Stieg Larsson and The F-Word

Posted by on September 17th, 2009

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the last book I finished reading, so I was planning on talking about a few of the others first. However. Life is what happens while we’re making other plans. In this case ‘life’ is an article about the book on the esteemed and popular UK Feminist website The F-Word, which asks: Feminist or Misogynist?

Go read. Although there are spoilers.

Back?

Okay.

Well, the first thing I’d note is the false dichotomy that’s set up in the article’s title and then followed through in the article itself. Feminism covers a lot of ground, after all. At its heart, all sensible people agree with feminism (if you don’t, you can fuck off now). But then, like any political system that’s had a chance to shake the rain out of its coat and settle in, there are factions. For example, there are strands of feminism that say, in order to be a feminist, women should choose lesbian relationships. Etc. So asking “Feminist or Misogynist?” is a little like saying “England or Scotland?” – and then arguing that, since there aren’t Cornish pasties on every street corner, we must be in Scotland.

I think there are a few good points in Melanie Newman’s piece: points that, as a crime writer, I’ve pondered myself. As a whole, though, I can’t help feeling it lacks a coherent argument and ultimately descends into absurdity. In this blog post I’ll attempt to explain why, and maybe explore some related issues along the way. But it’s a big topic, I’m only human and things may get missed.

1) “But I have difficulty squaring Larsson’s proclaimed distress at misogyny with his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine and babe-magnet hero.”

My reactions first. It shames me to admit it, but a part of me wanted to dislike the book, simply because of the level of hype surrounding it. The general consensus, among the negative, seemed to be “It’s good, but it could do with some trimming. Well … a lot of trimming”. Basically, the book was 300 pages masquerading as 500. I didn’t feel that myself. I loved every bit of it. I can see the objections, but I was hooked from the first page, and it’s one of the few longer books I’ve been able to sink into recently. On a plot level, I thought it was very organic and natural. And, with the exception of one or two plot developments, I found the progression of the story remarkably natural and unforced. The occasional bursts of violence were convincingly unpleasant. Despite the description given by Melanie Newman, this isn’t a “birds stuffed in vaginas” novel; the murders she refers to in graphic detail actually occur outside the timeline of the narrative. In fact, as many words are probably devoted to them in her own article as in the book itself.

There are a small number of violent scenes. (Two, really: specifically, the anal rape of Salander (handled briefly) and the ‘final’, prolonged scene in the basement). They are shocking and uncompromising – but hardly unprecedented within the crime genre – and, as Newman notes, the latter is a reversal of expectations: violence by a man against a man, who is saved by a woman. In fact, the tension is undermined somewhat as we have such confidence in Salander (the female character) that her entrance into the basement – just her arrival – is presented as a catharsis in itself. The confrontation that follows is a foregone conclusion. She is, yes, an embodiment of vengeance: it’s all over. She tears the traditional crime finale a new arse without us worrying for a second about her safety. We know the woman will save the man.

Where I do agree with Newman, to an extent, is on the characterisation. Much has been made of the originality of Lisbeth Salander as a character but – for me – a skinny, mid-twenties, sociopathic, super-smart, tattooed, pierced computer hacker isn’t all that original. I can’t say where I’ve read the character before, but it seems familiar. Maybe I know her. But, sure, there is an element of wish-fulfilment there. Salander is the type of woman most men hope would fancy us. And Blomqvist, the mid-forties male journalist main character, is a bit too super-attractive and … well … nice to be true.

Having said that, what do you want? What do you want as a feminist crime novel? Newman complains:

At the start of the second book, we discover that Salander has had breast implants put in and that “six months later she could not walk past a mirror without stopping and feeling glad that she had improved the quality of her life”. Why a young woman who has been repeatedly violated by men would want to draw more attention to her breasts is not explained. Neither is the basis on which her quality of life is improved.

Well, at the end of the first book it’s not obvious that her violation is because of men (she has clearly had an abusive childhood, but not necessarily at the hands of a father figure as opposed to a mother). It’s also apparent that she has a tattoo done to remind herself of the harm done to her by a man. At this point, it should be clear that she’s not a triumphant goddess figure, but a character who’s happy to wear her experiences and weaknesses on her skin. Or, to put it another way, she augments her body to record one abuse of the patriarchy. Why not another? Just because the latter is subliminal? I’m sure we all know women – strong women – who feel compelled to conform to some ideal or other, and I don’t think that Salander’s desire to do so makes her any less real, justifiable or acceptable. A strong female character feels societal sexual pressure too? Call the cops.

