Reading and revenge

In the latest issue of The Monthly, Kirsten Tranter writes about the novels of Stieg Larsson, whose Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been recommended regularly to me by friends and family members with reliable taste. I clearly have commitment issues when it comes to books in series – the last trilogy I read was The Lord of the Rings at the age of 11, I’ve only read the eponymous first (though marvellous) novel of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and I am still to open a Harry Potter – but Tranter’s piece, “Stockholm Syndrome”, was the final nudge I needed to embark on the late writer’s trilogy of crime fiction.

I stopped reading crime fiction a long time ago, but I’m not sure why. Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a page-turning story. Maybe I just wanted to keep my body count to a minimum in the fiction I chose to read. But while I no longer take my fill of mutilated and murdered women’s bodies on the page, there are endless numbers of them on television and film for me to “consume” at my leisure, if not pleasure. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the number of gruesome crime stories that begin with an act of violence against a woman. It’s almost as if these stories cannot get a toehold on the viewer’s (reader’s?) imagination unless a dead female body arrests their attention. What does that say about our culture?

Tranter writes that misogyny is Larsson’s “most cherished theme”, and his heroine Lisbeth Salander its “avenging angel”. Very late in the piece Tranter draws attention to this conundrum of crime fiction:

Salander’s admirable strength as an avenger is predicated on her own horrific victimisation; she has to be raped and abused before the story of her revenge can be set in motion. This is the conundrum Larsson has confronted: how might it be possible to condemn men’s hatred of women without telling stories that illustrate it?

It’s a very good question, and this is why I need to read the books in order to find out whether I agree Larsson has confronted or even attempted to resolve the dilemma. Surely it is possible to write engaging novels about women characters whose fictional journeys are not predicated upon some act of violence or abuse?

I like to think Tranter is right; that “the success of Larsson’s novels proves the role that imaginative literature … has to play in generating critical debate about the most serious social and political issues.”

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. I look forward to hearing what you think about these books Virginia. I have just finished reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and while I thought it was a great read and am interested in reading the other two books in the series I feel I need a break from the violence depicted in them for now.

  2. Hi Karen, thanks for writing. I received an interesting response on Facebook whose author, a novelist friend Kate, has permitted me to publish here:

    “It’s a con, V. The Larsson books (first one anyway: I’m not going to read
    more) are full of the same misogynistic brutality, plus the Get Out of Jail
    Free card of ‘condemnation’. And revenge: a ‘heroine’ who’s barely human,
    and can leap tall buildings and kick baddies heads off while subsisting on a
    diet of coke, ciggies and junk food — the same nutrition regime Stieg
    Larsson refused to give up and which saw him drop dead of a heart attack at
    50. Just a fat guy’s sick fantasy — but he’s a leftie, and hates the rich
    an powerful, so somehow it’s all fabulous. Clunky translation, too. Read
    it and be amazed — at how gullible people are.”

    In our email exchange Kate also expressed tedium at the character of the left-wing journalist being irresistible to women … !

  3. Hi Virginia – I have been thinking this myself a lot lately. Not about the Larsson books, have not been tempted there; but mostly about television. Sometimes I think the whole of entertainment seems to depend on the mutilation, torture, humiliation, murder or other hateful act carried out on women. Add to that the cover of Nick Cave’s novel (yes, I know it’s supposed to represent the character, but I don’t care!) and you would be forgiven for thinking feminism never happened. Most depressing to me is the number of young women who think this is all fine and dandy.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Charlotte. I am just feeling exhausted by the idea that feminism – as I understand the term, the fight for the liberation and equality of women – has not left as much as a bruise on the age-old mysogyny of our culture. As for the idea that young women of your acquaintance find this “fine and dandy” is just sad; surely it’s symptomatic of a group who is so profoundly oppressed that they don’t even see it. Denial is a tighter word for it. Ariel Levy’s got a piece on feminism in a recent New Yorker but it’s a response to a couple of new books. Perhaps I should write a post about it…

  5. I’m not interested in murder, abuse or violence as a subject for entertainment nor enlightenment; which is why I don’t watch most of what’s shown on Australian TV nor do I read ‘thrillers’ and murder mysteries. Aside from the very interesting and valid comments made about the inherent misogyny, our society seems to be fascinated by hatred and pain and it baffles me. I sometimes wonder what my two children would think of the world if they watched an evening of television. If it’s supposed to represent our lives, then God help us. I tired of the glamorisation of violence and death circa Tarantino’s second or third movie. So glad to read I’m not alone in my boycotting of the cultural bloody jerk-fest.

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