Does Jealousy Belong in Criticism?


I recently read an engaging article in Vanity Fair about the criticism (some say undue) of Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch. Her chief detractors include James Wood and Francine Prose, both thought highly of in the upper echelon of literary academia. Critic Wood, who has written such collections of critical essays as How Fiction Works and The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, has asserted of The Goldfinch in The New Yorker: “Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” and “…the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture…”. The London Review of Books also dubbed it a “Children’s book”. Novelist Prose, whose very name evokes the opposite of poetry, after reading the Pulitzer winner, mused, “…Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?”.

When I was a teenager, my tastes in music could be considered what I would freely confess as snobbish. I was an avid fan of Progressive artists like Yes, Genesis (w/ Peter Gabriel only), ELP, King Crimson and other more obscure art rock bands such as Gentle Giant, Renaissance, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Gong. I wouldn’t dare listen to artists or bands of inferior talent, and anything popular was verboten (I even hated the popular songs  of some of my favorites,  like Yes’ Roundabout). I scoffed at the ultra-hackneyed sounds of the Beatles and the Stones; the conformist Eagles and Paul Simon; and of course anything that remotely sounded like Disco. But for the most part my adolescent snobbery matured a bit through my twenties and beyond when I began to embrace much of the New Wave and Punk movement, and began collecting all the English releases of The Beatles on CD. I became more open to different sounds and accepting of mainstream music, although I still wouldn’t listen to obtuse dance pop of say a Madonna.

The author Donna Tartt
The author Donna Tartt

When it comes to modern literature I would expect at least the same level of maturity and objectivity (not acquiescence; see Madonna)  from our leading critics. When so many of the respected high end journals such as The Paris Review malign a serious piece of work like The Goldfinch to the extent they have, with an almost chiding tone; as if to blame it solely for the proliferation of simple-minded literature spoon feeding a regressively puerile society. This is not to say that many well respected critics did not give high praise for Tartt’s work. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times loved it as did Stephen King. But as Lorin Stein of The Paris Review professes, “Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap,”.

To me a lot of this disdain for The Goldfinch sounds like professional jealousy. Wood’s wife is the exemplary writer Claire Messud, who, although immensely talented, has not enjoyed the popularity or hype of a Donna Tartt. I don’t believe Francine Prose, whose latest novel Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 has been called “…a whopper of a tale from a writer who’s known for championing a sophisticated literary style over the more pedestrian pleasures of storytelling.” by NPR critic Maureen Corrigan, would kick the NY Times best seller list out of bed. These critics seem to have a desire to instruct the general public about what we should be consuming as a society. Taste cannot be imposed, it is something that is acquired over time. Maybe American’s have ‘dumbed down’ over the decades, but the popularity of Donna Tartt is not an indication of or a reason for this sad fact.

Can you tell by now I have an affinity for Ms.Tartt? While it’s true that I have enjoyed her work, still I do agree with some of the more clear-headed criticism of it. Not to take away from the central theme of the book, but one example would be the heavy-handedness in the final passages of The Goldfinch cited by more than one reviewer. She relentlessly clubs her readers over the head with her message: “Art is Timeless”. A literary review, almost by definition is subjective; one person’s opinion. Criticism, however should be more objective; an analysis based on commonly accepted and agreed upon standards of quality. It should also be tolerant of new modes of expression including antiquated methods relative to the context of the work (of course this is only my subjective opinion, that’s why I have a blog). Reviews like those mentioned above by James Wood and Francine Prose do nothing to advance the literary cause, rather they make the literati seem petty; and just as childish as they brand The Goldfinch.

~ © 2014 by Michael Jones

Does Jealousy Belong in Criticism?

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