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The psychic cult of Stieg Larsson

Were Stieg Larsson to return from the grave, he'd need a sack of banknotes on his back in order to h

Arnold Bennett - a bestselling novelist in his day - was said to have carried a mint-condition £10 note in his wallet wherever he went. If he chanced to see someone reading one of his books in public, he was going to give this lucky individual (it was a considerable sum in the 1900s) the tenner. Needless to say, the money was still in his possession when he died.

I'm not certain what this apocryphal anecdote says about the nature of bestsellers, time, literacy and so forth, but what I do know is that, were the Swedish thriller writer Stieg Larsson to return from the grave and wander through modern Britain, he'd need a sack of banknotes on his back in order to honour all his readers. To date, the three books of Larsson's Millennium trilogy have sold three million copies in the UK. Assuming an RPC (readers per copy) of 1.5, it means one in ten of the literate population has read at least one of these books.

Mushy Swede

I find this deranging - just as I find the mass consumption of assorted John Grisham legal thrillers, Harry Potter junior wizardry and Twilight teen vampirics equally bizarre. No doubt all books that become bestsellers have intrinsic qualities that make them attractive, but it seems to me that, beyond a certain point when the sales become exponential, other more irrational factors come into play.

In part, bestsellers must partake of the general hysteria of any craze, from the Rubik's Cube to Sudoku and back again. With books, however, the underlying dynamic seems to me much crazier. Books are involving - even the worst of them - and they call upon the reader to project herself imaginatively into other psyches and situations. Books take a long time to read: a Larsson, weighing in at over 500 pages, is a good ten hours plus for the average reader. It's one thing to engage in a craze for something akin to masturbation - repetitive, staple sensuality - and quite another to give your entire conscious mind over to a lot of tedious Swedes cutting each other to pieces.

To be fair, I've only read half of the first Millennium thriller and everyone tells me that they get better. Even so, I was shocked by quite how greyish and pulpy the prose was, with nary an involving metaphor nor even an amusing juxtaposition of two words. Instead, clichéd description is followed by actual cliché, and always there is a devilish amount of detail about clothes, about office routines, about laptops - about Swedish social services ferchrissakes. This could be because of the translation, but I doubt it.

Mind games

Even so, snob that I am, as I chomped my way through Larsson's cardboard prose, it began to seem curiously flavoursome. This was probably because of what it lacks. Don't get me wrong: I'm no fan of literary fiction that lays down egregious simile after precious metaphor like speed bumps on a suburban street. "Slow Down," it proclaims, "and Admire My Style!" Bestseller prose has the virtue of being solid paper engineering - not this fancy découpage.

But more importantly, I was aware of a commonality of felt experience. I was a Larsson reader in a way that I could never be a Jamesian or a Conradian; moreover, as the plot ratcheted me forward with the inexorability of a funicular grinding up a Stockholm hillside, it occurred to me that the readability of bestsellers may have an occult origin; by which I mean not some hocus-pocus, but a mysterious attribute of the collective human mind. A decade or so ago, quite serious research was published on the concept of "morphic resonance", which appeared to demonstrate that texts are more easily absorbed if they have been learned by other people; that if 2,000 Japanese schoolchildren memorise "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock", then 2,000 Hungarian kids will commit this poem to memory with greater facility than, say, Sweeney Agonistes.

Morphic resonance would certainly account for what it feels like to read bestsellers. When I read The Da Vinci Code (worldwide sales in excess of 80 million), it seemed as if my eyes were being dragged forcibly along the lines of text, such was the speed with which my mind sucked in the - admittedly facile - meaning of Dan Brown's prose.

In the last analysis, the truth of the matter - and this is something which Bennett understood only too well - is that nothing succeeds like success. How mad is that?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.