An article in this month’s Vanity Fair has made some readers aware of what many have known for a while: The success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has stirred up controversy. While the book is a bestselling Pulitzer Prize winner and the recipient of a handful of glowing reviews from reputable critics, it has been dismissed by some as mediocre and undeserving of serious attention. Those who enjoyed The Goldfinch are angry at those who have excoriated it, and vice versa, and now no one is happy.
Those who read the Vanity Fair article and gathered that Michiko Kakutani and Stephen King (rightfully or wrongfully) identify the book as “good” and that James Wood, Francine Prose and Lorin Stein (again, rightfully or wrongfully) identify the book as “bad” have missed the point. What has happened is what happens whenever a book of a certain kind — in this case, a mega-novel that favors intricate plotting over grappling with great, crushing questions — is published: Some have chosen to identify its strengths, some to identify its weaknesses.
The Goldfinch is a very light book, tragic only in the most procedural ways and fairly disinterested in exploring any kind of alterity or ambiguity of human experience. No admissions should be made for its failure to develop international characters beyond their tendency to speak in inconsistently fashioned broken English. However, its story is a construction that no reader has the right to belittle. To manage such geometry across such a wide space is a brilliant feat.
Kakutani calls the book “Dickensian” because it is essentially a sentimental novel, populated by characters whose capacities for deep emotion are only broad enough to encompass suggestions of the traumas that their incredible experiences induce. In a novel like The Goldfinch, real psychological acuity can only be achieved occasionally because to support its vast and outlandish story with meticulous internal realism would require the kind of multi-volume epic that only a sickly fin de siecle Frenchman or an ostracized, confessional Norwegian would be crazy enough to attempt.
Wood’s admonition of “the infantilization of our literary culture” tells us more about his own fears and anxieties than it does about our collective failings. In his 2000 review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, in which he coined the term “hysterical realism” as a descriptor of the maximalist fiction of writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, Wood claimed that criticisms of this approach to fiction writing are posed “at the level of morality.” While Wood is always a discerning reader able to insightfully examine the mechanics of prose, his criticism bears the unfortunate burden of ideology. Wood is not satisfied when a book possesses certain merits; he finds its weaknesses and sounds alarms warning of their ability to negatively influence the public consciousness.
Francine Prose is a masterful reader whose criticism amounts to a veritable calculus of composition, and she writes prose like it’s her last name. However, she seems to look back on the Western tradition with rose-colored glasses. While Dickens is known for his linguistic skill, his own overwrought tomes are filled with as many effete utterances and “baffling turns of phrase” as is The Goldfinch. While critics should note that there are regrettable lapses in Tartt’s overall artfully constructed work, readers and critics alike should keep in mind that the monolithic masterpieces that the English-speaking world recognizes are far messier and far less cultivated than many of the more forgettable books published today.
I don’t disagree with Lorin Stein’s assertion that The Goldfinch “coats everything in a cozy patina of literary gentility”; I might even go so far as to argue that Stein is identifying an aspect of Tartt’s approach. The Goldfinch is in many ways a novel about performance within a social class, and in a way, the style of its writing is a kind of social performance. “Literary gentility” is the domain of the elite and the dead. For many writers, especially today, it takes a cozy patina thereof to pretend to belong to this domain. To call a book “crap” for this specific reason, however, is to commit an injustice similar to Wood’s: It is to insist that for a book to be good, it must be good in the right way.
Just like The Goldfinch is a certain kind of novel, Wood, for example, is a certain kind of critic. While he is capable of recognizing literary merit wherever it is to be found, he chooses instead to use his criticism to put forth his own beliefs about the purpose of fiction. His powers of observation are not limited; he limits himself by assuming certain tasks. Any writer must, at some point, assume and execute a certain project. Tartt has written a technically beautiful piece of fiction in an outmoded form; Wood has responded by taking a stance in favor of psychological realism.
So, why are we angry?
The Goldfinch is by turns entertaining, tedious, funny, offensive, deep, shallow, gorgeous, sloppy, hip, square — it’s a long book, full of wonders and bores. Wood is one of the greatest living literary critics and his arguments almost always infuriate by being out of touch or censorious. Accepting that neither fiction nor criticism can ever be palatable to all might make some people uncomfortable, but those people forget that reading and writing are both processes designed to instruct and to confuse. We don’t read or write because we want to be pleased. We read and write because we need to be changed.