”

“That’s him.”

Thanks, Stieg, but I actually did read the preceding 200 pages in which you mention Zala about once every 5 pages.

These constant, gratuitous recaps might be useful in a book that is hard to follow, where the plot moves at breakneck speed, or where the characters are multi-faceted and pulled by opposing motives. None of those conditions apply here.

Which brings us to another glaring flaw in Stieg’s estimation of humanity. There are only two kinds of people in his world: good people, and men who hate women. This is not to say that hating women is the only thing that makes you a bad person, but rather that, in Stieg’s world, any major flaw is always coupled with mysogyny. The mobster/drug dealer beats and rapes his girlfriends. The corrupt psychiatrist has thousands of pornographic pictures on his computer. The bad cop just plain hates women.

Men Who Hate Women is the Swedish title of the first book, and the common enemy of all the good people in the book, Mikael and Lisbeth especially. Lisbeth is motivated by personal vengeance. Stieg is motivated by how perfect he is as a human being. I’m sorry, I mean Mikael. It’s easy to confuse the two, so let me set them apart. Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.

Having used his imagination and flair for nuance to create Mikael the character, Stieg sends him out into Sweden to avenge the oppressed. He faces down embezzlers, rapists, secret agents, and gangsters, then he exposes them in his magazine. When he is cautioned from publishing a controversial story, he actually says, “That’s not the way we do things at Millennium.”

In one gaspingly improbable scene, his superior sleuthing earns him a meeting with the prime minister, who thanks him for his work and starts divulging state secrets. One of the other perks of being so exemplary is that, with no effort on his part, women throw themselves at him.

In the 1000 pages or so of the trilogy, Mikael never says anything charming, never does anything romantic, never goes out of his way to woo anyone. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mikael falls in with a 6-foot blonde ex-gymnast federal agent, and this is his move:

“How long have you been working out?”

“Since I was a teenager.”

“And how many hours a week do you do it?”

“Two hours a day. Sometimes three.”

“Why? I mean, I understand why people work out, but…”

“You think it’s excessive.”

“I’m not sure exactly what I think.”

She smiled and did not seem at all irritated by his questions.

“Maybe you’re just bothered by seeing a woman with muscles. Do you think it’s a turn-off, or unfeminine?”

“No, not at all. It suits you somehow. You’re very sexy.”

Who wouldn’t want to hit the sheets with this guy? Nonetheless, he is irresistible to women. How do we know? Because Stieg tells us so. And because all the women he sleeps with in the trilogy (roughly half of the primary female characters) do us the favor to reflect at length at how great he is in the sex department. In what claims the (hard-won) prize as most tasteless passage in the series, a victim of decades of sexual abuse ruminates on how she thought she’d never sleep with another man, until she met our middle-aged, out of shape, Swedish Adonis.

Of course, even she is aware that he’s sleeping with someone else, his married best friend and co-editor Erika, whose husband is cool with it. Stieg so delights in this open marriage/lover situation that he re-explains the dynamic a handful of times each book. Erika, in turn, knows about two other people Mikael is sleeping with at about the same time in the first book. His sexual partners have a way of running into each other, having emotionless conversations about what they share, and then accepting that they can hardly be expected to keep him to themselves.

All the women in the Millennium trilogy are strong, independent, and intelligent, living in a world simply seething with men who want to abuse or repress them. Federal agent gymnast Monica, magazine editor Erika, and computer genius Lisbeth all appear as resilient victims living amidst rampant sexism. But the glaring contradiction in what is meant to be a celebration of these women is that, time after time, Stieg insists on letting Mikael save them. And then bed them, of course.

In any other book, I would see these tactics as pandering to the baser instincts of the reading public. But in this book, in which Mikael is so obviously a stand-in for Stieg, it’s just tacky. Especially since this Stieg/Mikael amalgamation has also appointed himself head of the Respecting Women Committee. For someone so earnestly devoted to preserving and protecting the rights of the modern woman, it’s strange that Stieg couldn’t conceive of one who could do without his manhood.