My opinion of the novel overall? Politically, it’s about as liberal as you can find. Larsson’s anger at big business and men, and his compassion for the victims, specifically the female victims, is palpable. If you had to define crime thrillers by their politics, most feminists would want this book on their shelves. It’s not perfect on that level, maybe. But Jesus – what is?

2) “Male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance”.

True. I hate that. And there are books – cough-Shadow-Man-cough – where I’ve found it particularly unpleasant and – hey, I’m entitled to my opinion – inexcusable. But let’s be clear about this. I’m not familiar enough with James Patterson to say, but … Dean Koontz? Newman claims Koontz’s work is “fundamentally violently misogynistic”. Well … you know. (Inspects fingernails). He’s written a lot of books, Melanie. Like, a lot. And “violently misogynistic” is a fairly strong phrase to throw at a guy who mainly, if we’re being scrupulously honest, writes about labradors doing amazing stuff.

Regardless, the book of Koontz’s that Newman mentions is 23 years old. That could be evidence that the phenomenon is long-term. On the other hand, what’s Koontz writing these days? Plus, there are lots of female writers – Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter, Chelsea Cain, Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell – who write about violence against women in the here and now, and yet they’re conspicuous by their absence in the article. No female writers are referred to at all – not even referred to as mindless collaborators, never mind outright misogynists. Instead, it’s the male writers. The authors of ‘rape novels’.

And no mention at all, strangely, of their predominantly female audience.

3) “Face it, Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Dean Koontz: only misogynists make money from rape.”

Fuck off. What an intellectually empty and nasty little … hang on. Sorry. Here we get to the nub of the issue, where Newman leaps the shark and heads off into the far blue yonder. Never mind the fact that these male authors could be substituted for female writers of equal acclaim, sales and alleged misogyny, what we have here is a massive confusion between the fictional and the real. It feels strangely childish to have to point this out, but apparently it’s necessary. People in books aren’t real. A rape in a novel, however vividly described, is not real. It never happened. It is words on a page designed to create an image in the mind. Nobody was harmed as a result of the novel being produced.

There are two objections – that I can see – to including violent acts in fiction.

a) They may incite people to real-life violence.

They don’t. There is no evidence that they do. End of story.

b) They’re distasteful, exploitative, and so on.

Yeah, well … what are you going to say – that writers can’t discuss difficult issues? Only women can write about rape or male violence, even though men are the most likely victims, statistically, of male violence? I get that women can be afraid walking down a dark street at night in a way that men can’t; but the same holds true in reverse. Both sexes have their own types of fear. And then what? Only Black people can write about Black issues? Only mechanics about mechanics?

So why does so much crime fiction involve women being the victims?

My guess x4.

1) It appeals to women: the primary audience for crime fiction. Not the victimisation, but the vanquishing of the predator, often by an empowered female figure. They get to explore their fears and have them confirmed and, ultimately, set right. The monster is gone. Beaten. Dead. Life returns to normal.

2) It appeals to guys, for a mixture of reasons, some of which are implicitly sexist but not misogynist. Women are vulnerable. We like saving women. Aside from that, we like strong women who save other women. We like imagining a strong, righteous female character who might kick a bad guys’ arse and still want to know us. It’s a kind of macho competition, but with zero effort. Measuring up, in some ways, to what we’ve absorbed as a feminist ideal of what a woman and man should be.

3) A female victim has better narrative value than a male one. Guys are expected to defend themselves. Women are seen as more fragile, vulnerable and valuable.

4) All of the above because, despite the advances, we still live in an at least vaguely patriarchal culture. And possibly we always will.

The one reason I’m willing to discount – unless further evidence is presented – is that men just like to write and read rape and torture fantasies about women. Because that’s just offensive bullshit, surely? And if that was all there was to it – obviously – then women wouldn’t write those books and women wouldn’t read them. And nobody on a famous feminist website would need to write a stupid, brainless article on the subject.

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7 Responses to “Stieg Larsson and The F-Word”

  1. Donna Says:

    Great post Steve. Totally agree, and the blogpost you refer to made me roll my eyes. And I’m a woman. I could go into a rant, but I won’t :o)

  2. Kevin Wignall Says:

    Interesting. I was ambivalent about the book. Read it, which is saying something, did think there were sections that could’ve been cut, didn’t think the central characters were particularly original – in fact, Salander did come across as a bit Lara Croft have-your-cake-and-eat-it cartoonish. But I still enjoyed the book and I’m not sure why.

