The Goldfinch The Goldfinch discussion

How did the New Yorker's James Wood get this book so wrong?

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message 1: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed After encountering James Wood’s scathing 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. Upon finishing this well written and deeply affecting novel, I returned to Wood’s review and found it spiteful, gratuitous, and, most of all, dead wrong. Here's why:

What do you think?

Tobin Elliott My only real issue with this novel was the protracted message at the very end. But, considering how good the rest was--and this is far and away the best of Tartt's three novels--I can live with that ending. I just felt it was a touch heavy-handed.

message 3: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Thanks for your comments, Tobin and Gin. God, I would love to see that painting. Missed it at the Frick!

message 4: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Tobin, I agree with you. The protracted message at the end was just too much.

message 5: by Zoe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Zoe Wow, I hadn't read this review before and I'm very glad of that because it may have put me off reading a truly beautiful work of art. There were things about this novel that I didn't like (and they may have been some of the same things that annoyed Mr Woods) but I still think that this is a wonderful piece of literature. It's a real shame that someone in a position of influence can trash something of such high quality, yes the book has faults but they are definitely outweighed by it's gems.

Richard Wow I must have missed something with this book. I loved The Secret History and snatched up The Goldfinch the momement it came out. I read it enthusiastically but with a creeping feeling if malaise. The characters became more and more stereotypical and the plot felt like something Dickens would have abandoned as empty. A few passages were descriptively wonderful but so much of it felt flabby and unecessary

It was certainly my biggest reading disappointment of 2013 and my book club were all similarly underwhelmed (to which I felt guilty as it was me who championed the book as "our next great read")

Aisling Sandyboy wrote: "Wow I must have missed something with this book. I loved The Secret History and snatched up The Goldfinch the momement it came out. I read it enthusiastically but with a creeping feeling if malaise..."

I agree totally, I was so disappointed in this book - I actually found much of it turgid and tedious reading. I loved both her earlier books and was really looking forward to The Goldfinch.

Tobin Elliott That's interesting. I found it the exact opposite. I read both A Secret History and The Little Friend and was horribly disappointed with both. This is actually her first book that I enjoyed throughout.

Rosemary Heller I agree with you. I was totally disappointed in this novel.

message 10: by Jo (new) - rated it 1 star

Jo I agree with Wood. This was an indulgent, pretentious, bloated and unconvincing book. (Note how many adjectives I used there. A bit like Tartt does).

message 11: by Mo (last edited Jan 31, 2014 02:17PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mo Bremner I loved this book! I try not to take any work of fiction too seriously because it is just that...fiction.
I found it lagged a little but it still kept me fascinated and engaged the entire journey.

message 12: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Interesting. Maybe The Goldfinch is one of those books that people either love or hate. I enjoyed it, found it a bit flawed, but greatly admired its ambition and narrative drive. I do stand by my response to James Wood's review, though. (For those who haven't yet read it, if you click through this link to my piece there's a link to his in the first paragraph:

It's okay not to like a book, but if you're a critic I think you really ought to dislike it for what it IS, not what it's NOT. You know what I mean? It's like criticizing Hemingway for not being Faulkner, or Tolstoy for not being Virginia Woolf. It's intellectually dishonest and maddeningly irresponsible.

message 13: by Erik (new)

Erik Carlson It was NOT a scathing review.

message 14: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed No? Well it certainly wasn't a KIND review. Or a fair review, in my opinion. Here's Wood's opening sentence:

"Like the rest of us, Donna Tartt ages; but her fiction is going the other way. Her new novel, “The Goldfinch” (Little, Brown), is a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys."

Sounds pretty scathing to me, and it only gets worse.

message 15: by Erik (last edited Feb 03, 2014 06:22PM) (new)

Erik Carlson Reviewers who write kind reviews of books that let them down should not be reviewers. If you feel that Mr. Wood's disappointed review is scathing, rather than just critical and literary, you should familiarize yourself with reviews from prominent literary journals. To start: two famous scathing (and hilarious) reviews are Norman Mailer's of The Group and Alfred Chester's review of City Of Night.

message 16: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Thanks for pointing that out. To be fair, I'm not against literary criticism as a whole, even if it's tough. I'm against the type of critic who feels so "disappointed" or "let down" by what a book is NOT that he feels compelled to indict it based on his own arbitrarily imposed (and, in Mr. Wood's case, obviously deeply emotional) preferences, rather than doing the work of criticizing it on its own terms. So yes. this kind of criticism strikes me as intellectually lazy and ethically questionable.

message 17: by Jo (new) - rated it 1 star

Jo Tim wrote: "Thanks for pointing that out. To be fair, I'm not against literary criticism as a whole, even if it's tough. I'm against the type of critic who feels so "disappointed" or "let down" by what a book ..."

