No writer can work in a vacuum and, no matter how good you are, there comes a time when it’s necessary to open the door to your musty garret and get a little air in the room. Some of us do this in workshop; some hand off our manuscripts to a trusted reader and wait (cringing) for their comments; others polish and polish and polish and then ship it right to their editor, who then sets about carefully dismantling it. In all cases, the piece is usually better for it. Writing is a solitary occupation, but it’s also an inherently social act, and it’s impossible for any writer to know whether she’s successfully reached her audience without actually pilot testing her work in the real world. There is, however, a time when it’s utterly inappropriate to offer an author “notes”–when, in fact, doing so is as insulting as it is futile: after publication. Which is why I was taken off guard by the paternalistic conclusion of James Wood’s review of Donna Tartt’s new book in this week’s New Yorker.
Woods, who clearly wanted very much to like Tartt’s newest, The Goldfinch, spills a lot of ink damning the book with faint praise. “To be fair,” he writes, “Tartt has considerable talents in the field of magical misdirection. Few readers who started ‘”The Secret History”‘ did not feel the need to finish it. Her books can return you to several of the primal and innocent delights of childish reading. But misdirection is practiced evasion, and narrative secrets are tested by the value of their revelations.” The implication here, of course, is that the particular narrative misdirections employed in The Goldfinch are not quite elegant enough to pass muster with him. Fair enough. Wood is only fulfilling his mission as a critic here (albeit with characteristic pompousness). Where I take issue with the review is at the end when he completely jumps the “critical” shark and, and adopts the role of “gentle guide” instead. He writes:
“. . . I kept on 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.” A novel with no stolen painting, no inexplicable theft and unlikely explosion, no shoot-outs, no sudden death and fatal abandonments, and fewer Dickensian or Nesbittian shops. Instead, there might have been the affecting story of, say, a thirteen-year-old-boy, the victim of divorce, sent West from New York to the alien aridity [sic] of Las Vegas, forced to live with his unsuitable father. It was hard to imagine as the pages went by, but not impossible, because Las Vegas provokes the best sustained writing in this novel. When Theo’s father watches football on television, and the afternoon light begins to thin, and Tartt tenderly and evocatively paints this slight desolation of Sunday afternoons in the desert, does she have any idea of the very different writer she might still choose to be?”
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a review that strikes just this note of condescension. It’s possible that Tartt has been waiting for clearer instruction from just such a man on what sort of writer to be, but I’m more inclined to think that she, like every writer of her acknowledged caliber, is in the habit of writing exactly the type of fiction she feels called to write and that she deserves the respect of being reviewed accordingly. Wood’s is free not to like The Goldfinch, but to tell Tartt to write a different book altogether seems beyond his ken.