Which is why, in the end, my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.

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100 Responses to “Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus”

  1. Tim W.
    at 1:28 pm on September 12, 2010

    If you’d stuck to the book’s writing, I’d have an easier time letting your point go. However, I think the popularity of the book series and your easy, trite critique fails to give the books series it’s due. Potter omits contradicting evidence to a critique that’s more about the book series pervasive motif, the objectification of women, and makes really disingenuous points. Also, it misrepresents the books take on the matter. Since she’s so fond of saying, ‘all’ the characters do ‘x, y, and z,’ you need only look at a few examples to dismiss this critique as unfair. For instance, when you describe Blomkvist as a hero saving the damsel in distress and bedding women, that’s really far off the mark. Spoiler: Blomkvist is almost hung to death by a serial rapist and Salander saves him. She hits Martin Vanger with a golf club, and then as he attempts to flee, chases him down on a motorcycle. Also, the Salander seduces Blomkvist and we are told directly that she hates when people try to paint her as the victim. Your absolutist take on the book series contains too many blanket statements to stand as a credible critique.

  2. Much Madness is Divinest Sense » Blog Archive » To Stieg or Not to Stieg
    at 1:33 pm on September 12, 2010

    […] this link went out over Twitter, and I forgot who tweeted it, but it’s some pretty harsh criticism of […]

  3. Leah
    at 4:41 pm on September 12, 2010

    I myself only read the first one of the series (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and did not understand what people liked about the books!. I am a very liberal girl and have no problem with sex but I found his books to be very vulgar and unnecessarily so. I cannot believe that millions of people bought a book that has a plot based around such horrible and descriptive rape/murder scenes. Not to mention the fact that child molestation/rape seems to be a VERY popular topic for authors and I personally think that thats f-ing disgusting.

  4. Anderson
    at 5:32 pm on September 12, 2010

    I cannot believe that millions of people bought a book that has a plot based around such horrible and descriptive rape/murder scenes.

    Note to Leah: do not ever bother with reading Thomas Harris.

  5. Jay
    at 6:03 pm on September 12, 2010

    I can see why this entry is under the “essays” heading rather than “Book and Review” because this is clearly not a critique of the works but an attack on the author. So Potter doesn’t like Stieg Larsson, okay, that’s fine. The bits I’ve read about the man make him sound like someone I wouldn’t want to spend much time with either.

    “my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.” So basically Potter is upset not with the books on their own merit but because she thinks Larsson was self-centered? These books are contemptible not because of the story or plot but because they were written by novice mystery writer who may (or may not) have used fiction to live out some sort of fantasy?

    Posthumous character assassinations aside, this essay struck me as yet another potshot at a bestselling series. It’s also a bit of a cheapshot in that since the author planned on several more books but died before he could write them. He may have matured as a mystery author but we’ll never know.

    A more accurate title for this essay would have been “Bloggers Who Hate Authors On the Wild Assumption the Male Protagonist Is Being Used for Wish Fulfillment.” But that’s sort of long title and folk are unlikely to click the link.

  6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo —
    at 6:43 pm on September 12, 2010

    […] out Janet Potter’s essay, Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus, for the She does not like the book or Larsson, but her review is worth reading. She […]

  7. My Thoughts, Exactly! | Nina Hess
    at 7:39 pm on September 12, 2010

    […] A must read! Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus […]

  8. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 10:47 pm on September 12, 2010

    Leah, I stopped reading the series for the same reason. I thought his plotting was good, but found the content rancid.

  9. Gregorio Vazquez
    at 1:00 am on September 13, 2010

    Well, I listened to the trilogy and loved it. The “boring details” helped me get into the world of the novels and created a sense of presence. I recall Dan Brown came in for a roasting for not meeting literary standards as well, as did JKR for the Harry Potter series. Trash, prol fodder, illiterate. Maybe being popular doesn’t meet the literary gold standard for professors and writers of a lesser god, but for millions of readers all over the globe, it was worth the money. And if you didn’t like it, well, fine. Who is the judge of what is “good writing” anyway? I’ll be my own judge, thank you. And I loved the series. Maybe these critiques will help polish that novel we’ve all been working on or the next one to be published. But I doubt it.

