Vanity Fair recently ran an article titled "It's Tartt -- but Is It Art?", an irritating headline for an only slightly less irritating piece raising a smattering of tenuously connected questions: "Is The Goldfinch a book that is resonating with critics and readers alike?" (Yes.) "Is The Goldfinch a problematic novel?" (Yes.) "Is The Goldfinch worthy of critical acclaim even though James Wood and Lorin Stein didn't like it?" (Yes.) "Should those who only read one or two literary books a year read The Goldfinch?" (If they want to.) "But if they don't like it, won't that lead them to believe that literature is bad?" (Probably not.) "Who determines what is 'literature'?" (Many different people.)
Now that that's been settled, I'll focus more closely on why Donna Tartt's 800-page Pulitzer winner deserves the positive reviews and recognition it has garnered. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani liked it, calling it "Dickensian," but a handful of other taste makers, namely James Wood of The New Yorker, Lorin Stein of The Paris Review and author Francine Prose have called the writing shoddy, citing Tartt's use of clichés as the main offender. Further critiques call the book a failed attempt at realism; although Tartt echoes the Great Victorian Writing Style, her characters feel like sketches, and her plot teeters on absurd.
I was initially baffled by these claims that the book is poorly crafted, and that Wood went so far as to call it "children's literature." I set out to write a list-style response -- a roundup of the most beautiful sentences in The Goldfinch -- but quickly realized that, on a sentence-level, Tartt's masterpiece does, in parts, seem juvenile. There are sloppy adverb inclusions (sentences beginning with an extraneous "Quite honestly..."), occasional clichés (though they aren't nearly as frequent as Francine Prose will have you believe), and very few sentences struck me as remarkable stand-alone constructions.
How did I not notice this the first time I read it? Although I was reading this book solely for pleasure, I can't not read with a critical eye, and I've been known to abandon anticipated books before the conclusion of the first chapter if they've made me cringe one too many times due to their distractingly bad writing. Which may help to explain why I found this book not only enjoyable, but objectively great -- bad writing is not bad because it's simple, it's bad because it takes you out of the story. And Tartt's light language does just the opposite: It reels you into the world she's created, and immerses you fully in her character's experiences. Because it's not especially complex, the barrier of entry into the world she's created is low. Readers can mosey into Theo's consciousness, and embody his hardships and feelings and lessons and extrapolated philosophies (which, by the way, are complex) for the length of the novel.
The argument against simplicity in literary writing goes something like this: If the language and sentence structure of a story lend themselves to breezy reading, readers aren't pausing to ponder. Readers must solely be interested in plot (see: pleasure, distraction) if they're able to tear through a novel. A truly artistic work consists of labyrinthine language (or at least simple language that is carefully arranged), and necessitates contemplation.
Of course, this applies to many literary books. But there are many classics to which it does not apply (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse Five, most books by Ray Bradbury...). These stories do not feature sentences that make us stop and say "wow." But they do feature scenes or pages that are so immersive and psychologically poignant that meaning seeps in before we even realize it.
Conversely, some stories that wow on a sentence-level can be mere pointillism; they attempt to convey human life accurately, bit by bit. It's debatable whether some of them come together to form a living, moving scene when you step back and view them full-on -- Michael Cunningham's and Richard Powers's novels are among those that sometimes fail at this. Tartt's book, on the other hand, has some sloppy and apparent brush strokes, but they're arranged so harmoniously that they breathe and move and create a picture that appears very real. Whether or not this is the type of art you prefer is a matter of taste. But it is, undoubtedly, art.
Another mark against The Goldfinch, according to Lorin Stein: "It coats everything in a cozy patina of ‘literary’ gentility." He's referring, I assume, to the unsettling dissonance between Tartt's realistic writing and the sometimes rather absurd plot points (explosions! Cities being consumed by deserts! Art theft!), a pairing that could lend the novel an air of stiltedness. But again, his criticism should be chalked up to a matter of taste rather than literary merit -- plenty of artists working today build contrived-looking worlds in which their world-building tools are on display. Wes Anderson has been lauded for his ability to do so. Similarly, Tartt creates fictional constructions that resemble fictional constructions. Her style, like Anderson's, could be interpreted as a certain kind of honesty.
The Vanity Fair article only highlights the voices of critics who lament the state of today's literary culture. It arrives at the conclusion that readers no longer care about language, when in actuality, they might just not care about the same type of language that critics do. Poetry is cited as an analogy; imagine if language weren't paramount in constructing artistic poems! But in a way, it already isn't. The most popular poets are those who shy away from artistic conventions, and make plays for pathos. The words of Bob Dylan or, say, Twitter poet Patricia Lockwood, resonate with most people not because most people don't understand art, but because they'd rather feel art than analyze it. And Tartt's art is art that can be felt.
What Wood and Stein and Prose seem to have forgotten to examine is why we create art at all. It's a big, vague question, but a consensual answer might go something like this: to take our own fractured experiences and weld them into something meaningful and evocative, so that we may better understand one another's fractured experiences. These three critics voice their worry that readers who only read one book a year will choose The Goldfinch because of its recent popularity, and said readers will feel let down by literature on the whole because of Tartt's craftsmanship, which they've decided is so-so. But if you only read one book this year, and you're prone to enjoying astute observations about people packaged in gripping, immersive scenes, I hope you pick The Goldfinch.
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