Fooled You: On Donna Tartt’s Genre Fiction
By Richard JosephOctober 2, 2022
But it’s also a question that might be asked of her cultural position: where is Donna Tartt in our collective account of contemporary literature? Tartt has been a fixture in the English-speaking literary world for the past 30 years, her career spanning from the 1992 cult classic The Secret History to her 2013 bestseller The Goldfinch. Her books are immensely and enduringly popular — The Secret History, now 30 years old, is at the center of the currently thriving online subculture of “dark academia.” And yet she is almost never counted as a major author in the vein of, say, Philip Roth or Don DeLillo. The MLA International Bibliography yields a paltry 80 peer-reviewed results for her name, as opposed to DeLillo’s 2,000 and Roth’s whopping 20,000. She seldom appears in course syllabi or academic journals. In general, the literary-critical verdict seems to be that Tartt is a popular but unsophisticated author, her novels amusing romps rather than Serious Literature worthy of critical study. This is a criticism that has dogged her since the publication of The Secret History, which was derided in The Baffler as “resoundingly a work of entertainment, not a work of art”; such disapproval reached its apogee with The Goldfinch, decried by a handful of influential critics as the death knell of contemporary fiction. “Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?” lamented Francine Prose when the novel won the Pulitzer Prize.
Tartt’s continued exclusion from the canon is especially curious given the recent revaluation of genre fiction. Genre, you might have heard, is back in fashion. The last few decades have seen a surge in high-prestige literary authors turning to popular forms of fiction for inspiration, a movement sometimes called the “genre turn.” The genre turn is today a buzzing hive of academic and critical activity, exemplified by books like Colson Whitehead’s highbrow zombie novel Zone One (2011), Viet Thanh Nguyen’s cerebral spy thriller The Sympathizer (2015), or Junot Díaz’s modernist-inflected The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which borrows elements from — horror of horrors — comic books! Not too long ago, these sorts of lowbrow associations would have disqualified authors from the elite club of literary fiction. In the brave new world of the post-2000s, however, these novels get adulatory write-ups in the London Review of Books. The hierarchy has been shaken up so thoroughly, in fact, that Jennifer Egan’s new speculative sci-fi novel The Candy House (2022) will, according to the Los Angeles Times, “save literary fiction from itself.” Quite the glow-up for genre fiction — from literature’s greatest threat to its selfless savior.
In this newly egalitarian cultural field, one might expect a critical reappraisal of Donna Tartt: a Donnaissance, if you will. After all, her novels — though marked by lapidary language and sprawling narrative scope — all contend with genre in significant ways. The Secret History reconfigures the conventions of the classic whodunit, turning it, famously, into a whydunit. The Little Friend (2002) draws heavily from “girl detective” fiction like the Nancy Drew series and Harriet the Spy. The Goldfinch is indebted to popular film, with one character described as “some cool guy from a fifties noir or maybe Ocean’s Eleven, a lazy, sated gangster with not much to lose.” In other words, she writes literary takes on popular genres, purportedly the essence of the genre turn, and yet, somehow, she is omitted from this new canon as well. Tartt is not grouped with Whitehead and Egan any more than she is with Roth and DeLillo. Again, a look at the MLA Bibliography is illustrative: Whitehead returns over 500 peer-reviewed results, Egan almost 3,000. Tartt — though her career is longer — returns, again, a mere 80. Where authoritative old-school critics like Prose and James Wood regard Tartt with open hostility, her reception from the avant-garde genre-forward crowd might be summed up as awkward silence. Clearly, then, there are two ways to do the genre turn: the “right” way, and Tartt’s way.
A comparison may illustrate the distinction. The term “genre turn” was coined by Andrew Hoberek, who pinned its inception to the year 1999, when the National Book Critics Circle conferred their award for fiction on Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, a highbrow take on the hardboiled detective genre. This, Hoberek points out, was the first time a work of genre was afforded such literary distinction. And yet seven years earlier, Donna Tartt published The Secret History, which experimented with the same genre but won no such accolades. Both books, curiously, reference a Raymond Chandler novel. In fact, Lethem and Tartt, who were once classmates and close friends, seem to have shared a copy. In Motherless Brooklyn:
So many detectives have been knocked out and fallen into such strange swirling darknesses, such manifold surrealist voids (“something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope” — Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep), and yet I have nothing to contribute to this painful tradition. Instead my falling and rising through obscurity was distinguished only by nothingness, by blankness, by lack and my resentment of it.