Thanks for making me think a bit harder about the work of reviewing, Tim. However I do stand by my initial assessment that this is a very flabby book. The initial set up- the catastrophe at the museum -took way too long to unfold, with too many digressions. The plot moved sluggishly, the conceit of the painting as a talisman fell apart at the end and the characters themselves did not ring true for me. Theo seemed feminine somehow, and Boris was just unbelievable. When an author goes to such pains to set a book in real place, and describes that place in laborious detail, then I think it's fair for the reader to have an expectation that the characters and the narrative are also plausible. And I got really, really tired of all the drug-taking, which like so many other aspects of the book seemed to serve no real purpose. The three elements which make a book satisfying to me (and they need not be present in equal measure): character, plot and ideas, were all lacking, and after 715 pages that's a disappointment.

message 18: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Well Jo, that's a great example of what I would call "fair" criticism. Well done.

Of course, I disagree with you on the overall merits of the book, which I enjoyed despite some of the flaws you point out (some of which I didn't see as flaws at all). So our entirely subjective opinions differ, but at least neither of us is using a major national platform to talk down an author, or professing to be "disappointed" because we weren't predisposed to liking the kind of book she has written in the first place.

Nasim Tim: I came across your blog as I searched for responses to James Wood's NYer review.

Phew - I thought I was the only one imagining the man green with envy.

On the plus side I added one word to my vocabulary -ekphrasis.


message 20: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Thanks Nasim. It's always encouraging to know that one is not alone in his aesthetic judgements!

message 21: by Linda (new)

Linda Harvey By the time this book ended, I was praying Theo would go ahead and overdose so this horrible, dragged out story of losers drinking and drugging endlessly would finally be over. The first 1/3 held promise and the story could have gone in so many better directions. I'm really sorry I wasted so much time on this book.

Richard Linda wrote: "By the time this book ended, I was praying Theo would go ahead and overdose so this horrible, dragged out story of losers drinking and drugging endlessly would finally be over. The first 1/3 held ..."

that's pretty much how i felt, but i chucked it shortly before Theo got married i think. The first third was enticing, but sadly nothing followed up on that promise

Longhare Content Hm. I got curious, went to the library, pulled up Wood's review and read it pretty carefully. I didn't find it scathing at all. In that quoted bit he says that Tartt "clutches and releases the most fantastical toys." He goes on to compare her tone and language to E. Nesbitt. Did you read the excerpt from The Story of the Treasure Seekers, which Wood describes as "marvellous"? Wood admires Tartt. That he is even reviewing this book for The New Yorker at all is in itself an acknowledgement of Tartt's stature. What he is saying is that The Goldfinch falls short of the achievement of her first two novels.

He gives a few examples to illustrate where he judges her writerly craftsmanship wasn't up to snuff. Hobie speaks like he has stepped out of a Hollywood movie about a quaint and creaky old English man. Tartt could have made Hobie English if she had really wanted him to sound like that. Or she could have made him talk like a New Yorker, or even like a native of wherever it was he originated (can't remember). That would have made him both more interesting and more believable. Like Wood, I also had a problem with the pool scene. This was an important scene--or should have been--but the language was so muddy. This is not to say that Tartt is a muddy writer. She isn't, and that is Wood's point. She is a talented and highly skilled writer who should have done better given the bar she set for herself in The Secret History.

When Wood imagines the book, without the painting and all the fuss and bother, as a book about Theo in Vegas, it seems that he is suggesting that she should have left out the plot and written something more Rothian. Not necessarily. He is pointing out that there is at the heart of the book a simple, compelling story and that Tartt comes into her own as a writer while she concentrates on that. The rest of it is just an avalanche of "toys" that buries the real story.

But let's face it, we read it for the fantastical toys. If you are willing to forgive all the stylistic shortcomings (and most readers are), Woods' criticism might seem pretty harsh. I certainly enjoyed all the arcane details and improbable twists of fate. Books can still make fun reading even if they aren't Great Literature.

Why not Great Literature? It's that darn rigor Woods was talking about. So much of this book was messy, underdeveloped, convenient, and unlikely--and then at the end, she takes all 800 pages and starts pounding the reader over the head with it. This is why Woods compares it with children's lit. Tartt, lets too much of the hard work go (an un-Hobie-like approach to her craft) and then incredibly, falls into the trap of wanting to explain to her readers what she meant--in case they needed help figuring it out. Ouch, Donna.