  10. Scott Free
    at 4:39 am on September 13, 2010

    Something you seem to missin your analysis: your American perspective on the story. I agree with Jay at 6:03PM that you are mostly launching an ad hominem attack, not a real book critique.

    This is a story about Swedes in Sweden. With small detours into the Eastern Europe and Gibralter, it stays in Sweden. The books, and the characters have a perspective on life which is at least Scandinavian, and more accurately Swedish. The idea that Mikael would “bed” any swedish women is a bit silly. Not all are independant, but if you better understood Swedish females you would retract your opinion. In the story Lizbeth chooses Mikael, and the “crackling” ex changes fit perfectly with the understated, contemplative nature of Swedes. Not all are fit, but as a generalization they are more sexually self-confident and self-aware then most other groups of women on the planet. And correspondingly, Swedish men are as well. Americans, I am sorry to say, are not.

    You obviously are missing the original Swedish version, for which you can’t be faulted. But you are obviously critisizing something which is outside your understanding. Yes, you might say it doesn’t fit the American notion of pulp fiction, or if you were being generous you might say the notion of fiction writing. I would tell you that this series is so popular in Sweden precisely because it highlights both the positives and negatives of their culture.

  11. Sam Winters
    at 8:53 am on September 13, 2010

    Those who can, write. Those who can’t, review.

  12. Else
    at 11:18 am on September 13, 2010

    I’m a native Swede, and I have read the series in Swedish and English, and have seen the Swedish movies. Some of the story is lost in translation, and some of dialogue/actions/reactions/nuances are very Swedish. There are many cultural differences between Swedes and Americans, with the most pronounced difference being a silent stoicism that is just part of Swedish life.

    Anyway, I loved getting totally wrapped up with the entire series!

  13. GiovanniGF
    at 12:49 pm on September 13, 2010

    I want to commend everyone who jumped to Larsson’s defense, particularly those (most of you) whose argument was “it’s popular fiction, so don’t say anything bad about it.” Special thanks to the ones who attacked the critic for being a critic. I sincerely hope you’ll now consider Googling some sites criticizing the movie version of “Eat Pray Love” and continue your hard work. God bless.

  14. Andrew
    at 2:59 pm on September 13, 2010

    A- try reading it in Swedish. The translation is definitely oversimplified, and clearly this reviewer is tackling the psycho-socio precepts as incongruent with English-speaking ideals in fiction. Many in the Scandinavian world find American and British authors disjointed, overly dramatic and inexplicable in their rigidity. Like wise, the author of this article is stuck in the framework of the familiar, and finds these “flaws” rather than questioning the reasoning behind the stylistic choices. Lame.

  15. Pete Hausler
    at 11:27 pm on September 13, 2010

    A writer models the main character after–gasp!–himself. A journalist moonlighting as a fiction writer, writes in the style of–get this!–a journalist. A crusader for women’s rights portrays men as–wait for it–pigs. A Swede, born, raised, and deceased in Sweden writes about–lordy!–Swedes, and the characters all act in a manner suspiciously similar to–ohmygod!–Swedish mores. A fan of genre fiction, who never claimed he was writing the next Moby Dick, writes something exactly like–drum roll please–genre fiction. Remind me to not waste my time reading this incisive criticism on The Millions.

  16. Patrick
    at 1:41 am on September 14, 2010

    I’m paraphrasing here, but “Those who can’t write, critique. And those who can’t critique, leave comments on a blog post.”

  17. ubik
    at 1:30 pm on September 14, 2010

    “Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.”

    Since you base a lot of your critique on this point, can’t you be bothered to look up wikipedia, or is this too much of investigative journalism for your taste?

