If you were following the great Commencement Speaker Bloodbath of 2014, you might have noticed that there were two stories happening. Here’s story number one: “hyper-sensitive college students suppress freedom of speech.” This was the story most people accepted at the time. The other story went like this: “college administrators and commencement speakers prove unable to handle freedom of speech.” This story, though less popular, fits the facts a little better.
Students, though loud and opinionated, have no real power; they can’t even suppress a mouse uprising in their dorm rooms without administrative help. As protests go, these were weak. Christine Lagarde, for instance, decided not to give an address at Smith’s commencement ceremony over a Change.org petition. When have you ever heard about a Change.org petition as anything other than the punchline to a joke?
Commencement addresses are generally empty exercises. In these cases, they were all forced to mean something because they were protested. Commencement speakers, generally famous but vacant suits, were all forced to be somebody. Christine Lagarde was expected to show up at Smith not as an expensive piece of décor, a generically successful woman, but instead as herself.
In the face of this adjustment, people backed out. It wasn’t what they had signed on to do. Who said these things had to mean something, anyway? Who told these kids to take these words and these actions so seriously? It’s like they believe in ethics and ideas, or something.
Let’s jump forward a month or so. Evgenia Peretz, a writer for Vanity Fair, is puzzled by something: Book critics disagree over a book. The Goldfinch is a book that, despite being very successful and being written by an author one can name-drop without shame, some people continue to insist is not very good.
Does this criticism have to do with the book itself? Or is it just the product of personal defect, like jealousy, or unfashionable reading criteria, or simple snootiness? Since it’s not even clear from the piece whether or not Peretz has read the book, no points for guessing which route the piece chooses to take.
Claiming the book “sparked a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself,” it sizes up the critics and takes them down. Not their arguments—the critics.
So the Vanity Fair piece relentlessly credentials the supporters of The Goldfinch (Michiko Kakutani, book critic for the New York Times and Goldfinch supporter, won a Pulitzer Prize). It points out that plenty of critics have hated books that went on to be generally regarded as “good” (or, in the case of The Catcher in the Rye, at least assigned to a lot of high school students). It eventually closes with a bizarre plea for us all to acknowledge that the book exists and leave it there:
“Indeed, we might ask the snobs, What’s the big deal? Can’t we all just agree that it’s great she spent all this time writing a big enjoyable book and move on?”
Snuck in there is the word “enjoyable,” which is at least part of this discussion; some people clearly did not enjoy The Goldfinch. But even if it weren’t, what kind of position is this? What is Donna Tartt here, some pre-schooler playing with fingerpaints? “Wow, what a great dog.” “Actually, it’s a goldfinch.” “Wow, well, you worked so hard on it.”
But, of course, the future of reading isn’t at stake. Neither are questions about what makes “a work literature, and who gets to decide,” a different big question raised elsewhere in the article. What’s at stake isn’t even the success of The Goldfinch, which has already succeeded.
So what is at stake? Maybe the brief throwaway observation, at the beginning of the story, that The Goldfinch is fodder for cocktail-party small talk. The question you ask isn’t have you read this? is it good? what did you think? but just have you read this?, full stop, that’s it. The Goldfinch is a respectable book, written by a respectable author. It won a Pulitzer. If anything is safe, this book is it.
But here comes James Wood, who disagrees; and suddenly, it’s not enough to drop the name of the book in a conversation. Instead of just being a “serious” book, it’s a book with some kind of substance that can be criticized, thought about. You can’t just be the kind of person who reads The Goldfinch and watches Breaking Bad if someone comes around to ask you your opinion of their merits of each.
I read The Goldfinch, by the way: it wasn’t very good. If The Goldfinch is occupying bestseller lists primarily as small talk material, it deserves it—like The Secret History, her first novel, it’s primarily made up of overtones of erudition that don’t actually lead anywhere. So becoming one such overtone in real life would be, well, fitting.
But more likely, those people who enjoyed The Goldfinch (and The Secret History) genuinely think it is a good book and a fun read. If pressed, they could explain why. Those critics who enjoyed The Goldfinch are probably more than capable of considering the strength of the claim that it’s childish and badly written. There isn’t any need to go digging for bad faith motives here, because disagreement is what happens when everything works.
There’s a lot of distance between a person writing a negative review of The Goldfinch and students protesting a commencement speaker. But what the responses to them share is this kind of bafflement, or even anger, at the idea somebody could take these occasions or these books seriously enough to do something about them, or express an opinion about them.
Book reviews are going to be pretty dull if we think all one ought to do is clap for the book showing up at all. And it will be pretty depressing if we only have free exchange of ideas because we’ve all agreed that nothing people do or say means anything.