What Lies Inside: Race and Class in The Goldfinch



"You can't write something better than The Goldfinch.  You simply can't."
                 --Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

People are still talking about Donna Tartt's best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch (2013); Evgenia Peretz's new piece in Vanity Fair lays out the ongoing controversy over its aesthetic quality.  But despite all the discussion, there's an element of the book that's been overlooked.  In a 771-page novel set in contemporary New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, almost all the characters of color are servants, and they play bit parts.

This seems to be as invisible to critics (and book-club enthusiasts) as it is naturalized in the novel.

Now, it's a belief commonly held by the well-to-do that their domestic workers live and love to serve.  Call it the Downton Abbey fantasy:  the lower classes may indeed have their own little lives and dramas, but their true emotional investment lies in Lady Mary's happiness. 

Tartt's rosy yet flat depictions of working-class servants of color seem to partake of this fantasy, from Goldie the Puerto Rican doorman (and the other doormen:  "a big happy Dominican guy," etc.), to Cinzia the housekeeper, who "cried, and offered to stay and work for free" when the young protagonist Theo's mother can't afford her services anymore, to Etta, the Barbours' housekeeper, who "rushed to hug [Theo]:  I had the night off but I wanted to stay, I wanted to see you."

I'll work for freeI had the night off but I wanted to stay?  Uh, right.  Tartt's working-class people of color read like wishful caricatures.  Her servant characters don't quite say, "You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important," as in The Help, but they come close.  In contrast, all characters of importance in the novel--the ones with meaty speaking roles or any complexity--are white.

Why would a novel set primarily in New York and Las Vegas exclude people of color from any roles that aren't working-class servitude?  (That is, aside from "the Korean lady" and "Enrique," two insensitive and inept social workers who mispronounce Theo's name after his mother's death, and "the Chinese kid" who plays a role in the book's cartoonish crime-novel climax.)  When characters of color do appear, they function, not in the fullness of their humanity, but merely to revolve around the well-off white characters they serve.

It's an odd omission in a book that attempts to take, in other ways, such care.  Layered, amusing, and often artfully crafted at the sentence level, The Goldfinch explicitly favors the old over the new, the real over the fake, the lost or carefully preserved work of art over the easily accessible commodity.  It values the odd and fine-grained over manufactured polish; it loves (and wants us to love) quirky, damaged Pippa instead of picture-perfect blond Kitsey.  For many people--especially the sort who commit to hefty novels--its sensibility is easy to like.  It's an elegiac novel, with a series of lost mothers at its core and a lament for the passing of old ways at its heart (Old Masters, the old country, the faithful craft of artisans).  In The Goldfinch's neat sets of binaries, New York--with its beautiful old architecture and museums--easily trumps Las Vegas, with its gaudy imitation icons, junk food, and miles of tract housing.

So when Theo, our bereft protagonist, unwraps what he has believed (for years) to be the stolen painting The Goldfinch (the numinous MacGuffin that drives the action of the book, representing for Theo his dead mother and redolent of all Old-World art and culture) but which is actually a faked package with which light-fingered Boris has pulled the old switcheroo, I knew that what lay inside the wrapping mattered.  It mattered to Theo.  It mattered to Tartt.  In the ideological structure of her novel, whatever lay inside that wrapping represented the cheap, fake substitute for what was good and true and real--the beloved, the dear, the irreplaceable.  Whatever lay inside was the linchpin of Tartt's symbol system:  the precise negative of the delicate, precious Old Master painting enshrined on the cover, in the title, and within the novel's plot.

So I read with a sinking feeling, in Theo's voice, of

a snarl of packing tape into which I'd cut, painstakingly, with an X-Acto knife, twenty minutes of delicate work, pulse throbbing in my fingertips, terrified of going in too hard and nicking the painting by mistake, finally getting the side open, peeling the tape strip by strip by careful strip, with trembling hands:  only to find--sandwiched in cardboard and wrapped with newspaper--a scribbled-up Civics workbook (Democracy, Diversity, and You!).

