The title of my post is a riff on the fleetingly popular #SorryNotSorry. I’m writing but not really writing. I mean, I haven’t been writing but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. As usual.
What I have been doing is … knitting.
When in doubt, I knit. Not only is knitting a meditative practice, it is also quantifiable. It moves linearly (for the most part anyway). There’s a definite beginning, middle, and end to my knitting. I don’t (often) feel that way about writing.
I have also been studying Spanish, for the nth time since I was in high school. I’ve become a bit obsessive, loading countless learning apps onto my iPhone, logging hours on Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, and downloading videos on learning Spanish from The Great Courses.
And, yet, my fluency leaves something to be desired. Yo tengo tres gatos y un marido.
And, yet … with both knitting and studying Spanish I persevere. I make a knitting error? I just rip it out and start over. I stumble over my grammar in Spanish? I can retake the lessons as often as needed. But writing is different. When I hit a wall in my writing, everything stops and it feels near impossible to get going again.
Quality of writing seems so subjective. I can quantify the number of words I write, but I can’t speak to their quality. With knitting and Spanish, I can see a steady progression of quality as a beautiful pattern takes shape or my review lessons become easier.
The subjective appreciation of writing trips me up every time. And I’ve been working at it as long as I’ve knitting and studying Spanish.
Now, this post will continue on to a rant I wrote almost a year ago. I’m sharing it now because it speaks to my frustration with literary and popular criticism. I had just finished listening to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and needed to get a few things about the novel off my chest. If you haven’t read The Goldfinch and plan to, you might want to stop here since my rant includes some spoilers. If you have read The Goldfinch and loved it, you might want to stop here because I didn’t. The rest of you may proceed as you wish.
I’m a pretty sensitive individual. I internalize everything. Let’s say I wrote a novel titled The Goldfinch and not only was it published, but it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Sure, I’d be happy for the publicity and the money and probably both would be enough to keep me in a bubble, safe from the knowledge that most buyers of my novel couldn’t finish it, the awareness that some of those who could were not just disappointed but dismayed by it. All the hype, the publicity, the Pulitzer for a novel that is too long and too uneven and too clever. Near the end of the novel, one character complains about “relentless tedium.” That pretty much describes the pace of The Goldfinch for me. At another point Theo, the narrator, says to a character, “It’s a long story. I’ll try to keep it short.” I laughed out loud at that line. Was Tartt poking fun at her own book? The novel is full of “relentless” litanies and extended dialogues that sound like something out of soap operas. You know the kind. Where the characters keep talking around each other and asking but not answering the same questions over and over until you want to scream, “Oh, just answer the bloody question!”
Only at the end does the reader learn that Theo has been keeping a journal all this time, since his “childhood”; yet, there’s never a mention of him doing so in the earlier parts. I found that so odd given how much this young man moved from one place to another, never once losing a journal apparently but also never mentioning his journals and what might happen if they fell into the wrong hands.
And The Goldfinch itself? I never really felt Theo’s connection with the painting that he claimed to have. Too often it seemed as if he had actually forgotten about it. He’d have all kinds of adventures with his Ukrainian friend Boris, never once mentioning the painting. Then, suddenly, briefly, he’d describe how he thought about it all the time. And oddly, those descriptions always seemed to occur about the same time I had almost forgotten about the painting myself. Did Tartt have to remind herself that the painting was supposed to be pivotal to the story?
At one point, the reader gets the idea that Theo and Boris might be in love with each other, not an unimportant realization for two teen-aged boys. Yet, the idea goes nowhere. Theo has no problem taking up with women when he returns to NYC and eventually he forgets Boris until they have their odd reunion.
The pace picks up when Boris admits that he stole the painting which has now been stolen from him and he needs Theo to help get it back. But the plot is convoluted and the miracle of it progressing at all is simply because Theo has access to money. I know it’s a given in some genres, like romance novels, where the reader wants to escape into a world where money is not a problem, only love and lust. But this is literary fiction (I think). Maybe I’m being a “reversed snob” but it’s a pet peeve of mine when a character who heretofore has been nearly destitute comes into a large inheritance and suddenly, money is no longer a problem. He can hop a jet to anywhere, stay in a luxury hotel for days on end, and never worry about the bill. Boring.
And that’s another thing: Theo seems to suffer illnesses that go on for days, yet he doesn’t die. Somehow he always comes through, but these “relentless” illnesses were part of what pushed me to lose patience with the character. He is unsympathetic, perhaps even a sociopath, incapable of understanding anyone’s feelings but his own. Often, there didn’t seem to be any there there with Theo.
Now, I actually listened to an audio version of The Goldfinch and I think that’s one reason why I stuck with it. The narrator was quite good and his rendition of Boris was wonderful. And I was listening as a writer, trying to hear how the story ebbed and flowed. I did enjoy many of the other characters, but overall the novel sounded to me as one in a series of drafts, not the first, crude draft but not the final, polished draft either. There was so much that could have been edited out of the novel without doing a whit of harm and, more importantly, doing it much good. Theo’s journal writing would have been a nice thread to have had throughout the novel.
There was a surreal aspect to the novel, which made me cast about for comparisons. Dickens did not come to mind as anything more than Tartt “borrowing” some of Dickens’s characterizations. What I kept thinking about was Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In both novels, two naïve young men go astray, one is spurred by his desire to be among the better classes, the other by survivor’s guilt and his desire to numb it. Both commit crimes without seeming to have the full sense of their consequences, and both seem naïve to the point of being led about by the “wrong” people. But whereas I was struck by the timeless quality of An American Tragedy, with The Goldfinch I was only struck by how long it took me to suffer through it. Oh, and that it got an effing Pulitzer.