Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stieg Larsson, Verisimilitude, and Billy's Pan Pizzas

I know that many of you are reading Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" series of novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The discussions about these books are endless. Some people are unhappy with the sex. Other people are happy about the sex, except for rape. Some say the characterization of this or that character is poor, or hollow. (That fits Bloomqvist. Maybe it's because Bloomqvist is Larsson?) Some say the police couldn't be that bumbling, or that Neidermann couldn't be that strong and Paulo Roberto wouldn't have shown up out of nowhere the way he did.

No matter how you feel about these or other issues, you probably enjoyed the books. They're great entertainment. I've yet to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, but I liked the first two--particularly the realistic nature of the family background,* the screwups in the system, and the human greed and manipulation that put Salander where she was--in the position of ward of the state over whom a warped individual had absolute power. (And didn't we enjoy Lisbeth Salander getting her own back?)

But--oh, the product name-dropping! Larsson waved brand names in front of the reader to the point where it disrupted the reading. IKEA, Macintosh, 7-Eleven stores, MSIE, Billy's Pan Pizza--products of all sorts are firmly branded, over and over. In the typical popular novel, a character fires up her unnamed laptop when she needs to do a little hacking. It might be singled out as a Mac if the author is enthusiastic about Macs, but just once. She might pick up frozen pizzas at the minimart, or occasionally at a King Kwik. A motorcycle might be distinguished as a Kawasaki, and a car as a Camry, to help give the reader a picture. But when every market is a 7-Eleven and every snack is a Billy's Pan Pizza, and so many brand names are overemphasized by repetition, it wears on the reader.

At least, it wore on me to the point where I went looking to see whether Billy's Pan Pizza--which Bloomqvist and Salander seemed to live on--was a made-up product. It is real. I posted an image of the packaged product above. The maker is Gunnar Dafgård AB, and they crank out 80,000 rectangular pizzas a day. And then I went back to reading the novel.

Was Larsson paid for these mentions? Unlikely. And it's unlikely that he was such a huge Apple 7-Eleven Billy's fan-boy that he couldn't pass up the opportunity to mention any of his favorites. (Er...is 7-Eleven really that ubiquitous in Sweden? I know there are more than 36,000 7-Elevens around the world, but here in the U.S. I trade at a number of mini-marts that aren't 7-Eleven. Has 7-Eleven totally trampled its competition in Sweden?)

I think it's more likely that Stieg Larson subscribed to the verisimilitude school of fiction writing, which maintains that if you use brand names, your stories will be more believable. But, going back to the 1940s and 1950s, there was a school that felt that using specific product names left one open to some sort of defamation risk, or constituted a kind of unfair endorsement--or free advertising. (There's a tradition in newspapers that frowns on that--more about it in another posting.) Hence, authors would write Yamahonda or Tartus rather than Yamaha or Taurus. Even far-future tales disguised brand names, as Robert A. Heinlein did in The Man Who Sold the Moon, with Moka-Coka instead of Coca-Cola, and 6+ rather than 7UP.

So, was Larsson of the opinion that naming names a better story makes? Or could it be that his journalism background imprinted him with the habit of identifying specific brands?

Did he overdo it, or is it just me? Obviously, it wasn't fatal to sales, but...

Eva Gabrielsson, if you read this, let me know.

* I have a family like that.
Copyright © Michael A. Banks, 2010

24 comments:

Kaz Augustin said...

Oh, it got to me too, especially with the list of IKEA furniture in the second book. On and on it went, only reminding me of a study that confirmed that the cheaper items at IKEA get Norwegian names, while the more expensive items get Swedish names. Somehow, I don't think that's what Larsson wanted me to think! :)

The computer references especially annoyed me, but that could be because I'm a Linux geek and get enough of Apple fanboi stuff as I catch up on high-tech news. To then have to confront it in a novel was...wearing. And who still uses Eudora, for Chrissakes?

So yes, the references tended to make me go off on tangents (many, many tangents) rather than stick to the novel, which should not have been the intention. I loved the novels (yep, finished the third one last night), but there was w-a-a-a-a-y too much product name-dropping for my liking.

Michael A. Banks said...

From a Deutsch Welle report on the film: "Sweden! The home of beautiful women, ABBA, and IKEA pre-fabricated furniture!"

Anonymous said...

It's the coffee that got to me, these people must have cast iron stomachs. I enjoyed the Mac references, made me want to try hacking.

How about the wrapping with sheets or towels? When just out of bed or the bath? There's a lot of that, too.

Having seen the first movie, I think Salander's "leathers" are way cool.

Anonymous said...

i certainly noticed it. That's how i ended up here, in my own search to determine if Billy's pan pizza was real.

Wouldn't say it bothered me tho. It was just a bit of a distraction because it was mentioned so often. Made you curious "why".

Also noticed the coffee, surprised they didn't bathe in the stuff

Anonymous said...

Ha! I laughed reading the comments about people wondering whether or not Billy's Pan Pizza was or was not a real product. I just looked it up for the same reason! Also, does anyone in Sweden ever eat fruit or vegetables? Seem like there's a lot of cheese, pickled herring, caviar, bread, and ham, and bacon being consumed ... any salads???

Anonymous said...

The Billys pan pizzas mentioned on page 375 finally brought me to the internet to look it up to see if it was real and found loads of others did the same, amazing. I heard that Apple sponsored the films, so did they also sponsor the English versions of the books? Which makes me wonder was Apple and Ibooks mentioned as much in the original Swedish books?

