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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

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.