Monday, March 15, 2010

Misogyny in (well-respected) books? Or not...

Interesting re-cap of issues with Larsson's books at Quillblog today. Interesting to me because I had very mixed feelings about this book when I first read it, about a year ago (at right, movie poster).

Start at the beginning: I was a hard-core mystery reader as a young girl. A steady appetizer diet of Nancy Drew, with a main course of almost the entire oeuvre of Ms. Christie. Now I can't read a lot of mystery: I find the tone of many contemporary mystery novels contrived, somehow forced. Reads like bad knockoff Dashiell Hammett.

So, I read Girl with a dragon tattoo, and I was sort of meh about it. When I wasn't being meh, I was getting kind of ick-ed out about the violence, despite what you would think would be de-sensitising doses of CSI, etc. (oh, no! My dirty secret is out now! And you thought I had taste...). While we're on the topic, actually, what is it with the massive amount of CSI-type shows largely depicting violent crimes against women? When did that become the main subject for mass-market evening TV shows? And what does it say about us that we watch them?

Sorry, sidebar. Larsson: There was something about the amount and the tenor of the violence in the book that struck me as odd. It was somehow devoid of emotion, in a way, and yet unrelenting. Rather like watching too many CSI reruns.

And then there was Lisbeth. She just never quite rang true to me, in a man-writes-in-a-woman's-voice-badly kind of way. I hate to be that kind of person, the type of person for whom that sort of thing matters, but in this case, it did (not in Matilda Savitch, btw, which I read recently, speaking of male authors maligned for writing in a woman's voice, or I guess in Matilda's case it would be a girl's voice). Lisbeth sounded off, and I couldn't believe in her, no matter what I tried to explain away as her personality issues or repressed emotional traumas.

Between Lisbeth sounding stereotypical and the violence sounding strangely gratuitous and yet lacking in emotion, the book just didn't sit well with me.

Even so, the Guardian's Viv Groskop almost had me at this quote:

"The book promotes a very Scandinavian sort of equality. The message I took from it was that gender is irrelevant. We behave the way we do because of our individual characters and personal histories. In Larsson’s world, it’s the psychopaths who split the world along gender lines. And, boy, do they get their comeuppance."

An unique interpretation, but I still wasn't sure if I was sold. If gender was so irrelevant, could we really see Lisbeth's characteristics belonging, to, say, a male character?

Then I wondered if it's similar to how some people are afraid of even saying that someone died: they have attached so much importance to the word that they have given it its own power, far more so than it deserves, thereby perpetuating a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy: it is scary and necessarily horrid because we say it is. Same thing with violence in novels (or wherever): we are afraid of portraying it because we are afraid of it. We worry that by reading Larsson we are somehow condoning the violent acts depicted - but why so with Larsson and not any other mystery writers? What has made the reading public react so strongly to his works?

I've read a bit about Larsson and I know he advocated for equal rights and was very involved in political activism against the right wing movement in Sweden. I somehow can't reconcile the two Larssons. Is Swedish writing so unfamiliar to me that I was able to completely misunderstand the tone of his three novels? I felt the same way about The unbearable lightness of being when I read it... as in, "um, guys, did no one else want to vomit a little at the portrayal of women here?"

I don't know where I'm going with this post, in all honesty. I think I'm just asking the questions, and wondering how you guys feel.

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