Am I being scathing now? Not at all. Overlooking the book's flaws isn't doing Tartt any favors. She's a grownup, professional writer, and she knows what to do with the kind of criticism The Goldfinch has received from James Wood and others. She will learn and get better.

message 25: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Fair enough. I'm not saying The Goldfinch is great literature, though I did enjoy it. And I still don't buy Wood's wholesale (and presumptuous) dismissal of children's literature. I found his criticism of the book compared to what it "could have been" particularly obnoxious and disingenuous. I mean, Jane Austen could have written a book in which Mr. Darcy was a round and fully developed character, but she did not. Hemingway could have written a social novel about Santiago's fishing village, but he did not.

If Wood didn't like The Goldfinch, that's fine, but he should have stuck to criticizing it on its merits. It's lazy to dismiss a book based on what it may have borrowed from a genre a critic happens to look down upon, and it's patently unfair to criticize an author for a book he or she "could have" written.

message 26: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed I would add that "flaws" do not disqualify novels from greatness. War and Peace and Moby-Dick are both terribly flawed novels, and yet they achieve a lasting value not shared by lesser books that have avoided the mistakes and miscalculations that sometimes result from great literary ambitions.

Longhare Content A man after my own heart! Those are my two favorite books, and I would say their very flaws are part of what elevate them above all those other lesser masterpieces. The flaws in Goldfinch, though, are mistakes. The "flaws" in those other works are something else that will have my wheels spinning through the sandwich run, car wash, and basketball game I have to go attend to right now.

Longhare Content Uck, I'm going to be late again. Story of my life. Wood did not dismiss children's lit as a genre--again, he praised Nesbitt!! He wasn't dissing Tartt for borrowing from children's lit on principle--he was asserting that in reaching to be Dickensian she got only as far as being Nesbittian. Not bad, but no cigar. Not a bad book, but not a great one.

message 29: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Glad we have some common ground to stand on. Don't agree that the flaws in the Goldfinch are "mistakes" though. One of my favorite things about fiction is that there are no rules. Seems like Tartt succeeds in about 50% of the cases in getting her story to "fly." It "flew" for me. I saw the flaws, but they didn't bother me, or were outweighed by Tartt's propulsive storytelling and the story's big heart. That's more than I can say for too much contemporary literature, which may succeed in following all the rules but doesn't take big enough risks.

Longhare Content It's not so much about rules, but about what makes the difference between a piece of writing that is okay and one that is wow. To me, a writer makes a mistake when she puts details in a place where they just function instead of in a place where they make the story glow and roar. That is one example. The Goldfinch had the potential to be a fabulous book--one that would have flown better, faster, higher even for readers less picky than me. You don't have to be sensitive to all the little mechanics to know that a book is really rocking. I don't think a writer of Tartt's caliber should have settled for good enough. It's like the diff between a Miata and a Ferrari. The Miata is lovely--I would take one any day, but a Ferrari is just more car for the racing buff.

Longhare Content I do, however, agree that too many books reach for craft and forget to include the story.

message 32: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed I think you're giving Wood more of the benefit of the doubt than he gave Tartt. He gave Nesbitt a bit of faint praise, yes. But when you call a book a "virtual baby" and then suggest stripping it of its "childish sweets" you are criticizing both it and children's literature in terms that are, to me, unmistakable.

Nasim Wood was belittling in his review. Personally I had less issue with his content than his tone. True - Hobie does sound rather too English even if he'd had an English Grandmother, let's say, tucked away somewhere in upstate New York. To me it just added a chuckle.

The Spectator review I posted here points out the flaws without being mean-spirited. IMHO

Will this novel stand the test of time? Who can tell? How many of the great writers thought their books would last?

I finished the book a week ago. I have had a week to digest it all and just exactly why I was so touched. Yes - I could dissect each character and see them for the stereotypes that they were - and indeed they were. I can question why Tartt opted not to expand on the character of Theo's mother or the Barbours. What a silly plot vehicle it was to leave the passports in the car - the unlikelihood. We could all do that. Analyze and discard. At the end of the day though the book appealed to me - children's literature or not. One could argue indeed that it is quite a bit harder to write for children than for adults. Afterall - they have a much shorter attention span.

message 34: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Nasim, my reactions were similar to yours. Sure there are holes and shortcomings, but it's still a good read. And I agree with you about Wood's tone. Found myself quite irked by it, which is why I wrote the post in the first place.