Anonymous said...

Having been to Stockholm many times, I can say that there are A LOT of 7-elevens. Almost on every corner.

Madame Karnak said...

Maybe you will see this comment and maybe you won't, but I could not resist. What Larsson achieved in his novels is amazing. The use of "branded" names and other artifacts of the very corporatist-fascist world that has been built around all of us since WWII actually EMBEDDED the reader firmly within the context. Being embedded was an important part of understanding Salandar and the other characters.

While Blomkvist kept operating as freely as the system permitted and used most of his "slackened" lease to tear evil out of the immense bureaucracy in which he found himself, Salandar had to be content to slink around in the margins.

It was a masterful portrait of a world overcontrolled by the corporations supposedly subordinate to the government and humanity.

Every aspect of these novels was considered. Given that Larsson was one of the few experts on the Neo-Nazi movement and that his expertise caused him to receive death threats regularly, he learned to write with a great deal of subtext.

Using branded names was purposeful. If the people who made the movie did not get these points, it is extremely sad. They need to watch Idiocracy which is fascist thinking taking to an extreme.

MarkJan said...

Last month my wife and kids spent 3 weeks in Katrineholm, Sweden visiting papa and moma (grandpa & grandma). My neighbor suggested I read the "Girl with the Dragon Tatto". I read it to somehow associate with Sweden before my visit. In case you have never been to Sweden they have familiar francises such as 7-elevens, Shell gas, McDonalds and of course IKEA's. Think of Sweden like Minnesota, lot's of lakes, thousands of red farm houses with white trim (no need for architects between Stockholm and Gothenburg). I am currently reading the second book now and for some strange reason this morning I needed to google BILLY PAN PIZZA. Product placement brought me to this blog. Oh the power.

Anonymous said...

I noticed all the Billy's Pan Pizza, Ikea, 7 Eleven references but it was the value of the kroner VS the dollar and the Swedish politics and history that kept sending me to the internet. Oh, and the fact that the English translation is British, not American that catches you off guard. Hint, a caravan in the garder is an RV in the yard.
Cecily

Anonymous said...

Oops, that would be garden.
Cecily

Anonymous said...

Just finishing book 3. Actually, when I was in Stockholm
In the beginning of the year I didn't wonder about all
The 7elevens but now I do.

Also wondering about ALL THE COFFEE (!!!) and the large numbers of bread they are consuming. Thanks to Larsson I think of the books now everytime I go to IKEA or have coffee. Loved the books though and just ordered the films.

Anonymous said...

Spot on! Brand names, coffee (more often than not with sandwiches), mentioning every single god damn name of every god damn town in Sweden (unless you live there it's way too difficult to remember them all because they're way too long), adding too many similar names (blomkvist/blomberg, everyone in the Vanger family was either gottfried or birger and then there was Erika Berger, just too hard to distinguish), and going into far too much detail with shopping (eggs, bread, cheese, milk, etc you get the point. They are good books and I'm almost finished the second but they are annoying amateurishly written at times.

Anonymous said...

And why did he mention all the specs of every single fucking computer in the story, 43cm screen, 200GB hard drive and 1000MB of RAM? what the fuck does that have to do with the story?

Anonymous said...

As someone who was using a Mac at the time the books are set, I was amused and a bit exasperated by how Stieg Larsson seemed to have copied the specs off Apple's website but got some of it wrong, like giving laptops amounts of RAM that no laptop with only two RAM slots could really have. It was in character for Salander to care about all those details, I suppose.

It's also amusing how all his favourite characters use Macs and the rest use Windows. I wonder what he used!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else get confused when Larsson switches from using a charters first name then last name?

Anonymous said...

OH MY GOD i also ended up here trying to figure out what billys pan pizza was LOL

Anonymous said...

I don't know what is the matter with you people. Yes, Sweden does have a lot of 7-11's just like we do in Canada; one on every block. People buy a heck of a lot of furniture in IKEA and Swedes are famous for being huge coffee drinkers. Now, if it were an American novel we could translate that to drinking a lot of Coke from barrel sized containers, eating enormous restaurant meals at Chili's (American meals are way bigger than in most countries) and shopping at Crate and Barrel. He's describing life in Sweden for the average person. Is there a problem with that?

Anonymous said...

For me, it was all about the sandwiches. And how many pickles can one tiny girl eat?

Kavita Chate - Raut said...

Yes, I agree that the author has highly overdone the brand hammering into the readers mind. We do not care what they eat... let alone the name of the product vendor!!!!
I initally thought that it was just in the first novel and now I am reading 'The girl who played with Fire' and it is the same again!

Anonymous said...

Got here like everyone else, looking for Billy's. Noticed not only the sandwich consumption in the novels, but the type - marmalade and cheese? Maybe I'm an uncultured Ugly American, but yuck!

Amy said...

The books are a two-genre mix - journalistic (over)detailing and screenplay, all cues and directions in place (and just yelling 'BUY THE RIGHTS TO THIS NOW!!'. All the product naming creates a sense of place, even if that place is the singular conception of a chain-smoking, junk-food scarfing journalist with a bleak view of the Swedish welfare state. (PS: before anyone thinks of this comment as a troll-piece, I want to say that I love the books and Salander is a goddess)

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