    Have to say, I thought it very old-fashioned and didn’t think it was particularly explicit in sex or violence. I did find the stats that punctuated it slightly weird, particularly having been to Sweden, and I thought it was trying to paint a picture of male sexual violence that’s out of all proportion to reality.

    Having said all of that, and despite thinking that Newman’s article was the sort of thing that gives feminism a bad name (for goodness sake, she implies the settlement of his estate was somehow misogynistic, rather than a legal oversight by a man who didn’t expect to die), I’m reluctant to include sexual violence in my work because I do think there’s a danger of veering over into titilation. And I do think, if the author was interested in female empowerment he’d have had Salander embark on an Erin-Brokovich style bid to prove her mental competence (never properly explained in the book) rather than a Charles-Bronson-style vengeance attack.

    Oh, finally, just to show that Newman is a fool. I know a woman who had a very traumatic upbringing who subsequently had breast augmentation and felt exactly the same sentiments as Salander. I don’t understand it, but I’ve never been in that situation – how presumptuous of Newman to assume she can speak on behalf of all such women.

  3. stevemosby Says:

    Thank you, Donna!

    And Kevin, I agree totally about the stats, which I found slightly out-of-place apart from anything else. You can argue with these statistics all day long, as there are usually biases and nuances within the various studies, but the fact is they’re not particularly relevant to the book anyway, as it’s ultimately a far-fetched serial killer story. I don’t doubt Larsson’s real-life credentials or sentiments, but I think the inclusion of those stats is both jarring and a little misleading.

    While misogyny may well express itself along an escalating continuum, the novel takes place so far to one side that the events are almost fantastical, so quoting stats from the everyday world feels like an attempt to ground the story that never quite lands. What percentage of Swedish men, for example, are multi-millionaire industrialists with an elaborately constructed torture chamber under their house? I’m guessing it’s not a widespread problem. For me, Larsson never makes the link from his story back to “everyday” male violence that might have added an extra level.

  4. john connnor Says:

    Well, I thought it was absolute trash, Steve. Nothing new under the sun, I know, but there’s nothing new in TGWTDT, for sure. Plus, I couldn’t get my head round the moral choices the characters made. Western europe’s worst serial killer. How many women did he kill, in such horrifying circumstances, over the years? It was a staggering number, I thought. They all have families over in Eastern Europe, loved ones, relatives etc. They all have people perhaps looking for them, yet our hero decides on a cover up in order to spare some single woman further distress? Doesn’t really work. It’s difficult balancing the real and the absurd when you write shitty entertainment fiction (don’t I know)but those are legitimate standards to judge it by. Just as it’s legit to baulk at the Da Vinci Code because most of the ‘ingeneous’ plotting therein is based on facts or science (forensic science included)that would not be available in reality. Personally, i don’t understand the British publisher fascination with Scan fiction at all. There’s nothing worth reading in most of it. And i still hold out a hope that we can actually – if we all try hard enough and are responsible enough – breathe some life into crime fiction, make it somehow relevant, instead of an endless parade of entertaining and titillating violence and sex. I always try hard to justify it (my own rubbish included)but it’s getting hard the older I get. Roger Scrutton (a philosopher I never liked or sympathised with)once wrote somethign about the point of art being to breathe life into cliche (and not snigger at the cliches), or, I would add, to wallow in them. You have to step back and look at thr ubbish that is being published and think about that, I think. As I say, my own rubbish included.

  5. the left room» Blog Archive » Nobody was harmed in the making of this crime novel Says:

    […] blog The F-Word about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I blogged about here, and which, if nothing else, goes to show that some people will see “sadistic misogyny” […]

  6. Bernadette Says:

    Great response to a disturbing article Steve.

    I did love the Larsson books (all 3 of them) even with their faults. I liked the fact that Lisbeth’s emotional reaction to her rape and torture was very realistic. The actions she took (revenge torture and breast implants) were exaggerated (‘cos it’s a work of fiction for heaven’s sake not a feminist essay) but that kind of contradictory behaviour is quite believable. I’ve done volunteer work for a crisis hotline and I’ve seen women (and men for that matter) respond in an equally contradictory ways to being abused. Of course she’s the embodiment of every abused woman’s wish fulfillment when she gets her own back on her attacker but if that was all she’d done she’d have been a caricature. Her continuing insecurity made her far more realistic and, for me anyway, more lovable.

  7. reviews and views « Scandinavian Crime Fiction Says:

    […] if artless serial killer entertainments. Steve Mosby has a thoughtful (and yes, somewhat irritated) response to Newman’s article, as well as a longer examination of the wider issues which picked up quite a bit of traffic from […]

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