Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch came out last October. It won a Pulitzer in April. So why are certain corners of the Internet upset about it today?
A new article from the July issue of Vanity Fair is making a book that may have seemed universally acclaimed seem less criticism-proof. The article starts by acknowledging that the book is a major sales and buzz success, with rave reviews from the New York Times and its Book Review, before launching right into pans from “higher brows” like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. The former compares the book to children’s literature and the editor of the latter accuses the New York Times Book Review of being “afraid to say when a popular book is crap.” (TIME’s own Lev Grossman is quoted in the story; he comes down on the pro-Goldfinch side, though he acknowledges that the world of the book is “slightly simplified.” Subscribers can read his review of the book here.)
The piece inspired a grabby headline from Page Six — “What the Literary World Hates About The Goldfinch” — and inspired those who didn’t like the book all along to have the courage to say so. “I had found the book ungainly, dull and shockingly unimaginative,” wrote Alexander Nazaryan for Newsweek. And Slate‘s Willa Paskin, apparently, agreed (at least until now):
Nothing like hearing own opinions about The Goldfinch parroted back as uptight smuggery to retire own opinions about The Goldfinch!
— Willa Paskin (@willapaskin) June 11, 2014
Which, of course, led those who liked it—including TIME staffer Jessica Roy—to speak up too:
There’s no way for us to know why Vanity Fair is revisiting The Goldfinch this month in particular, though the book does remain at the top of many readers’ to-discuss lists, but perhaps the timing is as good as any. In some ways, this conversation has been going on non-stop for years and won’t stop any time soon. Just ask Jennifer Weiner, the author and outspoken critic of book reviews that focus only on perceived high-brow literature:
Giant Vanity Fair piece on THE GOLDFINCH. Readers love it! High-lit critics hate it! You can guess which side I'm on. http://t.co/u3vJj1UeZ3
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) June 11, 2014
Weiner was interviewed by VF for the story, in which she’s quoted pointing out that the most perfect books aren’t always the ones that people decide to read, but she’s made that point many times before. The question is, in the end, whether The Goldfinch is “serious” enough — which is the same question that has surrounded lots of other books that have received lots of attention, no attention, big-name reviews, no reviews, high sales numbers and low ones. The Goldfinch has enough cred (awards! length! interesting author!) that it’s novel — no pun intended — to see it at the center of that debate. The debate itself, however, isn’t new at all.