  18. Beerman
    at 4:15 pm on September 14, 2010

    Well… it’s probably a lot better in it’s mother tongue. I didn’t think it was great, but I didn’t think it was terrible. Not the worst books in the world, but I’d say they beat out most of what passes for pop-fiction these days.

  19. the arts glutton » Blog Archive » Taylor Sings, Sexy Kings, Tattooed Things
    at 6:19 pm on September 14, 2010

    […] friend and Facebook fan directed me to this take on the delicate interplay between Mikael Blomqvist and one Mr. Stieg Larsson.  Amusing and full of […]

  20. Mel
    at 9:58 pm on September 14, 2010

    Thank you!! I was wondering if anyone else noticed that Mikael is essentially a Mary Sue/Gary Stu for Larsson (who, of course, like a true mary sue, gets all the chicks/men s/he wants). It’s nice to finally read a review that spells out all of the things that were so problematic with this series. As long as this one man doesn’t hate women, it’s okay to detail their abuse and rape in loving detail and to have your fictional stand-in sex them all up…and save the day. How can we talk about Lisbeth being a hero(ine) when she’s saved by Larsson’s Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Some heroine!!

  21. Jonquil
    at 10:48 am on September 15, 2010

    “When was the last time that a mystery-thriller, a product of the single most popular fiction genre in the history of all time, produced a character more in sync with an emergent sub-culture?”

    Laurell K. Hamilton, Goths. Who were at least as emergent, in 1993, as punky cyberexperts in 2005, being a mere 10 years out of date.

    Thank you for this review.

  22. Rachel
    at 1:27 am on September 16, 2010

    These days we can get a heartbreaking romance, rush of adrenalin or genuinely funny moment from a 30 second youtube clip. It’s not surprising that the old style of writing, where nothing happens until six chapters in, fails to hold anyone’s attention.

    I put down Dragon Tattoo about a third of the way in when a neighbor visited Mikael with a spongecake. I think I got distracted by a photo of an ape cradling a puppy or something. Sorry Larsson.

  23. Thursday various « occasional fish
    at 6:31 pm on September 16, 2010

    […] Potter on the work of Stieg Laarson: Which is why, in the end, my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or […]

  24. Hal O'Brien
    at 2:59 pm on September 18, 2010

    “(M)y problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.”

    So, to be consistent with this standard, you have problems with 95% of all fiction ever written, yes?

    Talk about a distinction without a difference…

  25. Hal O'Brien
    at 3:06 pm on September 18, 2010

    “An investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer.”

    And it’s an odd creed that’s only been in the language for about 50 years or so. It’s very likely to be as transitory and subject to the whims of fashion as the “Three Unities.”

    The word is “storytelling,” and not “storyshowing,” for a reason.

  26. Rich
    at 10:55 pm on September 18, 2010

    Boy that was close. Here I had myself convinced I had read the most captivating series of books in years. I honestly thought I had enjoyed the stories. Thank God I’ve been showed the way out of my clouded thinking. And thank you all so much, resentful ones, for shaking me from my delusion. I’ll meditate tonight on how awful the books truly are, you jealous, pompous, self-righteous idiots. I feel full of expletives but I’ll stop there before I get too repetitive. But I’ll warrant that those of you who wrote the most bitter words here against this author, who touched millions, couldn’t write yourselves out of a paper bag.

  27. texan99
    at 1:25 pm on September 23, 2010

    I agree with every word of the review. “Tattoo” is an extremely clunky novel. Escapist fiction is great stuff. I don’t need a beach novel to illuminate the human condition for me, but I do appreciate an author who learns his craft well enough to get us engaged in characters and plots without intruding his self-absorption into nearly every paragraph. Larsson is both smug and humorless.

    “Mary Sue” books work only if the particular Mary Sue is so appealing as to make the reader overlook the bad writing. I guess this Mary Sue wasn’t on my wavelength, because the bad writing kept breaking the spell and making me roll my eyes.

