If you haven’t heard of Stieg Larsson, then you probably haven’t been paying much attention to the book business during the past few years. Here’s the thumbnail bio: Swedish journalist turned mystery writer, author of three global bestsellers, and the most poignant kind of novelist: the one who’s recognized only after he’s dead.
At least in Larsson’s case, it wasn’t that he languished for years, shaking his fist at the gods in between bites of cat food. He simply had the gross misfortune, in 2004, of being felled by a massive coronary after he’d scored a multibook deal, but before the first one — published in the U.S. as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — had come out.
Peel back the broad-stroke headlines of his story, though, and you’ll find a lesson that should furnish any aspiring writer with a year’s worth of inner fire to keep pounding those keys.
Gee, Who Could’ve Seen THIS Coming?
It’s almost an unwritten law: When rapid, unbridled success befalls a first-time author, his or her less accomplished peers, near and far, are buoyed by feelings of hope and joy, while offering sincere outpourings of congratulatory goodwill.
Just kidding! Half of them believe the writer must have performed an orgy of lewd, debasing acts with the devil. Actually, so does the other half, it’s just that they quickly graduate to wondering if they, too, might be Satan’s type.
“We hate it when our friends become successful,” Morrissey sang. But with Stieg Larsson, the success was so rapid, so monumental, and so posthumous — it always helps when the target is no longer around for rebuttal — that it’s inspired the same sort of tiny but persistent backhanded appreciation society that’s tried to nibble away at Shakespeare’s legacy.
The basic argument goes like this: “He can’t have written that. Because … well, because he just couldn’t have! It … it was beyond him!”
In a May 17 article in the New York Times, a Swedish newspaper journalist and one-time colleague of Larsson’s, Anders Hellberg, scuttles out of the woodwork with his belief that someone else had to be the author of the three novels that bear Larsson’s byline. After all, he claims, Larsson used to show him work-in-progress and ask for his advice.
“It was not good; it was impossible,” Hellberg is quoted as saying. “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.”
And what, exactly, is Hellberg basing his conclusions on?
Really, really, really early stuff that Larsson showed him in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Is this not the most pitiful, delusional thing you’ve ever heard? For who knows what reasons churning inside him, Hellberg clings to a speculation whose implications would mean that:
(A) There’s some other writer out there who prefers to use Larsson as a front, letting him take all the credit and his estate collect the fortune;
(B) Larsson robbed a dead person who didn’t show the three novels to anyone else in the world.
Apparently Hellberg would rather dog-paddle around with this flimsy life-raft than consider the possibility that Larsson just might have spent the next 20 to 25 years striving to improve with practice.
Living well is the best revenge, they say. I’m not so sure anymore. Driving your detractors to make fools of themselves with batshit conspiracy theories is starting to look even better.
The Magic Formula, Without The Magic
Whatever else Anders Hellberg has been reading lately, he doesn’t appear to have gone anywhere near Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, or anything else based on the life’s research of, ironically, another son of Sweden, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. Whether it’s Gladwell’s 10,000-hours motif, Colvin’s concept of deliberate practice, or some other take on Ericsson’s work, it all boils down to innate ability playing a much lesser role in accomplishment than putting in a lot of focused hours with an eye toward improvement.
Gymnastics champion and human potential author Dan Millman was way ahead of the current crop of of logging-the-hours proponents, and while God is always in the details, Millman nevertheless puts it as succinctly as anyone:
“Progress is mechanical,” he wrote in 1999’s Body Mind Mastery: Creating Success In Sport And Life. “If you practice something over time, with attention and commitment to improve, you will … Some people have the unique combination of psychological, emotional, and genetic qualities necessary to become world-class, but anyone who practices over time can become competent, even expert, in any chosen endeavor.”
At the time he showed his early efforts to Anders Hellberg, Stieg Larsson was just beginning his career as a journalist. Novels and journalism certainly don’t rely on the exact same skill set, but still … how many hours of committed practice just writing did Larsson put in during those 20+ years before he began his novels in 2002? My guess is that 10,000 would be low-balling it.
As well, his novels reflect the same social concerns about which he felt passionately in his day job: government and business corruption, abuse of power, justice, feminism. He knew the territory already.
No publishing conspiracies needed — it all came together in a formula that’s available to anyone. That can take you to astonishing places, lead you to create exquisite things, that will stoke the fires that forge accomplishments out of the raw ore of your potential. A simple but potent combination of elements…
Passion. Dedication. Hard work. Commitment to improve. And time, lots of time.
Plus one other vital thing: Belief in yourself.
“I will write a couple of books and become a millionaire,” a friend of Larsson’s says he once claimed was his idea of a retirement plan. This wasn’t something that his acquaintances seemed to have any faith in. But apparently Larsson’s faith never wavered.
He just misjudged how long he’d be around.
Again: Passion. Dedication. Hard work. Commitment to improve. Time. Faith.
And while you’re at it, choose your confidantes carefully.
Otherwise, someday some of them may say the goofiest things.
[Photo by armigeress]