Longhare Content Wood isn't kind in his review; he's pretty sharp. I guess that doesn't bother me. If I were going to criticize the critic, I'd say either his full review was cut down to fit the space or he was trying to make a deadline. His extracts are long and his arguments are abbreviated, leaving his readers to focus on words like "childish" instead of this:

"...both scenes imply a kind of proscenium arch: the pleasure of theatrical discovery merges with the pleasure of the narrative, and the reader sees with the eyes of the enchanted narrator..."

He goes on to say that "Tartt has considerable talents in the field of magical misdirection....Her books can return you to several of the primal and innocent delights of childish reading." He is NOT saying that is a bad thing. It is a good thing, a Tartt specialty--which he makes a point by bringing in The Secret History. He qualifies the virtue of this talent, though, when he says that "misdirection is a practiced evasion [something the writer (or magician) does on purpose to distract the reader from the real point--like a card trick], and narrative secrets are tested by the value of their revelations."

Wood argues that when the reader chooses a card, he should pull Theo Decker, but instead Tartt botches the trick and the reader is stuck with a very nice Dutch painting.

This is a valid criticism, but like Mr. Barbour's madness, the reasoning behind it is belated and confused. Wood calls the legerdemain "absurd" but doesn't say why, so we are left to think that he means its silly in the sense of childish and childish in the sense of absurd. Now all that comparison with Nesbitt's "wonderful" story has only served to make it sound like he thought The Goldfinch was dumb. Then follows a summary in which we discover what Wood did find objectionable--"prolix scrawls of novelistic impatience" in a work in which artistic patience is the central motif: critical credibility problems that "merely enable a sentimental nexus...and a good deal of melodramatic plotting," "wildly uneven sentences," "patched anarchy," and so on. Wood cites the pool scene as a particularly egregious example of Tartt's "flailing" and then--what most of Wood's own critics find unforgivable--he suggests a radical plotectomy. This is so offensive that people miss that he concludes his review with a passage from The Goldfinch that he finds extraordinary.

You are taking Wood's suggestion too literally if you think he meant she should have left out the painting (and the plot), but I DO admit I'm having to make a leap when I argue this suggestion is his way of saying the novel would have been more successful if Tartt had treated Theo's narrative with the same care she gave to the passages devoted to the painting. Wood wanders off at the end instead of bringing his line of reasoning back to his main point--that the "revelation" (Theo, not the painting) should have been equal to the "narrative secrets" (the Nesbittian/Dickensian folderol).

So, yeah, I'm giving him credit for content over presentation. Whether this is his fault or his editor's is another thread.

Okay, Tim, here is where Moby Dick comes in. If Melville had had a well-trained but tone-deaf developmental editor he would have been told something like this:

"I keep imagining this without all the sermons and anatomy lessons... more as, say, the affecting story of an OCD whaling captain locked in a fatal battle against oh, God or fate or whatever, but something big and enigmatic, something embodied for him in a big white whale. Then smash! Seriously, Herm, your best writing is right there at the end. People have limited attention spans. Let's just cut out the other chapters and make it a short story."

Moby Dick transcends the "rules." Why isn't Tartt allowed the same license as Melville? Wrong question. There is no license. There are no rules. There is technique and artistry and some kind of mojo. Melville had a book in his head and he pulled it off and it is a high point of human achievement. Tartt wrote an intelligent and very enjoyable book--a mighty feat despite its faults--but it ain't Moby Dick.

message 36: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Well put. I very much agree with your assessment of Moby-Dick vs the Goldfinch, though I still think you're being too charitable regarding both the tone and the content of Mr. Wood's review.

Then again, I tend to share TR's opinion about the value of a critic vs that of a creative individual, like Tartt and Melville, who is willing to go out on a limb in the interest of creating something worthwhile:

“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 . . ."

It seems to me that it's all too easy for someone like Wood to make sweeping condemnations from on high without risking his career or his status as a literary mandarin. How many people, I wonder, read that review and decided not to give the book a chance?

Longhare Content Book reviews are a double edged sword, that's for sure. Word of mouth is the best advertisement, though, and for a lengthy book in the literary genre The Goldfinch has sold extremely well. Which only goes to show that storytelling and literary style can go hand in hand. I've seen way too many assertions lately that one (for some reason) precludes the other.

Robert Smith I don't really have much to add about Wood's review except that neither his or Longhare's not liking it as much I did doesn't diminish the memory of my enjoyment of The Goldfinch one iota.

