Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Cover of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet'...Cover of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Dear You—

I’m just finishing the third book in the admirable The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. It’s called The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest - in the unlikely event you’ve been stuck down a mine shaft and you haven’t heard of it. The second volume is The Girl Who Played With Fire. All are deservedly blockbusters.

Though I’m enjoying the book thoroughly – it is making me recall some of the thoroughly bad editing advice I have received over the years (I have received some good advice as well) and wonder about two things: the dumbing-down of America, and the amount de facto censorship – principally enforced self-censorship - which exists in this Land of the Free of ours.

The two are connected because one of the core beliefs of many mass market media U.S. editors seems to be that the American reader is too dumb and too ignorant to deal with anything other that genre books, and that virtually all exposition and introspection should be eliminated from a thriller (to give but one example) because the typical reader has neither the intelligence nor the patience to follow anything other than a formulaic storyline.

This arrogant attitude isn’t confined to the book business. It’s not universal, but it’s prevalent throughout the media and entertainment business, and, as a consequence, has become something of a self fulfilling prophecy. If you put out a steady diet of mediocre work, you lower the standard. Dumbness, it appears, is infectious and features a ratcheting effect. You don’t stay dumb. You get dumber.

For all our human imperfections, I have come to the conclusion that the American people are more being dumbed down than innately dumb. Indeed there is extraordinary talent here. But pockets of talent do not compensate for a population that has lost its sense of cognitive excellence and is content with bread and circuses. Crass commercialism focused on the lowest common denominator, and the most cynical abuse of the First Amendent by the Rich and Corporate Interests, solely for reasons of power and profit, have a great deal to answer for. And I write that as a believer in capitalism. I just don't believe that dumbing down your market is good business.

Clearly the author of the Dragoon Tattoo trilogy, Stieg Larsen, a Swede, writing in Swedish, was unconcerned with the beliefs and practices of American editors because he has violated just about every one of their commandments, and in the process demonstrated through the extraordinary success of his books in the U.S.,that many American readers may be a lot brighter than they are credited with being, and that maybe readers know best.

The following are just a small selection of the editorial mandates and prejudices that Stieg Larsen defied with such verve and vigor:
  • Keep exposition to a minimum. 
  • Avoid introspection.
  • Don’t have too many characters.
  • Make sure your main protagonists don’t do anything your readers would disapprove of.
  • Make sure your lead is an American Set your story in America.
I could go on, but this mindset is too depressing; and yet these attitudes are typical of the people whose output pervades, informs and influences our lives to the extraordinary extent it does in this infotainment oriented economy of ours. I’ll expand on this theme in future blogs, but believe strongly that we need to wake up to the fact that the mass media are powerful, largely unconcerned with the public good, and playing no small role in pushing this nation into entirely preventable decline.

On could make a very strong case that dumbing-down - the poisoning of the public mind -constitutes a very real ‘Crime Against Humanity.’

The underlying reasons for Stieg Larsen's appeal is that he treats his readers as intelligent adults.


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