In The Secret History:
I turned on the lights and looked through my books until I found a Raymond Chandler novel I had brought from home. I had read it before, and thought that a page or two would put me to sleep, but I had forgotten most of the plot and before I knew it I’d read fifty pages, then a hundred.
There is a clear difference in the way each author contextualizes Chandler and the hardboiled genre in general. Lethem’s attitude is satirical and faintly superior. Note the weariness of “so many detectives,” the double entendre of “painful tradition” — the knockout cliché is literally painful but also, Lethem suggests, aesthetically painful, that is, painfully boring. His own detective, he seems to be saying, will not resort to such hackneyed tropes. No such condescension is discernible in Tartt’s passage, which presents genre with undisguised relish: the fact that we know what will happen in the detective novel (the crime will be solved) does not, Tartt suggests, detract from the sheer narrative pleasure it affords.
Motherless Brooklyn, the genre turn’s urtext, sets the pattern for the movement in general: a literary author may invoke a genre, may riff on it and play with it, but only in order to disparage it. In other words, these authors, in their novels, aren’t turning to genre so much as turning on genre. This current is discernible, for instance, in Whitehead’s Zone One, in which the zombies represent the excesses of pop culture: they are mindless consumers of flesh but also of sitcoms, romance novels, and diet cola. On the opening page of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the protagonist announces: “Perhaps James Bond could slumber peacefully on the bed of nails that was a spy’s life, but I could not.” The message is coded, but only barely. These novels, though they use elements from popular media, do so in order to distinguish themselves as more sophisticated, more realistic or experimental, more literary. They’re not genre fictions but self-consciously literary novels wearing genre ironically.
Pierre Bourdieu calls this a “strategy of condescension.” In his example, a local politician, attending a ceremony in honor of a hometown poet, addresses the crowd in the regional dialect of Béarnese instead of French. For this noble gesture, the politician is roundly commended by the audience. As Bourdieu points out, in order for this Béarnese audience to praise this Béarnese mayor for speaking in Béarnese, they must all “tacitly recognize the unwritten law which prescribes French as the only acceptable language for formal speeches in formal situations.” In other words, to regard this as a “noble gesture” in the first place suggests that French is inherently superior to regional dialects. The politician has his cake and eats it too: he is praised for subverting the linguistic hierarchy that he is in fact reaffirming. In the same way, genre-turn authors win praise for their boundary-breaking work in a way that actually reinforces these boundaries. According to one New York Times review, Motherless Brooklyn is, “[u]nlike the stock detective novel it shadows,” something far deeper — “the mind’s dense thicket, a place where words split and twine in an ever-deepening tangle.” In other words, it’s not genre, it’s modernism! Similarly, in Kirkus’s take on Zone One, “The zombie genre provides unlikely inspiration for the author’s creative renewal” — unlikely because genre is perceived as creatively bankrupt by definition. Lethem and Whitehead, like Bourdieu’s French politician, get to reap the rewards of their supposed cosmopolitanism — for “erasing the distinction between art and pulp,” in the words of the Kirkus reviewer — while reinforcing and benefiting from this distinction.
Tartt’s books, by contrast, are what happens when a literary novel does not condescend to genre but takes it seriously. When Theo, the protagonist of The Goldfinch, smuggles a priceless painting through airport security, he imagines “some cinder-block room like in the movies, slammed doors, angry cops in shirtsleeves, forget about it, you’re not going anywhere, kid.” The genericity of this — “like in the movies” — is not here played for laughs but imbued with genuine menace. The familiar scene becomes an effective shorthand for a world of torment, the law clamping down on Theo’s childish hopes. In fact, the whole novel is rife with genre allusions and techniques, particularly the genres of cinema. The Goldfinch features action-movie–style shootouts, criminals and gangsters of various stripes, a blackmail plot, and drug trafficking, a generic pastiche assembled from every police procedural and heist movie of the last 50 years. But all of this is treated quite seriously, worked carefully into a sprawling plot straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Indeed, the novel has often been called Dickensian, an influence to which Tartt admits freely. “I read so much Dickens when I was a kid growing up that those books are more inside me now than they are outside me,” she has said. It’s not just the narrative scope of the novel, which follows Theo from boyhood to adulthood, or its enormous cast of characters, but the types of characters it features: idiosyncratic, larger-than-life archetypes rarely to be found in contemporary literature. The avuncular Hobie, for instance, resembles David Copperfield’s Mr. Peggotty; the roguish Boris is something between Copperfield’s Steerforth and Oliver Twist’s Artful Dodger.
