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Friday, August 19, 2011

Stieg Larsson and the Art of Meta Writing

Over the past few months, I've made my way through Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, and on a basic level, I've enjoyed them. The occasional fast pace makes up for some of the details.

Admittedly, however, on first glance, the first few chapters of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (#1), and then dozens of pages at a time throughout the rest of the books, feel as if they are riddled with information-dump.

While reading the first book, I didn't notice this per se, but my critiquing skills hadn't been honed to the point they were when I began The Girl who Played with Fire (#2). I just thought it took a while to get into the story (a sign of info-dump, yes). By the time I started reading #2, several months later, I had already read a few people's comments on Goodreads. One comment on #1 caught my eye.

"Got very bored after 100 pages. Sorry. Way too much narrative." (link)

I reflected and considered his point. Yes, there's a lot of narrative at the beginning, little dialogue, less action.

So, why on earth could something with so much extraneous information be so popular? They're great books. I mentioned this to a non-writing friend, and she said she simply hadn't noticed. Can it be that the populace has more patience for info-dumping than those of us who have had it drilled into our brains NOT to write like that?

Not likely. That's the populace that may eventually clothe and feed us (if we make it past a publisher's advance, of course). That's the populace we're supposed to be pleasing. It must be something else.

As I read The Girl who Played with Fire, and later The Girl who Kicked a Hornet's Nest, I focused on the extra narrative, considering its use and purpose. And here's what I came up with:

It's not info-dumping. It's meta-journalistic fiction.

Huh?

Let's start with defining our terms:

meta: adj. (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

The Millennium series focuses on journalists in the throes of their journalistic lives, writing and covering the daily lives around them. Journalists don't always have the luxury of paring down their prose in the way that fiction writers do. Whatever information they've uncovered today, be it the fact that Mr. X worked for Texaco in 1987 or Ms. Y has a penchant for blue suede shoes, it could all be relevant tomorrow. Therefore, it's all worth publishing.

The difference, and why we don't notice it as much, is in the presentation: an average story covers 600 to 800 words, and if more information is uncovered, it comes out tomorrow, not as an addition to today's story. There's lots of information, but it's broken up into smaller chunks, and therefore the extra is more digestible.

Larsson takes this concept of journalistic provision of information and writes in this style. In some cases (e.g., the first 100 pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), maybe it's hard to get through. But the bottom line is that Larsson did something quite clever with the concept of journalism, morphing it into this meta-style of journalistic fiction. It's the reader's job to uncover which bits of extraneous information are important, as if the reader is him/herself an investigator.

In this case, if we can manage through the slow start of #1, I think these books are an excellent read. Taking into consideration what Larsson has done with this meta-style, perhaps we can gain a little more patience in enduring the exposition.

Have you read the Millennium series? What did you think? How did you feel about the narrative/exposition? Was the later action enough to make up for it?

10 comments:

mooderino said...

i think what you're saying may very well be true, but I also think the public do have a greater tolerance for all the things we're told are verboten.

You only have to take a look at the most popular books to see how much they don't follow any of the 'rules' we're given. i think it's more to do with getting intot he industry than it is pleasing the reader. Or something.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino

Jan Morrison said...

I loved the millennium series - read them like my pants were on fire and finishing them was the only way to get someone to put me out! I have lots of view on why that is so. I found lots of the description, info dump, technical stuff boring but I didn't care. Why? Because I loved loved loved Lisbeth Sanders. I didn't care if the book could have used a few more edits, that some of the translation was sketchy, etc.... All I cared about was finding out what was going to happen to Lisbeth. I think of it the same way I think of friendships. Some people are just worth any sort of trouble. We are willing to have our sleep disturbed, will tolerate rudeness, disregard all and any things that would be cause for us to eliminate other such connections. The person is so compelling that we will put up it all just to be in the golden glow of their radiance.
Sometimes I will like a book because it has a complicated layered plot that intrigues me. Sometimes I will like a book that is written beautifully, poetically, with rich metaphors and every word ringing true. But if there are characters that I care about - they trump all other attributes.

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, interesting analysis. I have said these books are underedited and I loved them anyway. I forgave them because Larsson was dead and I preferred HIS product, even if it was un-done to stories edited by someone else.

But then I read a book by another Swede--Mankell--and it was similarly heavy on description... I think the US is the snort-attention span market where we are trained 'don't to that', but imported books that have already proven themselves in another market are distributed with minimum editing, aside from translation.

That said, i didn't like Mankell's book like I liked Larsson--the description wasn't overcome by fabulous characters and often riveting pace.

So I am annoyed with the American Public for not letting writers try some different things... but at the same time, I see the point in some circumstances.

Margo Lerwill said...

Really interesting (delightful) analysis. I have the first book, but it hasn't made it to the top of the TBR pile yet. When it does, I'll be very interested in examining this technique.

MzHartz said...

I think I'm in the minority. I read all 3 books, but I only really enjoyed the middle of the first book.

I see what you're saying about it being meta-journalistic, and that may be the parts that I didn't like. I always assumed that the places where I lost interest just weren't in a genre that I enjoy.

The guts of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were pretty much a murder mystery, where the later two books seemed more like a cop drama. I guess I would say the difference is in a murder mystery, I feel like I'm working out the mystery with the narrator. In a cop drama, I feel like I'm watching the characters figure it out.

I also thought the characters started to get a bit unbelievable the longer the series went on, where the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are perfect.

Medeia Sharif said...

This is an interesting take on his writing, one I haven't encountered before. I have the first book, but I haven't read it yet. Several people warned me about the "slow" beginning.

Cold As Heaven said...

That's an interesting analysis. The journalistic way of writing suits my own style very well, since I'm not able to keep track and control of a full story. Well, maybe that's not the best motivation, but in a sense, it moves things from impossible to doable >:)

Cold As Heaven

LTM said...

I have not read this series, but I have heard you have to stick with it since the author died and it was impossible to do revisions...

Lots of meta these days. I didn't know that was a style in this series. Interesting~ :D

Carol Riggs said...

Haven't read the book(s), just saw the Dragon Tattoo movie. Interesting story and compelling, and that's the only reason I finished watching it. The scenarios and rape and torture were just too graphic and gross to me. Now I have those horrid images burned into my mind. Ugh.

mary said...

Great analysis Rosie! I had a hard time too with the first 3 chapters, but loved all 3 books once I got going. So sad that Stieg died before he saw how well loved his books were. I love Mankell's Kurt Wallender series too. I like authors whose settings become a character in their tales. Lovely, dark and deep, those gloomy Scandinavians!

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