‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,’ wrote critic James Wood, in The New Yorker…Days after [Donna Tartt] was awarded the Pulitzer, Wood told Vanity Fair, 'I think that the rapture with which [The Goldfinch] has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.’
I’m not really interested in the question of whether or not professional Literary Critics like James Wood (Not James Woods) consider Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch to be High Literature. I guess they’re the people who make that decision, but it’s a decision that is largely inconsequential to me and my reading habits and the reading habits of most people. This weekend I was at Fisherman’s Wharf and I saw a youngish woman, a tourist, carrying a copy of The Goldfinch around like a baby. It was a hot day and that book is heavy, but she was reading it so hard she was lugging it around everywhere, even to buy an $8 milkshake at a burger place on the bay.
I am interested in this quote, though. In the implicit horror of “a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” I don’t know if James Wood wears pearls, but can’t you just picture him clutching them? It’s a funny quote to me, because if anything, what enraged me about The Goldfinch–a book I didn’t really like–was that I felt like it was nowhere near infantile enough. I agree that it seemed a bit like children’s literature, but like children’s literature in which you are required to bring your own sense of joy, wonder, and warmth (BYOJW&W?). The reason adults go around reading Harry Potter is that a lot of High Literature lacks joy, wonder, and warmth. But the world itself doesn’t. And so any story that strives to lack it tends to feel like something other that real life.
There’s been this uptick in book snobbery lately. There was that literal nonsense at Slate, which I think I’ve already made my feelings pretty clear about, and now this. It’s probably too simplistic to note that the things that unnerve literary people are the things that make money–in one case, a book written by a woman; in another, a whole subset read most voraciously by girls. I feel like I stand at a weird juncture in my literary community, with my MFA and my YA novels. On my Twitter timeline, the YA readers/writers cheer for books and readers no matter what or who they are, and the Literary readers/writers agree seem more inclined to agree with the thinkpieces. There’s an undertone of “It’s true! Most readers are stupid, and that’s why my books aren’t selling.” It’s not very difficult to choose a side when one side is so unashamed of their own snobbery.
I was a snob once, too. When I first started writing short stories in college, I was determined to read only the best, and so I focused on the Western canon, on Hemingway and Faulkner and Jonathan Franzen; I took a small step away from my beloved Harry Potter, understanding it to be different and lesser. It went on that way for a long time, until the summer after my first year in grad school, when I picked up Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters in the teen section of the Carnegie Library and something shifted in my brain. It was like the curtains had been parted and I suddenly saw that my whole conception of value had been formed and shaped by people who looked exactly the same (people who looked like Hemingway and Faulkner and Franzen), that the world was much bigger than that, much more interesting, and so much more fun it made me want to scream. This is the thing I can’t get over in these conversations–we talk about Literary like it’s not in itself a genre. We talk about books as if it’s just understood that there’s a Universal Good and a Universal Bad, and we act like the Universal Good is not overpopulated with white males, and we act like readers of the Universal Bad don’t know any better.
But look: I can read and understand and appreciate High Literature, and usually I don’t. And that’s because as we should all well know, it’s our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities. And what I want to be is happy.
So my boyfriend is watching a documentary about Nikola Tesla, and it’s all “Tesla invented this thing, but other people got rich off of it and he didn’t get any and didn’t even get much credit for it and someone else got an award for it and most people don’t know about him now” [CUE THE SAD PIANO MUSIC].
Awwwww poor white man having other people steal his money and credit for things he did, THAT MUST HAVE BEEN SOOOOOOO HARD LET’S MAKE ALL THE DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT YOU [SAD PIANO MUSIC].
you know that high-pitched ringing sound you hear when you turn off everything else that produces sound and just sit there completely still?
well, experts have recently discovered that what we once called “tinnitus”, thought to have been caused by acoustic shock as a result of being exposed to constant background noise, actually has nothing to do with long term trauma to the inner ear.
it is, in fact, the sound of entitled white abled males crying like babies because they didn’t get what they wanted, all across the world, at all times.
an artist’s depiction of what this phenomenon might look like:
Seeing all of the stuff on white males being oppressive honestly disgusts me, but as a white male myself that avoids any form of conflict like this (or at least tries), I have recently been feeling like I deserve every horrible thing I get, and even if I try to do nothing people will always see me as a monster because of having Caucasian skin and carrying a penis and scrotum And reading all these things that happen on this site hurts me that people do that Am I horrible because of this?
Not every writer is a Hemingway. Moreover, not every writer wants to be a Hemingway, thank you very much. Hemingway yourself if you want but for letters’ sake leave me alone to derail in my Hemingwayless misery.
Alfonsina Berenica Navarro, The Garden of Wild Miscellanea