Part crime movie, part 19th-century bildungsroman — odd bedfellows, to say the least. What is unusual about The Goldfinch is not only that it stitches together the masscult with the canon, but also that it does so without privileging the latter over the former. This, I think, is the essential reason Tartt has never been considered part of the genre turn — she does not deploy high culture to illustrate the paucity of the lowbrow, but rather mingles them indiscriminately. To employ a culinary metaphor, this is the difference between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — where the flavors are meant to contrast with each other — and a smoothie, where the flavors are blended. Motherless Brooklyn, for instance, is a PB and J: the hardboiled elements are offset by Lethem’s high modernist prose flourishes, a deliberate and calculated contrast that enables reviewers to praise the novel for “elevating” genre. The Goldfinch, on the other hand, is a smoothie: it is impossible to tell where Ocean’s Eleven ends and David Copperfield begins. If Tartt had signposted her disdain for genre conventions — if Theo, for instance, made some quip about how his theft of the painting was like “some ridiculous heist movie” — it seems likely that she would be received with more approval. But Tartt resists this essentially elitist impulse, thus consigning her work to perpetual critical confusion.
Much of the uproar following The Goldfinch’s Pulitzer win centered upon one thing: seriousness. Francine Prose felt duty-bound to pan the novel because it was “being talked about, and read, as a work of serious literary fiction.” James Wood, too, argued that the novel was “not […] serious,” that it told “a fantastical, even ridiculous tale, based on absurd and improbable premises.” In fact — said Wood — it was like something out of children’s literature. For Wood, as for many contemporary critics, that which is childish cannot be serious. But if you’ve spent much time with kids, you know this is not necessarily the case: children, in fact, take things extremely seriously, and Tartt knows this. Harriet, the young girl at the center of The Little Friend, follows her fantasies so completely that it nearly kills her. Dickens — himself, in many ways, a lifelong child — is particularly fond of the “absurd and improbable.” One wonders how Wood might review the infamous chapter in Bleak House wherein a character, in deadly earnest, spontaneously combusts. And yet nobody would dream of calling Bleak House an “unserious” novel because Dickens wholly commits to his premises. The spontaneous combustion is rendered with gravity and pathos. Seriousness, then, is not about subject matter, but execution.
This wholehearted commitment to the fantasy is, at base, what I want from fiction — and, I suspect, why so many people love Tartt’s novels. The novels of the genre turn are most interesting when they’re leaning into genre, and least engaging when they’re flashing their highbrow credentials. It can be distracting when an author, no matter how talented, feels compelled to constantly remind you that their fiction is better than other fiction. If I’m watching a movie for the first time, I don’t want to hear the director’s commentary. What I want from a novel is for the author, and all his hard-won sophistication, to disappear: I want the world and its characters to take over, to forget what time it is, to lose track of everything except the book I’m holding. That, I think, is the central enchantment of great literature, and for my money, Tartt casts that spell as well as Dickens.
Once, when she was asked whether The Secret History was based on Bennington College, Tartt deflected the question with typical evasiveness. “There was this painter the Romans loved who painted grapes that looked so real that dogs would jump up and try to eat them off the walls,” she said. “My duty as a writer is to fool you.” I, for one, am perfectly happy to be so convincingly fooled.
Richard Joseph is a writer, editor, and graduate student in the Department of English at McGill University.
Featured image: Frances Hodgkins. Untitled (Textile design no VIII), ca. 1925. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Image has been cropped.
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