When Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was published in September of 1992, it was one of the most anticipated debut novels in memory. The hype was relentless, the author had a mythological mystic and, along with Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Mark Lindquist, she was a part of a hip, young clique of writers who wrote about sex, drugs and disaffection.
The Secret History became a phenomenon upon its release, and even today it elicits the strongest of opinions from both admirers and detractors. Tartt’s debut achieved that incredibly rare feat of being christened an instant classic while selling out in bookstores worldwide. McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, summed up The Secret History best: “I loved it on many levels, not least because it’s a literary murder mystery, but also because it initiates the reader from the outset into a secret club, which is probably what every good novel should do.”
A cult developed around Tartt. (One not unlike the students in The Secret History and their enigmatic teacher.) Another book from the author didn’t appear for a decade and was eventually received with less than stellar reviews (2002’s The Little Friend), but the follow-up to The Secret History was always going to be a disappointment as nothing could top the furor or excitement that surrounded the debut. Fans of Tartt became devoted to her in a way that is incredibly uncommon for a living author, especially one that has released only three novels. She’s been the victim of the type of speculation that’s typically reserved for Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, rumors that became so wild that at one point she was said to have bought an island and become a recluse. Various jabs were taken at her mental health, and there was, of course, the obvious charge of writer’s block — but Tartt never stopped writing. She has a relentless work ethic, writing even her drafts in longhand, which obviously slows the process but further emphasizes Tartt as an enigma that’s as interesting as any of her characters.
With the release of The Goldfinch, Tartt has once again found herself at the center of the cultural discussion, perhaps the only writer capable of doing so in this age when cinema and television dominate. Whatever you think of Tartt’s latest, it is undeniably the “it” book of the moment. It’s taken 11 years to get here, but once it did, the novel flew off the shelves in a manner similar to The Secret History, becoming the subject of a plethora of reviews that created a feeling of pandemonium that’s becoming increasingly rare in the 21st century. Something like this can only be good for literature and its standing in mainstream culture.
Despite the frenzied reaction to The Goldfinch, which included a Pulitzer for Tartt, not everyone has been kind about the novel, particularly in some of the more prestigious publications, such as The New Yorker and The Paris Review. It has been derided as a children’s book, as clichéd and as overwritten and overlong, which is perhaps the fairest criticism as Tartt’s writing, but the venomous shots seem very much like a backlash to the novel’s general acclaim. Of course, the history of literature is littered with cases of masterpieces being dismissed upon their release — just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald how The Great Gatsby was received in 1925.
Writers like Tartt are vital to the continuation of literature as an art-form, especially as the marketplace is increasingly swashed with low-brow genre fiction devoid of any artistic merit. Tartt gives literature credibility in an age where more people know of E. L. James than Cormac McCarthy. She’s the miniature riddle that cannot be solved, who will keep us waiting another decade for her next offering as a new set of rumours make the rounds on Twitter, only intensifying the mystical aura around her. There is no such thing as the “Great American Novel” anymore because the days of literature at the center of society and culture are long gone, but The Goldfinch is the closest we’ve got in a very long time.