Recently, I discovered that on Amazon’s book rankings, the works of John Keats and William Wordsworth are listed 796,426 and 2,337,250 respectively, only slightly higher than mine. (“Counter Culture,” by Caleb Crain, Harper’s, July 2015 pg.82.) Naturally, I, a modest writer, am bound to ask how I came to lie with the greats in Amazon’s 10th pit of hell?
Fortunately, writer, Caleb Crain explains. The internet, with its enormous counting skills has clouded the question of good and bad writing. In today’s world, numbers are linked to profit and profit is equated with “good.” Still, he insists, canons of literature exist, (Blog 2/1715) In fact, the number of experts qualified to define the cannon has grown. Add to the list of university professors, newspaper critics and publishers the opinion of bloggers with a significant followings… of which I am not one. (Ibid pg. 83)
Still, with so many opinions in the mix, how do I know who is to be trusted? When I sat down to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for example, though it is deemed both a literary and commercial success, I experienced nothing but impatience. I longed for the Biblical clarity of Ernest Hemmingway’s, Old Man and the Sea — a confession which may surprise some as I’ve thrown more than one barb in that artist’s direction. (Blog 10/11/2011)
Perhaps, like much of humanity, my attention span has decayed with the advent of technology. (Click) Nonetheless, I abhorred Tartt’s doily-like prose and felt an urge to stand up and scream: “More matter with less art.” Or, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” (Hamlet, II, ii) Let me be brief. What follows is a line early in Tartt’s book where the narrator recalls his childhood dread each time his father returned home in a drunken state:
…his footsteps slowed to a jarring and unmistakable cadence – Frankenstein steps, as I thought of them, deliberate and clumping, with absurdly long pauses between each footfall– (The Goldfinch, Little, Brown & Co. edition 2013, pg. 56)
Some may call the words fluid or poetry but in my literary cannon there’s too much embroidery. Words like clumping, deliberate, long pauses, jarring, Frankenstein steps, evoke the same bloody image. I get it. The guy was heavy on his feet. I understood that the moment Tartt wrote his “footsteps slowed.” To say more constipates the narrative, saddles the sentence with redundancy and treats me, the reader, like a witless twit for whom every corner of the coloring book page must be filled for fear I won’t see the picture.
If I can trust neither Amazon’s numbers nor the opinion of experts, I’m obliged to rely upon my opinion of what is or isn’t art. Tartt may satisfy commercial and literary interests, but I’d rather dwell in the 10th pit of hell with Keats and Wordsworth.
(Originally published 7/23/15)