Last month, Evgenia Peretz wrote an excellent meditation in Vanity Fair magazine on the meaning of literature
through the lens of the disagreement among various literary critics over Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch."
Count me in with James Wood and Francine Prose about the specific criticisms of Tartt's book. However, it is ridiculous for any of the literary critics (I am speaking more of Wood here than Prose) to say Tartt's book is not "literature." Of course "The Goldfinch" is literature. Whether a novel contains cliche-filled writing or has absurd premises and plot twists is only to say it is weak literature. And really, if it is not literature, what is it now? A chair?
I admit I had not read Peretz before. I did a Yahoo! search and learned she is a screenwriter married to a director, David Schisgall, and that her brother Jesse directed a film she wrote that starred Paul Rudd several years ago. She is the daughter of Martin Peretz, the Likud-drenched former publisher of the (Even the Liberal...) New Republic. Regardless of her pedigree, she is a marvelous writer and has written a truly incisive piece that helps us understand the process by which novels are evaluated.
Below is a particularly outstanding paragraph where Peretz spoke with one of Tartt's defenders, Lev Grossman, a contemporary and renowned literary critic equal to Wood and Prose:
To Grossman, this slavish devotion to reality is retrograde, and perhaps reviewers like Wood should not be reviewing people like Tartt in the first place. “A critic like Wood—whom I admire probably as much or more than any other book reviewer working—doesn’t have the critical language you need to praise a book like The Goldfinch. The kinds of things that the book does particularly well don’t lend themselves to literary analysis.… Her language is careless in places, and there’s a fairy-tale quality to the book. There’s very little context in the book—it’s happening in some slightly simplified world. Which to me is fine. I find that intensely compelling in a novel. Every novel dispenses with something, and Tartt dispenses with that.” As for Francine Prose’s query “Doesn’t anyone care how a book is written anymore?”: Grossman admits that, with story now king for readers, the answer is no. Wood agrees that that’s the state of things, but finds it sad and preposterous. “This is something peculiar to fiction: imagine a literary world in which most people didn’t care how a poem was written!"
I loved that line from Grossman that every novel "dispenses with something..." That is true of not only literature but films and even non-fiction books. Grossman, through Peretz's article, helps us understand that at some point we are dealing with subjective taste, not something subject to a tone of pronouncement that borders on E=MC2. Still, it was fascinating to me that Grossman agrees with Wood's and Prose's specific criticisms of "The Goldfinch," which is a major admission that gives an objectively verified strength to Wood's and Prose's criticism. However, he is also saying he enjoyed the story and particularly the rhythm of the way in which the story was told. Now that is taste and he is correct to gently chastise Wood for not being a fan of science fiction, fantasy writing and likely romantic sorts of stories. Wood favors what could perhaps be called "realism" in novels, something fantasy, sci-fi and romance writers may sneer back and say Wood is merely a snob. It is also a matter of taste for someone to suggest that Sinclair Lewis did not write true literature and that he belongs to sociology departments, not literature departments--something implied if not stated in too many halls of the academy around our nation. See this JStor published article from Joel Fisher
for a defense of Lewis from such attacks. See also my view
of Lewis as our nation's Charles Dickens and perhaps the most important American writer of the 20th Century.*
My own criticism of Wood's and Prose's attack on Tartt is they are ahistorical in saying the praise heaped upon Tartt's book represents another low in the dumbing down of American culture. Tartt is, in fact, simply the newest entry in what nearly a century ago a few equally smart literary critics and novelists called "middlebrow"
culture. In the mid-20th Century, one could point to John O'Hara
as a prime example of a "middlebrow" writer, who, apart from his late 1930s novel, "Appointment in Samarra,"
wrote much that is easily and properly forgettable, though it was immensely popular and lionized at the time. It is not a new level of dumbing down to say Donna Tartt is the new John O'Hara. Her book and O'Hara's books are not dumb, as in the culture lampooned in "Idiocracy,"
for example. Her book remains largely well written and structured overall. Her book, however, simply does not meet my or James Woods' taste in literature, and, as he and Prose state, her book could have used an editor willing to confront an author for an overuse of cliches. (Prose gets special praise from me, though, because she wrote a brilliant essay
in Harpers' a few years ago where she voiced my exact criticism of high school literature choices and the way in which high school lit teachers often assign the worst Steinbeck and weak tea writers such as Maya Angelou).
Finally, I found interesting Peretz's suggestion that because James Wood is married to novelist Claire Messud, there may be some envy lurking underneath his horror at the reception to Donna Tartt's book. Peretz notes Messud's book, "The Woman Upstairs,"
released about five months before "The Goldfinch," received largely superlative reviews, but did not resonate with the mass of literate public readers to the same extent as Tartt's book. I had heard of Messud's book, and Peretz's article caused me to read a bit of it through the Amazon "Look Inside" mechanism. My take on Messud's book was that its prose was sharp and strong in the Salinger "tradition." I just don't know if it meets my taste in literature. For me, it appears too painful to endure--not because it was not of great quality, but because it was so real and raw in its emotive description. My taste tends toward realist narratives that are more sentimental than anything else, which sounds contradictory, but is not (Think Dickens, Hardy, Maugham, Howells and Lewis, as examples). I also like to read literature more in and about the past or future than the present, perhaps owing to the History-Political Science major in me, and the fact that I read late in the evening just before going to bed after long days as a trial lawyer--and the last thing I really want to read is something too contemporary. I did, however, wince at Messud using the F-bomb in the first page of her novel, which struck me as gratuitously placed (I say that as a somewhat "blue" speaker and Lenny Bruce fan, however, so count me in for some hypocrisy...). I admit I often want my literature to be more elegant than I am.
Again, however, Peretz's article is well worth the read. It is a bit about truly classic literary critic gossip, I know, but it also provides a great foundation to understand how to evaluate and ultimately enjoy reading novels.
* One writer-critic on Amazon of my book lambasted my alternative history novel as not "literature," which I found to be a dumb criticism. So perhaps I am sensitive on this subject. :-)
ADDENDUM: Tim Parks, a professor of literature in Milan, Italy, has written a tremendous and powerful blog essay
in the NY Review of Books. He uses "literary" fiction to describe good or "high-brow" fiction, and contrasts it to "genre" fiction. I wish we could find different words because genre fiction can be high-brow and literary fiction in this parlance can be poorly written or overwrought. Nonetheless, the point raised, which is that one does not necessarily "ascend" from "Twilight" and "Fifty Shades of Gray" to the works of Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maugham. And here is Auden's "The Guilty Vicarage" from 1948, which Parks refers to and was published in Harpers' Magazine. God bless Harpers' for having this available on the web.