Book awards season is still months away, but today offered the first glimpse of the accolades to come. The Man Booker Prize announced the longlist for their prestigious fiction award on Wednesday. It was first time that the competition was open to all books published in the UK and written in English—meaning Americans are now eligible—instead of limited to citizens from the Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. And indeed, the committee selected four books written by Americans for the list. But there’s one notable snub: Where is The Goldfinch?
Donna Tartt’s 700-plus-page opus, which I am obligated to call a “doorstop,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is one of those rare books that is both selling well and has earned a slew of warm reviews from highbrow publications, including The New York Times and the New York Times Book Review. Tartt’s first novel The Secret History became a surprise cult sensation when it came out in 1992. She was a wunderkind of the University of Mississippi 1981 freshman class, catching the attention of Southern literary stalwarts Barry Hannah and Willie Morris. She has the pedigree, she has the sales, and she has that certain je ne sais quoi of rigorous artistic investment that the literary world is always looking for. So why was The Goldfinch left off the list?
It may have something to do with the politics of prize-giving as much as the worth of Tartt’s book. The Booker Prize has been criticized before for its politics having more to do with interpersonal relationships and cronyism than the value of the novels. A.L. Kennedy, who helped judge the prize in 1996, called the award “a pile of crooked nonsense” determined by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with you, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” (She also accused the other judges on the panel of failing to even read all the works they were considering for the prize.) Perhaps the judges just didn’t think it was Tartt’s turn. Perhaps the decision, however unjustly, was influenced by last year’s winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, another doorstop by a woman author, though one of decidedly different scale and structure.
The four American books to make the cut are We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, Orfeo by Richard Powers, and The Blazing World by Siri Hustveldt, all worthy choices, and all books that haven’t received nearly as much hype or caused as much debate as The Goldfinch. (The complete list is here.) But it isn’t as if the prize is limited to relative underdogs. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is also on the list as a contender, a book that is anticipated in the US as hotly as Tartt’s latest. It seems an odd choice not to at least include her book in the running.
There is a sense of growing backlash to the success of The Goldfinch, a circle of the literary hoi polloi that Was Not Impressed by Tartt’s book. In a June Vanity Fair article, Evgenia Peretz quotes The New Yorker’s James Wood and The Paris Review’s Lorin Stein as amongst the people who do not believe that The Goldfinch deserves the attention and praise its been getting. “I think the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture,” Wood told Vanity Fair. “A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any cliches—it deals in them,” Stein said.
Critics, of course, have the right to their opinions. There are plenty who expressed their dismay with The Goldfinch when the book first came out, before it began being considered for accolades. (Alexander Nazaryan, in his review for Newsweek, wrote that “many recent novels have been worse, but none has been quite so disappointing.”) Mixed reviews that consider the nuances of a novel are a good thing. Endless, breathless waves of adoration, after all, are not criticism. That’s PR.
But uneven critical reaction hasn’t historically kept high-profile authors off the list. (See 1997’s winner, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which sparked similar controversy over the book’s literary merits, to the point that one judge called it “execrable.”) Nor is the Man Booker committee one that shies from controversy.
It’s s hard to escape the sense that Donna Tartt is getting short shrift here. She’s a woman who has done absolutely everything that the critical establishment has required of her—the backing by high-caliber authors, the killer debut, the intensive, decades-long, secretive labor on a “serious” book considering the importance of art, no less—but she’s still getting shot down because she has the audacity to also appeal to Midwestern book groups. Maybe the judges wouldn’t have awarded her the final prize anyway. But she at least deserves to be treated as a real contender.