  28. Friday LinkFrogging – 9/24/10 «
    at 1:51 pm on September 24, 2010

    […] I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought the Stieg Larsson books blew. […]

  29. Sandra
    at 2:35 pm on September 25, 2010

    Boy, am I ever embarrassed. Here I thought I was fascinated by the differences between living in Sweden to living in the U.S., written by someone who is not trying to accommodate a U.S. audience. I was even blown away by a not so perfect heroine and hero who were successful in achieving goals that seemed to be unobtainable.

    I started out not particularly liking either character and ended up admiring both even when they were so different. Neither of them accepted the false labels that someone else pinned on them. Perhaps it is possible to avoid being destroyed by the power and influence of others.

    I even loved the descriptions of the apartments, houses and especially the cabin. Austerity in the face of such wealth never seemed so appealing or so reasonable. The opulent apartment Salander creates with her new wealth seems to represent all the things she was denied and in the end means little to her except as a setting for a person she might have been. The apartment needed her Goth friend to be real. I was ecstatic when Salander moved her in even if it was to cover her own identity.

    I guess I should thank all of you for your insights but to tell you the truth, I am too baffled by your comments and grateful that I can ignore them if I choose. I will reread the Larsson books more than once simply because they are so different from the pulp and pap that seem to be so prevalent in the bookstores. I am sorry there will be no more Larsson books.

  30. rafi
    at 11:19 am on September 27, 2010

    Did we read the same books, Janet? Some of your remarks are very accurate – about the sharp division of the world between good and bad guys – but as a whole the books are a masterpiece, no less – without any connection to their being bestsellers.
    I read the second book through one weekend: it rarely happened to me that I “can’t put the book aside”. And they are full of insights about journalism, security organizations and more.

  31. Maraska
    at 6:44 pm on October 4, 2010

    The Millenium trilogy is simply overrated. It is actually badly written and main characters are more some kind of stereotypes than real people. There are so many better Scandinavian thrillers written by Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankel or Lisa Marklund. Only readers who usually don’t read crime novels can be charmed by Larsson.

  32. Review: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire « Fat Books & Thin Women
    at 5:39 am on November 30, 2010

    […] Stieg Larsson and one of the trilogy’s main characters, Mikael Blomkvist. (Since reading the Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissist piece on the Millions I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that this trilogy is kind of […]

  33. Pavel
    at 3:45 am on December 8, 2010

    I have stumbled on this post while reading a movie review on The Haffington Post. I was curious as to who would write such thing. How was it possible to miss all the colour during bleak Swedish winter? I rate Stieg Larsson’s trilogy along Robert Ludlum’s books, both highly intelligent writers. It’s kind of shocking and surreal to read some extreme opinions expressed. So diverse is your country (USA) today, so polarized that, I ponder, if some, like the author of the blog, channel their unrecognized anger in absurd ways like telling millions who found books brilliant and resonating that they are wrong. To another poster: I have read Mankel and I like his Kurt Wallander series – reminds me Porphyry Rostnikov books by Stuart Kaminsky – but IMHO he is nowhere near Larsson’s writing that captivates you and sheds light on the Swedish society today. I have close friends in Stockholm, my in-laws lived there after the war. Larsson gives me a different prospective and an even greater admiration of Swedish people, their quiet stoicism. Perhaps it’s a role model society for the USA – Sweden is a country dealing with issues on a much higher level of civility. Their hockey players have more class than some American politicians. Cheers.

  34. bobby
    at 5:40 pm on December 16, 2010

    I didn’t read the books, but I did see the first two movies (kind of lost interest after the second one). But the biggest red flag for me with the story was when Lisbeth sleeps with Blomqvist. I can’t imagine that a young woman with Asperger’s who lives on the fringes of society, courts bad-ass women, rides a motorcycle and wears tattoos, would ever consent to going to bed with an aging, frumpy, unremarkable (male) journalist. I guess opposites attract? But I would agree with the OP that it’s kind of a conflict of interest / masturbational fantasy for him to be patting himself on the back in the Respect for Women league and then turning around and having the woman actually jump the guy’s bones. (esp after reading things saying it was inspired by his desire to help rape victims? why would you sleep with your character who represents rape victims? why do you even have to go there?)

