Poster from The Girl in the Spider's Web (Alvarez, 2018)

‘Men Who Hate Women’: The Continuing Misuse of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series and Why It Needs to End

There is something very wrong with how Stieg Larsson’s legacy has been handled by authors, publishers, and filmmakers. Reconsidering the Millennium Series.

What’s Wrong With Literary Appropriation?

It might be easy to say: what’s the big deal? Bestselling series of books get taken over all the time by different authors, to the extent one hardly knows who’s really writing them half the time. Either multiple authors use the same pen name, or original authors share authorial credit with new writers, or series become divorced from their original authors and free-floating franchises, open to multiple interpretations.

Indeed, as Yuri Leving and Frederick H. White point out in their 2013 study Marketing Literature and Posthumous Legacies (Lexington, 2013), “Literature is not only about aesthetics, but also almost equally about economics… the real work begins once the creative process ends.” Other scholars have observed that the history of copyright is intricately wound up in the notion that an author’s work ought to be treated like another person’s financial capital, and maintained in such a way as to sustain their family and descendants once they are gone. Leving and White also note that this process can, if properly handled, further enhance a writer’s reputation and legacy once they are gone.

What’s different and important about the Millennium series is that it signifies a literary appropriation that, while legal under objectionable Swedish marriage laws, has taken place against the full-scale opposition of the woman who ought, morally speaking, to be the one everyone turns to for consent. In their study, Leving and White take it as granted that the beneficiary of a literary legacy would most likely be a partner or offspring of the author; in the case of Larsson however, his partner is the one who has been expropriated (through admittedly legal means) of this right.

The case of the Millennium series is further obfuscated by the nature of Gabrielsson’s relationship with Larsson. Leving and White assume that once the transfer of symbolic capital (literary worth) into financial capital occurs, the beneficiaries are a widening circle of people “who were not involved in the actual creative process.” Yet many of Larsson’s friends and colleagues attest to the fact that Gabrielsson played a key role in Larsson’s creative process, aiding him in research and helping him work through his ideas. She was, as Holmberg points out, “not only in the general sense Stieg’s partner for more than thirty years, but much more importantly his partner in virtually everything. I have seldom met any couple so intensely and joyfully a constant part of each other’s lives… They compared notes, co-wrote things, discussed with each other… they shared all, worked and functioned as a team, and were inseparable for as long as Stieg lived… I do not have the slightest doubt that Stieg wrote the Millennium novels in exactly the same way he wrote most of his work: by himself, in an ongoing creative partnership with Eva.”

Ironically, even the debate over how to deal posthumously with an author’s work can be marketed for commercial gain, and the risk of fueling the debate is to generate further capital for whomever winds up the recipient of the estate’s revenue. In Leving and White’s study, the case of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished final novel, The Original of Laura, is examined. It was Nabokov’s wish that the unfinished novel be destroyed, yet following his death an intense debate erupted over whether the author’s wishes should be followed or whether the work was of value to society and this justified ignoring the author’s wishes. The debate was further fueled by Nabokov’s son’s indecision about whether, as the rights holder, to follow his father’s wishes. Whatever the moral assessment of this debate (the unfinished fragments were finally published in 2009, after 30 years of public controversy), the commercial output was a net positive: by generating further public interest in Nabokov it led to the reissuing of much of his earlier work and boosted, overall, his literary legacy. This phenomenon, and the debate which fuelled it, is what Leving and White refer to as the ‘discourse of absence’. There is certainly an element of this in the debate over the moral use of Larsson’s literary world.

In the past few years, the reconsideration of our society’s understanding of consent and appropriation have transformed our collective understanding of right and wrong in tremendous ways. Increasingly our society recognizes the importance of consent, as well as the problems inherent in forms of appropriation that may be legally permitted yet morally, ethically and socially abhorrent. Witness the controversies surrounding appropriation of cultural and other identities in literature, for instance – acts which are entirely legal (and have been historically common), yet today are considered morally questionable. Appropriation of an author’s literary estate, and the core identity of their oeuvre and characters, falls into an equally questionable category.

Svante Weyler, former publishing director of the books’ Swedish publisher Norstedts, acknowledged these complicated obligations in his reflection “The Stieg Larsson Phenomenon” (contained in On Stieg Larsson).

“What role did Norstedts have to play in all this?” he writes, referring to the controversy over who ought to control Larsson’s literary legacy. “Formally speaking, none at all… but from a moral point of view we were deeply involved. We tried to mediate regarding emotions and points of view between the two “sides” in the hope of achieving a more equitable outcome than that prescribed by the law, an aspiration clearly hoped for by all parties. I do not know if we could have done something differently at the time, or if it might be possible to do something different now.”

As Weyler observes, the third-party corporations might be able to avoid legal complicity, but their moral complicity and responsibility is deep and indisputable. It ought to make us ask – how can film companies like Columbia Pictures and publishers like Penguin Books (the North American publisher) get away with complicity in this exploitative misuse of Larsson’s work, made possible only by the misogynistic laws which allow them to appropriate his work despite his partner’s best efforts to protect it?

The treatment of the Millennium series by its publishers, film producers, and by David Lagercrantz (the author assigned by the publishers to continue the series) represents the worst abuse of these two principles: a bald effort to appropriate and profit from Larsson’s work without the consent of his partner, who has been sidelined due to an antiquated and sexist Swedish marriage law. What’s just as awful is that a series which Larsson wrote partially in an effort to expose and tackle the issue of societal misogyny and sexism has been appropriated by Lagercrantz and his publishers in such a manner for profit, and in a way that’s manipulated sexist laws against Larsson’s partner toward the benefit of the (mostly men) who now profit from Larsson’s work.