Is “The Goldfinch” a Masterpiece – or a Threat to Literature?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There’s something dangerous in the “The Goldfinch” — and not just the “high stakes” anxiety that pervades its story. Last year the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, along with a pile of rave reviews from numerous book reviewers (including Stephen King) — but it’s also provoked a high-stakes controversy. According to Vanity Fair, the producers of The Hunger Games are already making a movie (or possibly a TV series) based on the novel. But the magazine also points out that despite its glowing accolades, the book has also received “some of the severest pans in memory from the country’s most important critics and sparked a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself!”

For example, The New Yorker wasn’t just unimpressed with The Goldfinch; they argued “Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature.” The London Review of Books also complained that the novel was a children’s book for grown-ups, and The New York Review of Books harped on cliches which somehow slipped past the editors, as well as sections which were “bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase.” Their ultimately question? “Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?”

And The Paris Review was even more blunt, arguing that the novel “doesn’t undo any cliches—it deals in them.” There may have been a gentile literary “patina” coating the novel, but underneath it all was a shoddy work of fiction. So why all the acclaim? “Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap.”

Part of the excitement comes from the fact that author Donna Tartt only releases a new novel once each decade – and she already has a high reputation. I’ve often wondered if that subtly influence all reviewers — of movies, books, and even music. If an artist has created something great, and then they’ve released something else, there’s a buzz, an anticipation, a wave of excitement. It seems like there’s an unspoken pressure not to stop the fun — not to be that one killjoy who blurts out “It’s not as good as what came before…”

Vanity Fair had some sympathy for the editor of the highbrow Paris Review, “who struggles to keep strong literary voices alive and robust, [and] sees a book like The Goldfinch standing in the way.” They tracked down the critical editor to pin down what exactly was the danger of the book’s popularity, and got a very specific response. “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.”

But maybe the last word comes from Jay McInerney. The author of Bright Lights, Big City made his own splashy debut years ago, and 20 decades ago had recognized when the same thing was happening to Donna Tartt. The two authors became friends, and when Vanity Fair wrote their article Tartt was unavailable for comment — but McInerney wasn’t. And he insisted that his friend hadn’t even read any of the reviews — not the negative ones, and not the glowingly positive ones, either. So he’s absolutely certain how she’s reacting to this new controversy over her book’s popularity and the negative reviews it’s provoked.

He says she’s not “losing any sleep” over them.


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The Kindle vs. The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I just finished reading “The Goldfinch”. It’s a 771-page novel by Donna Tartt, spanning fourteen crucial years in the life of a teenaged boy, and its touches down in several different locations and events — all expertly described by author Donna Tartt. Last year it won the Pulitzer Prize, along with rave reviews from numerous book reviewers (including Stephen King). But I wondered if reading it on the Kindle changed my experience of the book…

It’s not just that it’s harder to flip forward to the beginning of the book. (Although I was stunned at how many keystrokes it took my older Kindle just to peek back at the first third of the book. It required five different actions — pressing Menu / selecting Go to… / hitting the Keyboard button / typing in ‘4210 Done’ / and then pressing ‘Location’ again… ) And it’s not just that I was missing that haunting illustration on the cover of the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius…

I’d been pushing myself to finish the ebook before a book club meeting on Sunday, so I was trying to read 3% of the book every night this week. “I’m 94% done,” I bragged to my girlfriend one night, and then the next night told her “Now I’m 97% done!” The percentages seemed meaningless — what exactly is 97% of a Pulitizer Prize-winning novel? But it also lured me into thinking there was more to the ebook than there actually was — since it actually ended suddenly at…98%.

It turns out that the last 2% of the Kindle ebook was reserved for a special section titled “Outstanding acclaim for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch“, listing all the publications that selected it as one of the best books of the year. (The New York Times, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Fresh Air…) The list goes on and on — the Sacramento Bee, the Seattle Times, the Kansas City Star — and eventually it also included Amazon.com (as well as Barnes and Noble). They’re listed right above the San Antonio Express-News and the Orlando Sentinel. And then there’s many, many pages filled with nothing but quotes from positive book reviews about the ebook I’d just finished reading…

Critics are already complaining about the “overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness” (which is how Vanity Fair summarized one critic’s response). But imagine my experience — waiting for the grand message that makes sense of the pile of plot and characters that filled the preceding 775 pages, only to discover that the book has ended prematurely, at the 98% mark. After weeks of reading and waiting for that thrilling literary pay-off…surprise! This novel has already ended…

So I’d like to suggest that Amazon use the last page of a story as the “100%” mark when displaying percentages in a Kindle ebook. Maybe it’s a technical challenge — these additional pages might be reported as 101% and 102% — but I think that’s preferable to the alternative. These final pages are really just advertising, and they’re much more important for people who are browsing a print copy in a bookstore.

And does anyone who’s finished reading a novel really want to then read excerpts from a review about it from The Sacramento Bee?

For a shortcut to the book’s page on Amazon, point your browser to this URL.