    I can def see how it’s part of a noir thing for the central male character to sleep with the femme fatalle. I totally get that. But mixing that with the message of “I love and respect women!” comes off as a little bit creepy. Just saying.

  35. Yatima » Blog Archive » worst book of the year
    at 7:13 pm on December 20, 2010

    […] I read some stinkers – Solar was self-pitying crap! I Don’t Care About Your Band actually made me feel sorry for some douchey dudebros! That ain’t right! – but this was no contest. …the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote ab… […]

  36. Reg Keeland
    at 7:21 pm on December 25, 2010

    I have seldom read such a passel of vituperation about books which, as a few of you were smart enough to realize, were not written for any market but Sweden, and in fact were written for fun and relaxation by Stieg after a full day’s work on his muckraking magazine. The guy just didn’t sleep much.

    But I must educate those of you who claim that the translator must be to blame for anything you didn’t like in the books. Many people are involved in shepherding a foreign novel into English. In this case, 1) his editor at Norstedts in Stockholm; 2) Stieg himself, who worked with her on the editing of the first book; 3) myself, a translator who has been doing this from most of the Germanic languages for over 35 years; 4) the editor at Quercus in London, who was savvy enough to buy the world English-language rights, and who also thought up the English titles of books 1 and 3 based on book 2, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to construct a series; and 5) the editor at Knopf who started with the UK-edited version of my originally American translation and did some more editing for the U.S. market. Plus the usual bevy of copyeditors and proofreaders in all three locales.

    My job as a translator is to reproduce as closely as possible the author’s style and intent. It is not to rewrite the book as if an American had written it. In this case, since U.S. publishers were too slow off the dime to snap up the rights to this excellent series, the UK editor did his rewrites and approved them with the Swedish editor. Due to a scheduling snafu I was not given time to rebut the changes, so I removed my own name from the books and used the pseudonym “Reg Keeland,” not being willing to take the rap for the many infelicities that were introduced. So please don’t automatically blame the translator when there’s something that offends your standards of taste in high literature or popular potboilers. It takes many cooks to spoil the broth. In this case, however, Stieg’s story comes through as a gripping read. Over 15 million fans can’t be wrong.

    If you don’t read both the original language and English, please think twice before blaming a translator in the future. We in the profession would certainly welcome the quashing of this knee-jerk reaction.

  37. Matt
    at 3:15 am on February 1, 2011

    I mostly agree with the review, these books are just not very good. Not the worst things published or anything, but they are just boring and ridiculous in the end. I actually started reading them because I had just finished “Let the Right One In” and I was thinking, “There must be a lot of awesome Swedish literature I’ve missed if it’s anything like this!” Not so. I’m halfway through the second book and I keep falling asleep reading it.. I’m done with the series, I think, I only plowed ahead this far because of the inexplicable popularity of these titles (I thought it would eventually be gripping and awesome, and maybe I was just stupid… I might be, but I don’t think I’m wrong about these books being bad.)

    I think what bothers me most (besides the plodding pace) is the techno-magic (as well as the endless product placement and tech specs.) What I read so far has made most problems solvable by computer magic – the books try to take place in the real world, but computers can solve every problem, somehow (magical access link to everything! steal billions without a trace!)

    As far as the characters go, I thought that Blomkvist was sort of flat and weird before I knew anything about the author self-insertion business. (Actually, I think this is where the review above gets a little too mean-spirited, as author self-insertion/ idealization is nothing new – though it’s not effective here, I’d prefer to judge the character over the author.) Also, I didn’t think Lisbeth was really unique, more like some nerd-fantasy problem-solving sex-bot whose eccentricities made her unapproachable. Some of her portions were interesting, but she’s more a shut-in’s dream girl than a person.

