The backlash against Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch - snobbery or necessity?
The intellectual backlash against Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel makes Douglas Perry ask: who decides literary greatness?
Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, published late in 2013, was the novel everyone wanted to talk about last year. It sold more than a million copies - and more are selling as you read this - and won the Pulitzer Prize.
And it's trash.
So said critics at some of the most important literary journals in the US: The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, The New Yorker.
The story of teenaged Theo Decker - who survives a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while losing his mother in the attack, and walks off with the real-life 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch - is a sprawling, Dickensian novel, with larger-than-life characters, dark deeds, surprising twists … and, in the end, an emotional kick to the gut. Stephen King called it "a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind". Readers around the world agreed.
And so perhaps the backlash was inevitable. Snooty critics are supposed to dump on popular entertainment. But there seemed to be something more at play here, something deeper. The novel, Tartt's third, soared through the winter and spring on a frenzy of love, not just dominating bestseller lists but also award shortlists. When it won the prestigious Pulitzer in April, some literary observers simply could not sit back and observe any longer. It was as if the Nobel Committee had declared The Bridges of Madison County the greatest novel of all time. There had to be a response.
Over the summer, Vanity Fair magazine set out to discover why the backlash against The Goldfinch was so forceful and sustained. "No novel gets uniformly enthusiastic reviews, but the polarised responses to The Goldfinch lead to the long-debated questions: what makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?" the magazine asked in its July issue.
Who gets to decide - that, of course, is the crux of it. Time was, a handful of critics decided. Now the great unwashed do so. Mainstream publishers these days send advance copies not just to established professional critics but to amateur book bloggers and Goodreads members. The market is deciding more than it ever has before. Those in the crumbling citadels worry about their influence - and about the ever-accelerating dumbing-down of our tastes, the chipping away at our standards.
"Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap," Paris Review editor Lorin Stein told Vanity Fair.
Perhaps Aaron Sorkin - through actor Judd Hirsch - said it best in the premiere episode of his failed 2006 series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: "There's always been a struggle between art and commerce, and now I'm telling you, art is getting its ass kicked, and it's making us mean, and it's making us bitchy. It's making us cheap punks - that's not who we are! People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump?"
The let-the-masses-decide ethos of the internet era is indeed making the sophisticates bitchy. Vanity Fair, in its excellent essay, veers away from The Goldfinch to tackle the question of who actually determines what serious literature is. At one point it goes off on a hilarious tangent about how literary lions responded to Tom Wolfe's hugely hyped second novel, 1998's A Man in Full, with the late Norman Mailer insisting that reading it was like having sex with a 300-pound woman: "Once she gets on top it's all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated."
But let's stick to The Goldfinch: will it be remembered - should it be remembered - as 2014's book of the year?
The chief complaint about the novel is that it represents itself as serious fiction, but really it merely mimics serious fiction. It's a big book with a lot going on in it, but its influence is not Dickens, not really, but movies. It is not about ideas or capturing the zeitgeist, and some of the most important characters are little more than caricatures.
The Goldfinch is about story. It's almost entirely about story. How will Theo get out of the latest untenable situation he's gotten himself into, and how will he grow up to become, to steal Wolfe's title, a man in full? As screenwriter William Goldman puts it in Adventures in the Screen Trade, his classic book about Hollywood: "There is no time in a screenplay where we can lose them. Because movies keep going, going, going - it's not like a novel where you can go back and reread a section or a paragraph."
That's a strange thing to say about a 700-plus-page novel, but it describes The Goldfinch succinctly. Admit it: you didn't sip your tea, re-cross your legs and luxuriate over the prose. You kept going, going, going, as if someone were about to snatch the book from your hands, which someone probably was - your spouse or your best friend or your office mate, whoever had claimed dibs on it when you were done.
The relentlessness of the plot was something the poobahs of literary criticism could latch onto. "Its tone, language, and story belong in children's literature," wrote The New Yorker critic James Wood.
Wood expanded on his opinion for Vanity Fair: "Tartt's novel is not a serious one - it tells a fantastical, even ridiculous tale, based on absurd and improbable premises."
Plus, it's full of clichés and other crimes of the everyday, mediocre writer. Francine Prose offered in The New York Review of Books: "Reading The Goldfinch, I found myself wondering, 'Doesn't anyone care how something is written anymore?'" Prose was accused of being unnecessarily nasty in her review, but she later insisted she had no choice but to put the knife in deep. Our literary standards were at stake. "Everyone was saying this is such a great book and the language was so amazing. I felt I had to make quite a case against it," she said.
Many other critics pointed out the same flaws that Prose, Wood and Stein noted - but they loved the book anyway.
NPR's Maureen Corrigan said the plot was "jumbo" and "coincidence-laced". Here's how she finished the paragraph: " The Goldfinch far exceeds the expectations of those of us who've been waiting on Tartt to do something extraordinary again, ever since her debut novel, The Secret History, came out in 1992. Hell, I feel like I've been waiting for a novel like this to appear not only since I read The Secret History, but also since I first read David Copperfield."
And these criticisms of the novel - "fantastical", "cliché-ridden", "coincidence-laced" - didn't rise up only after The Goldfinch jumped to the top of the bestseller lists. The book-industry magazine Kirkus Reviews, which publishes reviews before books hit shelves, wrote that the "symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it's a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, (himself) killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works." Kirkus called it an exemplar of "the literature of disaster and redemption" - an unofficial genre that, by definition, is all about story.
Will The Goldfinch stand the test of time? Will people be reading it 100 years from now? Probably not. For one thing, technology continues to shrink our attention span, and it's hard to see that train being called back into the station. Will anyone be reading 700-page books in the next century? But even if The Goldfinch doesn't stand up there in the literary stratosphere with the best of Joyce and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, so what?
As Kirkus points out, it works. And for now, at least, that's enough.