The Goldfinch & Literary Prizes

The Goldfinch Donna TarttIt was just a matter of time before Donna Tartt won an award.

I haven’t read The Goldfinch. Everybody else has.  Much as I enjoyed The Secret History (snobbish classics majors as anti-heroes), her second novel, The Little Friend, made no impression, and I have no interest in The Goldfinch, her “Dickensian” best-seller.  When I read something long, I like it actually to be Dickens.

I’m always reading Dickens.

But I am not surprised that The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer.

A few years ago, after the VIDA Count statistics proved the dearth of women’s books reviewed in book publications, journalists kept asking, Why doesn’t The New York Times promote great women writers?  Who is the American female Jonathan Franzen? Who are the great women writers?  And so it was decided that Tartt was Franzen’s equivalent–they’re both brilliant, both popular and both write a novel every 10 years.

Hell, Tartt even wears a man’s suit.  What’s with the suit?  Is she on the way to a butch lesbian dance in the 1950s?  Or is it a statement about something I can’t even imagine?

The pre-publication hype for The Goldfinch was incredible.

Some of Tartt’s most zealous fans belong to what I call my “opposite” numbers.  Ron Charles, excellent critic and deputy editor of the Washington Post Book World, called it “a rare treasure,” and the popular blogger Dovegreyreader said that she became the mother of Theo, the hero.  Although I enjoy their reviews and musings, their tastes rarely coincide with mine.  I read Ron and Dovegrey for their voices, not their judgment.

The Pulitzer for fiction is often a safe award. It is often awarded to classics, but they are usually very traditional books. Our dull English major relatives read the Pulitzer winners.  They may dismiss the brilliant PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, as “just too weird,”  but they are always comfortable with the Pulitzer.

Remember in 2012 when the Pulitzer board decided not to award the prize for fiction?  The board disliked the three books recommended by the fiction committee; they decided no book deserved the prize.  Did that strike you as just a little bit crazy?   If they didn’t like those three books, couldn’t they find a book they did like?  (Or was it not about the books at all, but about blacklisting somebody on the fiction committee?  Or have I been reading too many mysteries?)

Now that The Goldfinch has won the Pulitzer, will it go on to win the prizes in the UK?

It is shortlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize.  And we still have the Man Booker Prize award ahead.

If a book is over-hyped, I wait at least two or three years before I read it.   Perhaps The Goldfinch will turn out to be one of my favorites, but I won’t know till 2016.

14 thoughts on “The Goldfinch & Literary Prizes

  1. My husband read it and he was really surprised. Liked it but didn’t love it. I don’t know what was on the short list. Funny but after he finished it, he wanted to go back to Dickens.

  2. I haven’t read The Goldfinch either. Remember the Pultizer prizes most of the time (not always, witness this year’s winners for journalism) awards mainstream books which shore up whatever is the going power structure and its fashions this year. In 1960 Kennedy won it for his fatuous (ghost written too) Profiles in Courage.

  3. Mantel’s history novels are wooden; much better are her memoirs and novels set in today’s world (partial memoirs), and her best writing is in her essays (say in the LRB).

  4. Everything you say here makes perfect sense. The “star system” has long been the way art careers are managed in New York, and we see the same being applied to Tartt, and to Franzen. A few writers are early on identified as good investments, in terms of appearance, contacts/mentors, schools attended and, oh yes, writing ability. it would be interesting to know how many “beta readers” and how much editorial intervention have been applied to this woman’s three books. As for the suits and severe haircut, I think we can assume all that is carefully managed.

  5. Ellen, I looked at the list of Pulitzer books and many of them really are surprisingly good, better than I’d remembered. But I don’t think Karen Joy Fowler’s new book would have had a shot, so thank God for the “smaller” prizes (still $15,000) like the PEN/Faulkner. .

    I loved Wolf Hall. I didn’t read it till 2012, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it when I finally did. It changed my attitude towards historical fiction, which I had avoided pretty much. So I’m assuming I’ll like Bring on the Bodies when I get around to it. But, yes, I honestly prefer her contemporary books, and what about that stunning memoir she wrote?

    Barry, yes, I don’t know much about publishing, but it’s odd how certain things seep into my consciousness. There are so many talented writers, but at the same time it’s easy to see the networks, and we’re definitely missing out on some excellent writers who are not in the Ivy League/New York network. Some very good writers publish a book or two and then disappear, so I have to assume it’s because they didn’t have the right support. I don’t know anything about beta readers, but Tartt’s image is very odd. She doesn’t give many interviews, so perhaps the image is her own.

  6. Joel, we have also been waiting years for the Nobel to go to Philip Roth, and it has not! It’s very anti-American: Toni Morrison was the last American Nobel winner, early ’90s. And then there are Joyce Carol Oates and Louise Erdrich. I have nothing against the writers who win the prizes, but it’s very political.

  7. Like you, I was underwhelmed by The Little Friend and the hype for this one has really put me off. I figure if I want something long and involving, I’ll go for a Russian classic…..!

  8. I think The Goldfinch is the type of book you read to enjoy first, and dissect its literary merits later, if I make sense.
    I’m happy she won the Pulitzer though I don’t think she cares all that much about it.

  9. Karen, yes, I’m with you about the Russian classics!

    Luisa, I may very well appreciate The Goldfinch in 2016 (my reading date:).) The Pulitzer is a great thing for writers, but she is already so well-known that maybe it doesn’t matter that much.

  10. Have to say I loved The Goldfinch, the writing is exquisite. I rather like Tartt’s austere look and I like the fact that she doesn’t tweet, blog, facebook or generally play the game. I recently read an interview with her and when she said her favourite smell was ‘rain on pavements’ I new she was my kind of person!

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