Firing at the Dragon

Stieg Larsson is the universe’s hottest author at the moment. His three-novel series that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become a kind of Harry Potter phenomenon for adults. Larsson died at 50, before any of the novels were published. But he told friends he knew his books were going to make millions. They laughed at him, of course. Even the greatest writer ever born would be a fool for being so certain of financial success. But according to some who knew him well, Larsson wasn’t a great writer, not even a good one.  Consider this compelling testimony in the Times today:

Anders Hellberg, who was Larsson’s colleague in the late 1970s and early ’80s, goes even further and claims that someone else must be behind the Millennium books: Larsson himself was simply not good enough a writer. Larsson worked then as a graphic designer for Tidningarnas Telegrambyra, or T.T., a Stockholm news agency that is the Swedish equivalent of The Associated Press. He occasionally wrote longer pieces for T.T., as well as captions, and would ask for advice about his writing. “It was not good; it was impossible,” Hellberg, now a journalist at Dagens Nyheter, the largest and best of Sweden’s several morning papers, told me. “Every professional writer knows these things: you look at a text, and you can see this is terrible. Some texts are a little messy, but you can work them out; but here nothing was good — not the syntax, the way of putting things, nothing.”

I know exactly what Hellberg means. As a professional writer, you can spot raw talent, even when cloaked in a trash heap of awkwardness and lack of experience. But it’s even easier to spot NO talent. It just leaps out at you. Imagine a concert musician listening to your Uncle Charley playing chopsticks on the living room piano. There’s just no mystery there.

But . . . I have seen people who were beautiful, even famous, fiction writers turn around and write stiff, soulless and downright stinko non-fiction pieces. I always assumed the explanation was that they were used to having any detail they could imagine in their fictive paint box. But when they sat down to write non-fiction, they were blindsided by the sudden lack of source material. They had no idea how to go out and research-report a subject thoroughly enough to replace the kind of information they could simply call up out of inspiration when writing fiction. As a result, they were firing blanks in non-fiction, and their entire writing machinery broke down for the lack.

So it’s possible it can work the other way: someone who was never any good at writing journalism is transformed when he’s no longer limited by the facts. At least that’s what I’m going to believe, because thinking that there’s some secret author out there using Larsson as a beard is way too Shakespeare vs. the Earl of Oxford for my tastes.

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