Do Critics Really Matter?

Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch has sold over a million copies and won a Pulitzer, but it’s failed to win over many high-minded critics. (James Wood, for example: “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”) Evgenia Peretz considers the chasm between grimacing critics and the readers who made the book a bestseller:

[W]e might ask the snobs, What’s the big deal? Can’t we all just agree that it’s great she spent all this time writing a big enjoyable book and move on? No, we cannot, say the stalwarts. Francine Prose, who took on the high-school canon—Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury—in a controversial Harper’s essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” argued that holding up weak books as examples of excellence promotes mediocrity and turns young readers off forever. With The Goldfinch she felt duty-bound in the same way. “Everyone was saying this is such a great book and the language was so amazing. I felt I had to make quite a case against it,” she says. It gave her some satisfaction, she reports, that after her Goldfinch review came out she received one e-mail telling her that the book was a masterpiece and she had missed the point, and about 200 from readers thanking her for telling them that they were not alone.

Similarly, [Paris Review editor Loris] Stein, who struggles to keep strong literary voices alive and robust, sees a book like The Goldfinch standing in the way.

“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.”

Jason Diamond expands on Stein’s remarks:

While I ultimately agree with Stein on that point, I wonder about the people buying one or two books a year. Should the books they read next hinge on whether or not the purchase helps to prop up a power dynamic that places “literary lions” in a binary opposition against the rest of the book-buying world? Are things that dire? Does it really take one bad experience to turn them off to fiction forever? And shouldn’t it give us hope that people who are only buying one book a year might be picking up Donna Tartt instead of, say, Dan Brown?

I get that some critics don’t love The Goldfinch. Yet the fact that this one book’s popularity among readers can cause so much controversy exposes not just how little the public pays attention to what we perceive to be “highbrow” literary criticism, but also that American literature is in a really awkward place in which the reputation of a popular, Pulitzer-winning novel is at stake simply because a few critics at a handful of highbrow publications didn’t like it. If this conversation represents where we’re at, what we read, what we like, and who should help guide us toward new titles, then something is seriously amiss.