    I don’t (ever, really) post lengthy screeds about what I don’t like, but I felt personally bamboozled and scammed by these books (1 1/2 books, maybe) because they are so popular (top ten on Kindle, which lead me to buy them) and they are so banal in the end.

    I just don’t get it the appeal here.

  38. range
    at 6:16 am on February 7, 2011

    Although the Millennium Trilogy has its faults, it’s also extremely fun to read. I read the 2,000 pages or so in the French edition over a few days. Yes, some of it was annoying, and some of it wasn’t that well written, but ultimately I enjoyed it.

  39. Stephen
    at 8:13 pm on February 20, 2011

    thank God – I thought I was going nuts there for a while, reading nothing but praise for this drivel.

    Perhaps because it’s ‘foreign’ is why this series was successfully marketed to a wider audience in the US. Based on the praise/hype, I honestly expected something meaningful and worthwhile when I picked it up. The power of marketing, eh?

  40. The Man Who Wrote Himself | Above the Sea of Fog
    at 10:05 pm on April 13, 2011

    […] Hilarious, scathing and accurate critique of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium trilogy. […]

  41. st
    at 10:56 pm on May 11, 2011

    I read the first book in the trilogy while on a trip to Norway. I am the sort of person who thinks that the spare writing of JM Coetzee is something to aspire to. However, I enjoyed the book (read: very readable on a trip, although I must say, I first read JM Coetzee on a plane trip).
    I thought the inclusion of detail about running a magazine and tech specs–as well as the inclusion of an actual website address strange (as well as “dating” the stories more quickly), and the mutual acceptance of the protagonist’s lovers laughable (or is it a Swedish thing? What do I know? I just visited Norway). After learning that the writer had passed away before publication, I wondered if he just never got around to editing?
    I am really glad that I read the post by the woman, Celia H. with Asperger’s, who enjoyed the detail. I think it provided the most interesting insight into the writer’s style of any of the comments. Thank you, Celia, for your post. It made reading through the previous comments worth it.
    Despite its style and content flaws, I found the book enjoyable. I do recommend, as an alternative, the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, whose protagonist Detective Hole is a much more sympathetic character, and the writing and story better.

  42. Pthomas
    at 11:59 pm on June 15, 2011

    I am so glad I have stumbled upon this article. I read the first two books but could not make myself slog thru the third one. They were both so desperately in need of a good editor. And poor Lisbeth she is a truly an original character – but he seemed unable to completely develop her. So the author continued to give her more talents and skills until she almost had super powers. And lastly the female characters may have been strong women – but it was interesting that they were willing to share Mikael because of sexual prowess……It makes me crazy that so many critics have failed to point out the obvious issues with the writing of thee books.

  43. Mike
    at 7:30 pm on November 11, 2011

    I just stumbled across this by Googling “millennium trilogy worst books ever.” I despised the first one, but was sucked into trying the second one by a coworker who insisted “Oh, the second two are SO much better.” I kinda want to catch her on fire now. (Just a little bit. Like from the knees down.)

    The two main characters are annoying, unlikable, self-righteous douchebags. The telling vs. showing is so freaking annoying and makes for such boring reading that before I quite reading I was starting to get an almost uncontrollable urge to stab myself in the ocular socket and pop out my eyes with one of those little plastic sporks from Chik-Fil-A.

    It irritates the crap out of me that Larsson and that other “Most Overrated Writer of the Century” nominee, Stephanie Meyer, have sold umpteen quadrillions of books between them while there are so many original, talented writers out there (myself not included – I suck, as well) who feel great when they sell 3 books in a month.