Bright multicultural throng.  On the cover Asian kids, Latino kids, African American kids, Native American kids, a girl in a Muslim head scarf and a white kid in a wheelchair smiled and held hands before an American flag.  Inside,...the book's cheery dull world of good citizenship, where persons of different ethnicities all participated happily in their communities and inner-city kids stood around their housing project with a watering can, caring for a potted tree...

As the author, Tartt could have placed nearly anything inside that muddle of tape and newspaper and cardboard.  Yet this is what she chose, and so herein lies the great betrayal, the worthless substitute for all that has been stolen from Theo:  a multiculturalism depicted as facile, a didactic, banal, tokenized vision of compulsory equality and justice.  Gone is The Goldfinch, and with it the beloved lost hierarchical world of Beauty and Art and Culture (and dark people, presumably, in their places where they belong, serving).

This is the unremarked core of the novel, our newest winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  This is its own troubling heart of racial/class anxiety to which the glowing reviews (and scathing critiques) have largely been blind.

Perhaps these two kinds of moments in the book (the one-dimensional, eager servants of color; the big reveal of the "cheery dull world" of racial harmony where wondrous Art should be) are not deliberately hostile, not Tartt's reaction to the future posed by rapidly shifting U.S. demographics.  Perhaps the book is not evidence of a nostalgic raced/classed fantasy.  Maybe Tartt's choices along raced/classed lines are not angry.  (When writers of color write nakedly and directly about the real-life results of erasure, negation, and stereotyping, we are often called angry.  I think of Gloria Anzaldúa, for example, or bell hooks.  When white writers erase, diminish, typecast, and pigeonhole people of color, few commentators take note.) 

Perhaps Tartt's eager servants and banal multicultural textbook are simply omissions, blind spots, failures of vision and craft, the result of an imagination expansive in some ways yet cramped in others.  Such flaws are, in the history of decorated literature, not uncommon.   

Whatever the significance of Tartt's choices, they haven't yet been thrashed out on a cultural level, because the book's many supporters and critics haven't been interested in discussing this aspect. 

What does it say about contemporary U.S. culture and letters that The Goldfinch has earned wild marketplace success, won critical acclaim, and stirred significant discussion while its race/class politics have gone unremarked?  

   


 
 

Great Carson City Lit Fest



As both a former at-risk kid and former foster parent, I'm grateful to bestselling YA novelist Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Burned, Glass, and more) for starting Ventana Sierra, a nonprofit that helps at-risk teens (and particularly foster kids who've aged out of the system) transition into housing and college.

All the proceeds from the Ventana Sierra Advanced Writers Workshop, where I'll be teaching this Friday, go to the program, as do the proceeds of Ellen's other brainchild, the Great Carson City Lit Fest

The inaugural lit fest will be held this weekend in Carson City, Nevada; here's Ellen talking about it in the Reno Gazette-Journal.  (I've loved how generous and unpretentious Ellen is from the moment I met her.)  I'll be giving a reading at 9:30 on Saturday morning.  It'll be my first time in Nevada! 
 
 

Crime Fiction: Bridging the Literary/Commercial Divide



So I'm flying out tomorrow morning to offer a little talk in Boston at The Muse & the Marketplace conference, organized by Grub Street.  It's a cool conference that I've admired from afar for a while, so I'm happy to have the chance to go.  I love some of the writers who'll be presenting, like Pam Houston and Rigoberto González, and my entirely lovable agent Mitchell will be there.

This is my session:

"Contemporary Crime Fiction:  Bridging the Literary/Commercial Divide" 

(Not to be Britishly self-deprecating, but I did wonder, crafting the description, if I wasn't including a bit of fiction in the title itself.  Truth be told, I often feel as if, rather than bridging the literary/commercial divide, I've plummeted right down into it.  But I didn't think that "Plunging into the Literary/Commercial Abyss" would attract many takers.)

