Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ Uncovered a Dirty Little Secret: Readers Don’t Listen to Critics

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I’ve talked before about how literary criticism is in a strange place in the 21st century, forced almost completely off of the printed pages it’s occupied in the past, relegated mostly to websites that have to come up with good clickbait headlines to get anybody to read about literature. The book review just hasn’t been able to compete with “22 Reasons You Should Read this Book”-type listicles. That doesn’t mean literary criticism will go away; like literature in general, it just needs to figure out a better way to get people to pay attention.

Case in point: this line from the recent Vanity Fair article, “It’s Tartt — But Is It Art?”:

[T]here are those who profess to be higher brows still than The New York Times—the secret rooms behind the first inner sanctum, consisting, in part, of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review, three institutions that are considered, at least among their readers, the last bastions of true discernment in a world where book sales are king and real book reviewing has all but vanished.

The piece, which takes a look at the disconnect between a few critics’ less-than-stellar reviews of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and the million-plus print and digital copies of the book that have been sold, not to mention the the Pulitzer Prize it picked up, is centered around a question that really doesn’t get answered: “What makes a work ‘literature,’ and who gets to decide?”

The simple answer would be that the reader gets to decide, that over a million people could be wrong about a novel’s quality, no matter what James Wood says (“Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” is what he said), because people like The Big Bang Theory and Kid Rock somehow still has a career, which is as much proof as anyone needs that the masses like cultural products that aren’t very good. Just because a certain number of people buy something, that doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. But let’s be honest — you might not like The Goldfinch, but it isn’t Nickelback, it isn’t a film starring Kevin James, and it isn’t “proof of the infantilization of our literary culture,” as Wood puts it.

But as the piece goes on, it becomes less about what’s good and bad or what counts as literature, as the piece’s author, Evgenia Peretz, turns her focus to another arbitrary concept that doesn’t actually exist: “the long war over membership in the pantheon of literary greatness,” that several “literary lions” like Norman Mailer and John Updike were the guardians of — before they died. Peretz then goes on to mention “authors who feel they’ve been unfairly ignored by critics” like Jennifer Weiner, and ultimately turns her ire to how Lena Dunham “discovered” Tartt because of the writer’s “cool persona” (Peretz’s words, not Dunham’s).

The ultimate takeaway is that no author is ever truly happy with where they’re at professionally, and that “the stalwarts” don’t get that Tartt “spent all this time writing a big enjoyable book and moved on,” because they don’t like The Goldfinch. As Lorin Stein of The Paris Review points out, “What worries me is that people who read only one or two books a year will plunk down their money for The Goldfinch, and read it, and tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children, and will quietly give up on the whole enterprise when, in fact, fiction — realistic fiction, old or new — is as alive and gripping as it’s ever been.”

While I ultimately agree with Stein on that point, I wonder about the people buying one or two books a year. Should the books they read next hinge on whether or not the purchase helps to prop up a power dynamic that places “literary lions” in a binary opposition against the rest of the book-buying world? Are things that dire? Does it really take one bad experience to turn them off to fiction forever? And shouldn’t it give us hope that people who are only buying one book a year might be picking up Donna Tartt instead of, say, Dan Brown?

I get that some critics don’t love The Goldfinch. Yet the fact that this one book’s popularity among readers can cause so much controversy exposes not just how little the public pays attention to what we perceive to be “highbrow” literary criticism, but also that American literature is in a really awkward place in which the reputation of a popular, Pulitzer-winning novel is at stake simply because a few critics at a handful of highbrow publications didn’t like it. If this conversation represents where we’re at, what we read, what we like, and who should help guide us toward new titles, then something is seriously amiss.