    To quote the great Dorothy Parker: “This [book] wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

  44. My Thoughts, Exactly! | Nina Hess
    at 5:30 pm on November 20, 2011

    […] A must read! Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus […]

  45. Benett Freeman
    at 1:31 pm on December 5, 2011

    “Why do we constantly reward excruciating writing with bestseller status?”

    So wrote Shannon Turlington.

    The answer is that ‘we’ do not. The popularity of products released and distributed throughout most ‘Western’ countries is determined corporatistically and nepotistically, in advance, by people that work for the label companies and major publishing houses, of course.

    THAT is the first reason why the vast majority of ‘charted’ output (in literature, music, cinema, etc) is utter dross.

    The second reason concerns not reward, but lack of complaint. People gleefully accept this situation, and slip a copy of the latest J K Rowling into their travel bag…despite the prose being about the same level as an 11-yr old non-native speaker – and this only points us to another question – why are so many people dumbed-down?

    The big picture of the controlled society then begins to emerge, and people don’t like to face the truth, so they turn around and go back to their John Grisham and Cormac McCarthy.

    To return to the works in question, what I personally find most interesting is that the aforementioned publishing magnates allowed a series of novels through the net that deal with events that resemble the Dutroux affair and other horrific real-life examples of psychopaths in high places having their crimes hidden.

  46. L
    at 6:10 pm on December 17, 2011

    To the people who have a problem with negative reviews, I have a simple question: why? Every review consists of an opinion, whether it’s for a film, a CD, or in this case, a book. Are we to expect that every opinion of every single film, CD or book is going to be positive? Varying opinions call for varying views.

    “And while I respect your contrarian impulse, I question your self-serving need to broadcast it. Why bother, other than to provoke, sully, and snark?”

    Just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said at all. In that case, why bother posting any review, positive or negative?

    “Those that can do. Those that can’t, now tear up those that can in petty little blog entries.”

    “Can the naysayers please refer us to the bestselling books they’ve written. I’d love to read them.”

    So, both of you are inferring that in order to criticise one medium, you have to be an expert at it yourself. Why do we have critics at all, then? I guarantee you that most critics do not have any prior experience in whatever field they’re reviewing. Film critics aren’t former directors or actors, nor are music reviewers former musicians. I can also tell you that if this was a positive review, you wouldn’t be questioning whether the person in question had written a bestseller.

    I’m not about to accuse society of having been ‘dumbed-down’ over the years, because believe it or not, that term gets tossed around all too often, and the people who use it don’t even realise that ‘dumbed’ or ‘dumbing’ are not real words, and therefore that process does not exist. Instead, I’m going to leave you with this to ponder: if we don’t live in a critical world, how can we ever expect anything to improve?

  47. Dana
    at 11:20 pm on December 21, 2011

    Brilliant review, spot on with all points. What’s more, you have much thicker skin than I do. I got to page 113 of the first book and promptly threw it across the room, where it still sits in a corner at this very moment (that was 7 months ago). I might have read the whole thing had my wife not beaten me to it and warned me of how dismal it was.

    I don’t care what I’m reading, it shouldn’t take over 100 pages to get to a plot, especially when the author spends a liberal quantity of time parsing over trivial details which never amount to anything.

  48. All you need to read Ulysses… « Letters Republic
    at 3:23 pm on June 21, 2012

    […] Who benefits from a culture that applauds mediocrity? Why should we be encouraged to read books that are downright crap (or as one writer called it “poorly written erotic fan-fiction”)? […]

  49. Benett Freeman
    at 9:18 pm on February 5, 2013

    Dear L,

    I take issue with your rejection of ‘dumbing down’, both linguistically, and what it means.

    FIrst of all, I am in good company using the phrase, including Robert Winston. Whatever authority you might refer to in order to say that the phrase does not exist, is not an authority.

    Secondly, even if the phrase was invalid, the process most certainly is taking place. I offer you the following link as a starting point for your future research.

  50. Lisbeth
    at 4:05 am on November 5, 2013

    Wow. Someone seriously missed the point. But I mean, SERIOUSLY missed the point.

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