I would however like to pull them up on whether Hobie should have been a bona-fide (posh sounding I expect is the subtext here) Englishman or a dese, dem and dose New Yorker. (message 30)


I lived, went to school and worked a good part of my first 40 years in and around New York City. I've been living in England for the last 20. I have no problem with the believability of Hobie's manner or speech. I know plenty of New Yorkers just like that and plenty of Brits not like that at all.

The book does have elements of a pastiche about it, picking out the references was one of things I enjoyed about it, so Hobie and the antique furniture shop seeming like something out of Dickens or the Barbours perhaps being a bit Edith Wharton/Henry James-ish strikes me as not a problem.

It is after all a work of fiction and Donna Tartt is but another fallible human being. Perhaps the adulation she engenders in her many fans now make her a candidate for a tallest poppy response from certain critics.

And as Longhare notes above, James Wood's slating doesn't seem to have affected sales too much.

Shaun Bossio Gin wrote: "Zoe wrote: "Wow, I hadn't read this review before and I'm very glad of that because it may have put me off reading a truly beautiful work of art. There were things about this novel that I didn't li..."

Agree completely. I know a LOT of people are in love with this book, but I am not seeing it.

Jeffery Lee Radatz Yes, book reviews are love them or hate them. I am sure there are many books AND movies that critics thought were terrible and they ended up being best picture or book of the year. So, I take all reviews like a grain of salt. I happened to love "The Goldfinch". That is all that matters, is yourself. Read it or don't read because you want to, not because someone else thought it was bad or good. I bought the book because it piqued my interest as being a good read. I was right!

Longhare Content Jeffery wrote: "I take all reviews like a grain of salt. ..."

Jeffery, you are a wise man. Let us compare James Wood to a guy who eats at a restaurant and posts a review on Yelp. If he says "This place was horrible. I didn't recognize half the items on the menu and the Kung Pao was so spicy I could hardly eat it," then I know I will probably want to eat there. I won't be put off if someone complains that their waiter was slow or a booth had torn upholstery. I want yummy food, and I don't care about the decor.

Take it all with a grain of salt. If you frown on snooty literary reviews, you probably shouldn't look to them for advice on what to read. Look to sources you trust, and even then consider that the things the reviewer didn't like may actually be the things that make it a great choice for you. I found Wood's review critical, but not damning. I pretty much agreed with Wood's criticism but still found the book enjoyable.

Here's the thing. If critics like Wood aren't allowed to pick a book apart and report on what they find, then all we have are What I Read on My Summer Vacation type reviews. Personally, I want my book reviewers to be erudite, to have read the book closely, and to be able to hold the book up to a bright light. Can you imagine Road and Track if the car reviewers were only allowed to say if they liked a car or not but couldn't base their opinions on anything technical? Granted, I think they are nasty creatures when they call my car stodgy, but I will defend their right to say it. Even if they are mean. And wrong.

message 42: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed I don't think anyone is arguing that we should take away the right of people like Wood to write whatever they want, Longhare!

But we do have the right to criticize the critic, especially when we think the criticism is wrong and unfair.

Longhare Content Agreed.

message 44: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed And here's a positive review of The Goldfinch for anyone who might be looking for a critical counterweight to Wood's:

Longhare Content Mmmm. This is an appreciative introduction to a work that has been nominated for an award. Not quite the same thing as a critical review. The Washington Post review that is linked to from this web page (below the end of the post), though, is meatier and thoroughly positive.

message 46: by Tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tim Weed Good point. Here's a direct link to the WaPo review if anyone wants it.

message 47: by Eliz (new)

Eliz I read the review after finishing the the novel. Seems he wanted her to have written another dull, flat, lifeless, boring book. But she didn't. She wrote this one!

Elizabeth All I know is that I absolutely loved the book and consider Boris one of my favorite characters out of all the books I've read during my lifetime (and there are quite a few). Either the author or the plot attract me to a book, almost never a reviewer's opinion.

Teresa Tobin wrote: "My only real issue with this novel was the protracted message at the very end. But, considering how good the rest was--and this is far and away the best of Tartt's three novels--I can live with tha..."

I totally agree, Tobin. Loved the book, but the ending was about 10 pages too long, and added nothing to this wonderful book.

Alice Tim wrote: "Well Jo, that's a great example of what I would call "fair" criticism. Well done.

Of course, I disagree with you on the overall merits of the book, which I enjoyed despite some of the flaws you p..."

One reader's flabby filler can be another reader's deep enrichment. "It's a bug!" "It's a feature!" It may be both.

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