Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and James Wood’s New Yorker Review: The Folly of Pugilistic Literary Criticism

After encountering James Wood’s negative review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in The New Yorker (October 21, 2013), I almost took the novel off my to-read list. Thank the gods I didn’t. 

Before I elaborate, one caveat. So far I’ve tried to keep the focus of this blog tightly on craft analysis, because I believe that’s the critical reading practice that is most useful for a writer of fiction. I do occasionally review books on Goodreads, but, as this post will indicate, in general I think it’s bad karma for novelists to trash the work of other novelists. I found it particularly frustrating to reread Wood’s review, and in the interest of fairness and of promoting the wellbeing of fiction writers generally, I think it deserves a public response.

In Wood’s own words:
““The Goldfinch” (Little, Brown), is a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys. Its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature.”
There is so much amiss with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. First of all, what’s wrong with children’s literature? Secondly, this story of death and grief and drug abuse and the solace of beautiful objects in the face of the existential vacuum is not “a virtual baby” – it's a sincere and highly affecting novel for an adult audience, one of the most enjoyable I’ve read in the last few years. It’s the kind of novel you don’t want to put down; the kind of novel you’re sad to finish; the kind of novel that stays with you.  If “clutches and releases fantastical toys” is Wood’s way of pointing out that The Goldfinch has an incident-filled plot, then I suppose he’s right. But why, exactly, is that a problem? 

Later, Wood writes that in Tartt’s novel, “The point is not the disclosure of a meaningful reality but the management of a continuous artifice . . . ” 

I wonder what this critic thinks fiction is, exactly – even in quieter, more “realistic” novels – if not “the management of a continuous artifice”?  

Wood goes on to accuse Tartt of melodramatic plotting, of “wildly uneven sequences” and “overwriting and excitable flailing.” He gives faint praise to Tartt’s skills “in the field of magical misdirection,” by which he appears to mean her ability to grab the reader’s attention and not relinquish it until the end of the story – a most rare and admirable novelistic skill in my view, but one which Wood airily dismisses as “practiced evasion,” and “the prestidigitator’s ace of spades.” Such criticism is easy to dole out, but I wonder, is Wood himself even remotely capable of making that kind of magic happen?

I think it’s only fair that a critic should keep the focus on the book he finds in front of him, not on some counter-factual chimera of a book he would like to read. And yet, regrettably, the latter is exactly what Wood does:
“. . . I kept trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’etre and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction entitled, perhaps, not “The Goldfinch” but just “Theo Decker.””
Well, Mr. Wood, that sounds like a familiar novel. If you’re fond of rigor and lack of sweetness, you have many shelves of contemporary fiction to choose from. In the meantime, I assume Donna Tartt isn’t losing sleep over the lost possibilities. This reader certainly isn’t. 

Wood points out that Tartt’s dialog occasionally slips into a weirdly Anglophilic diction, and there is a loss of momentum about three quarters of the way into the book as Tartt sets up her riveting final sequence. Sure, The Goldfinch has plenty of flaws, some of them annoying. But part of the reason The Goldfinch is unusually enjoyable is because it’s unusually ambitious. It tells a big, dark story in a way that is irresistibly page-turning, and by the end of the novel the reader is not only entertained, but enriched:
“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
So if you haven’t read The Goldfinch, please don’t let James Wood’s takedown discourage you, as I almost did. And to Wood himself, I would direct this little piece of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”