WITH THIS NOVEL?
You can learn from reading a variety of novels, even ones you don’t enjoy. The next time you finish a book, stop and consider what literary elements the author used that captivated or disappointed you.
Was it the story concept, the characters, the prose, the setting? Did you feel an emotional connection to the novel or did it leave you flat? Were there twists and turns that surprised you or did events seemed clichéd?
How about moments that deliciously chilled your bones? Times so romantic you went into lust overload? Descriptions that took you back to your childhood?
The other day, my husband opened the novel he was reading and said, “I don’t know why I’m sticking with this.”
“What’s wrong with it,” I asked.
“The writing is really bad.”
“Then why not quit? There are plenty of good books out there.”
“I want to find out how it ends.”
“So, in writer speak, the author has introduced some good story questions and, despite the bad writing, you want to know the answers.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
My husband, a former history instructor, likes a book that entertains and informs. That got me to thinking about an additional criterion that’s important to me. I also want to know how the novel is crafted. I may not like certain aspects of it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from it.
Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Donna Tartt’s 782-page epic, The Goldfinch, was as enthusiastically panned as it was celebrated when it came out in late 2013. I wanted to find out why this novel was so polarizing.
Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times book reviewer and a Pulitzer winner herself, called it “a glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all (Tartt’s) remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole. . . It’s a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns.”
James Woods, The New Yorker critic, described The Goldfinch as “a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys. Its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature.” He claims its “melodramatic plotting breeds, or is bred by, wildly uneven sentences.” Woods is worried that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”
On the other hand, the judges on the Pulitzer Prize panel praised it as “a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.”
But London’s Sunday Times complained, “No amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey.”
You can’t help but wonder if all of these prominent critics read the same book.
For those who haven’t read it, The Goldfinch tells the story of thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, who is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and others at the site. Theo manages to grab Carel Fabritius’ 1654 masterpiece, The Goldfinch, and crawl through the rubble to safety. The book meanders for 700 more pages through fourteen years as Theo protects the priceless painting.
After finishing Ms. Tartt’s bestseller, I sat down and charted out what worked and didn’t work for me. I loved the story concept and initially bonded with the motherless boy and the people who cared for him. But then his gambling, drug-pushing father claims him and takes him away from New York to a depressing tract house in Las Vegas, where he and a Russian boy named Boris, left to their own devices, turn into drug addicts and thieves. That section was so tedious and repetitive I was tempted to put the book down.
Why did I keep reading? Because I enjoyed learning about the art world, Fabritius’ exquisite little painting and Theo’s eventual career selling restored antiques. He makes a great deal of money with fraudulent sales so, as the story progresses, he becomes even less sympathetic. Ms. Tartt’s prose is fairly pedestrian, even vulgar at times, but occasionally it soars, and I studied why those passages work.
One reviewer suggested the novel’s theme is “art” and the premise is “art endures,” but The Goldfinch doesn’t spend many pages trying to prove that premise. Of all the problems the book has, its lack of a clear premise is the biggest.
Some writers think “theme” and “premise” are unimportant and unnecessary contrivances, but that’s a narrow, unimaginative approach to a novel. Theme is the book’s subject, usually an abstract, universal concept such as love, friendship, repentance or art. Premise is the author’s position on the theme.
They are critical because they unify the novel. They give it meaning and purpose. If a novel is literary, as I assume The Goldfinch is intended to be, I would expect it to say something profound about life or the human condition. I saw no evidence of that. I don’t know what The Goldfinch is really about, and I suspect the author doesn’t either. Most of the book examines how drugs, alcohol, poor judgment and crime can destroy a boy’s life, but I doubt that’s the point she wanted to make.
If The Goldfinch is a “coming of age” book, as it often seems to be, Theo doesn’t seem to gain any wisdom from his experiences. If the novel is saying the theft of a rare painting caused his bad behavior, the story doesn’t prove that. Instead, it leads to five hundred extra pages of pointless dreariness.
Yes, Theo thinks of “The Goldfinch” occasionally during his years of wandering the landscape, but for most of that time the painting is fastened to the backside of his bed’s headboard or housed in a storage locker. He takes no action to return it to the museum or sell it. At the novel’s end, it goes back to the museum because his friend Boris stole it from him, not because he initiated the process.
I don’t plan to read The Goldfinch again or recommend it to a friend, but I learned from it and that knowledge can affect my own writing and teaching.
As an exercise, chart the pros and cons of a book you’ve read recently. What works about the novel? What doesn’t? Make notes on what you’ve learned. Over time, you’ll be able to determine whether or not a novel is well crafted. You’ll see why theme and premise matter; why a protagonist should be complex; how setting, prose, story questions, character arc—as well as other elements of a novel—are crucial.
In my next blog I’ll talk more about how other novels can help you learn the craft of writing fiction.