It’s a phenomenon almost as old as literature itself: author pens fiction; fiction receives literary acclaim and blockbuster sales; work and author are deemed masterpiece and maestro, respectively – and then the backlash lands, complete with requisite attacks, character assassination, and highbrow literary condescendence.
The latest victim to fall in the crosshairs is literary megastar Donna Tartt of “The Goldfinch” fame.
Some 11 years after Tartt began writing it, the 784-page novel hit shelves and headlines to almost immediate success. It’s sold some 1.5 million copies, garnered rave reviews, claimed prime real estate on The New York Times bestseller list for seven months, picked up the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and is on its way to becoming a movie or TV series by the producers behind “The Hunger Games.”
Its success has led news outlets to breathlessly call 2014 “The Year of the Goldfinch” and proclaim the book the ‘It’ novel of the year."
But as Vanity Fair pointed out in a recent article titled “It’s Tartt – But is it Art?,” “It’s also gotten some of the severest pans in memory from the country’s most important critics and sparked a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself.”
Critics have called the book infantile, finding fault with its plot (“far-fetched”), characters (“cloying,” “stock”), and concluding message (“overwrought”).
“Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote critic James Wood in The New Yorker, saying it was further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture.
“A book like 'The Goldfinch' doesn’t undo any clichés – it deals in them,” wrote Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Writing for The New York Review of Books, critic Francine Prose called “The Goldfinch” “bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase.”
At first blush, the backlash is surprising, snarky. But it turns out it’s just the latest book to draw such polarized attention.
Jonathan Franzen and his novel, “Freedom,” drew such intense praise and vitriol, folks in the literary community coined a new term, “Franzenfreude,” to describe the frenzy surrounding that polarizing book and author.
“Hailed by some as a masterpiece of US literature and denounced by others as the overpraised product of a white-male racket, the most anticipated novel of the year – Franzen's first in almost a decade – has touched off a culture war pitting the elite against the masses, the literary against the commercial, men against women and everybody against The New York Times,” wrote Canada’s Globe and Mail in 2010.
In Franzen’s case, it didn’t help that the author, often described as pretentious and prickly, trash-talked Oprah and called longtime New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York.”
“Freedom” was called “a masterpiece of American literature” and “an indelible portrait of our times” in The New York Times, and “the novel of the century” in The Guardian. Franzen was deemed a “Great American novelist” in Time magazine.
Authors Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner called foul, saying they’d love to see “the NYT rave about writers who aren’t white male literary darlings.” So began a backlash that had Newsweek run a story entitled “Jonathan Franzen, the writer we love to hate.”
Speaking of which, consider Exhibit C: Jonthan Safran Foer. The young Princeton graduate drew such intense praise so early with his first novel, “Everything is Illuminated,” that the backlash was almost a foregone conclusion. Success appeared to have come easy to the then-25-year-old author with fantastic connections and frustrating diffidence who says he wrote the book at 19.
"I never particularly felt that writing was my calling, it was just something I did," he told the UK’s Telegraph.
The book went on to become a bestseller called “a 21st-century masterpiece” and Foer was called a “wunderkind.”
Of course, that was before the vicious comments lambasting Foer as a hack and accusing the publishing industry of over-hyping his book. His second work, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” was almost immediately panned, drawing such negative attention as this NY Press article, entitled “Extremely Cloying and Incredibly False.”
In other words, it’s not just Tartt. Or Franzen. Or Foer. The book world appears to engage in this cruel, if predictable, cycle on a regular basis – and it has for decades, if not longer.
“The history of literature is filled with books now considered masterpieces that were thought hackwork in their time,” writes Vanity Fair, listing a litany of examples.
“It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” The New York Times pronounced concerning Nabokov’s "Lolita."
“Kind of monotonous,” the same paper said about Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye." “He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crumby school."
“An absurd story,” announced The Saturday Review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby," while the New York Herald Tribune declared it “a book of the season only.”
But for all the premature pans, there have been authors deemed geniuses whose books were later relegated to the trash heap, writes the magazine, mentioning Sir Walter Scott and Margaret Mitchell whose “Gone with the Wind” won a Pulitzer.
“Now it’s considered a schmaltzy relic read by teenage girls, if anyone,” Vanity Fair writes.
As to whether Tartt’s and other polarizing novels will ultimately be deemed a work of timeless literature or forgettable hackwork? Only time will tell.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.