The Guy Who Was Glad to Hear Somebody Read Enough of Stieg Larsson

Ilana Teitelbaum just did a smart, thorough blog post at HuffPo about why Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn't work for her. The reasons were some of the same ones that made me pass on countless books in the decade or so I was the mystery reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and what seemed like thousands of mysteries and thrillers crossed my desk: too formulaic, too much violence against women.

I also passed on a book almost immediately if it started with a dream, or somebody hearing himself/herself scream, or someone chained in a basement, or a serial killer's thoughts in italics. It would often take reading a bit longer to be well and truly bored, or grossed out. Lorenzo Carcaterra managed to do both for me.

I've tried to read Stieg Larsson and never gotten very far, just like I've tried to read dozens of Scandinavian Noir mysteries and thrillers recommended to me by friends. They just haven't been my beer, as the Germans say: too dark, too depressing, too colorless and bleak. I'd rather read John Burdett's books set in Thailand. They give me stories and images to chew on rather than spit out.

Teitelbaum taking on a major star of the current publishing scene made me think once more about the whole best seller phenomenon and how so many critics seem to line up to sign up. A book gets terrific support from its publisher, some early and important rave reviews, and suddenly it's a publishing juggernaut and almost nobody's offering a dissenting opinion.

As a reviewer for the Free Press and half a dozen other newspapers and magazines, I almost always stepped aside when the praise tsunami headed my way, and it always left me skeptical. What struck me most powerfully was that it was often only when I was out on the road doing readings and talks about my own books that I'd hear dubious voices about books that "everybody" loved. The questions from my hosts or audience members were somewhat hesitant and even embarrassed, as if there was something shameful about even implying that you didn't like a book that the whole world seemed to be shouting hosannas for.

In Austin once, several people asked me what I thought about Everything is Illuminated. I hesitated, because when I was starting out as an author, Edmund White warned me not to speak disparagingly of my peers because it could come back to haunt me. I ventured a few remarks about the book's beautiful and clever packaging, but soon a number of people were saying they found the book "inauthentic" and I had to agree. Likewise The Lovely Bones came up a lot one year when when I was touring campuses and Jewish book fairs. I had thought I was the only reader in the world who found the book's voice completely unconvincing. But I wasn't. Hearing an author and reviewer they enjoyed agree with their assessments was apparently comforting to people who had been thinking, "What's wrong with me -- why don't I like this book?"

The voice of both those books didn't work for me. But my contrariness about best sellers is also partly related to my resistance when reviewers issue panegyrics and publicists or publishing houses overdo their pitches (book store staffers know what I mean). Though I've published with some major houses, when it comes to reviewing, I like to look for books from indie presses because I know the "big" books will suck all the air out of the room. And small is beautiful. I'd much rather read and review authors like Thierry Jonquet, Jean-Patrick Manchette, and Carlo Lucarelli than Larsson. They're not as well known by American readers, but they should be.

Meanwhile, I'm glad to report that two very different neighbors each told me they didn't like the Larsson book, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

I didn't say to either one "I told you so." But I did give them some recommendations of authors they never heard of, and publishers to keep track of: City Lights, Bitter Lemon, Soho. And I reminded them that massive PR doesn't mean a book is worth their time. Sometimes the fuss is more about the fuss than about the book.