Here's the description:

From crime novelists whose prose has all the texture of literary fiction (Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Dennis Lehane) to decorated literary authors who've turned their hands to crime (Kate Atkinson, John Banville, Robert Olen Butler), writers are blurring the lines between literary fiction and a genre long considered formulaic. But what does crafting a successful literary thriller or mystery require? This session will explain conventions of the genre and discuss recent novels by authors who push the boundaries of the form to explore contemporary sociopolitical concerns.

The novelists I'll discuss at the end, the ones who "explore contemporary sociopolitical concerns," are Attica Locke, Steph Cha, Chris Abani, and Linda Rodriguez, and I'm really looking forward to sharing their work with the folks in Boston.  (I'm lugging a ton of books for show-and-tell; I hope I can heave my suitcase up into the overhead bins.)  Always the professor (sigh), I also developed a handy handout for when we go over crime fiction history and concepts, and it includes some of my favorite crime publishers and crime fiction reviewers, too--practical insider info to take away.  My great hope, as always, is that the session will be useful

One main point I plan to make is that, for literary writers who want to try their hand at crime fiction, the broad popular audience for mysteries and thrillers cannot be taken for granted, underestimated, or condescended to.  No way.  Crime readers are smart, they're knowledgeable, they're immersed in the traditions of the genre, and they expect from any new book a sophisticated dialectic between conventions of the form and innovation.  Moreover, it's a wildly competitive area of publishing.  For both of these reasons, literary authors who think they can swan in and be heralded as geniuses by the masses had better think again.

Another key point is that crime novels are expansive vessels.  Anything you want to put in a literary novel, you can put in a crime novel. 

I love talking/thinking/writing about this stuff. 

So I hope the session will provide a helpful, bracing cautionary note as well as practical concepts and tools for setting out--if writers dare--on the tricky, exciting, challenging journey of writing crime fiction. 

Without falling into the abyss.

 
 
 

Five Thoughts about Memoir & the Wider World



At #AWP14 in Seattle, I was very happy to be part of a panel organized by Sue William Silverman, "Memoir with a View:  On Bringing the Outside In."  Sue, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Sonya Huber, Lee Martin and I addressed the ways memoir engages the larger world, as framed here in Sue's description of the panel:

Some critics label memoirs mere navel gazing. However, the memoirists on this panel will show why it’s anything but. In memoir the “I” is a strong presence, guiding and shaping the narrative, but the broader perspective is that of someone gazing out a window rather than peering into a mirror. The “I” reflects an image in a windowpane as we superimpose ourselves upon the wider world. We will explore ways in which personal stories engage with social, cultural, and political realities.
Afterwards, to my surprise, several audience members asked me for copies of the paper I read, which gladdened me.  I thought perhaps other people might like to see it as well, so I've put it here for ease of reference and sharing.  I hope it's useful.

*
1. 

Based on my own limited reading, it seems plain that memoir is not the self-absorbed genre that it's sometimes accused of being.  Three books I teach, for example, are Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead, about Swofford's experience as a Marine in the Persian Gulf War and his subsequent questioning of codes of masculinity and heroism; Alice Sebold's Lucky, which challenges the way rape is treated by our law enforcement and judicial systems, as well as our culture's persistent, wishful misunderstanding of how trauma operates; and Peter Balakian's Black Dog of Fate, which begins with a privileged young man in New Jersey and uncovers the Armenian genocide his relatives endured.  These memoirs, like so many, use intimate experience as a crowbar to dislodge assumptions about the wider world.

So I see any accusations of memoir as a navel-gazing endeavor as simply an effort to deploy a false dichotomy—self vs. world—in order to shut discourse down, to shut a genre down, a genre that has potentially inflammatory things to disclose.

Memoir doesn't tell an either-or story; it's all about both-and.  When we write memoir, we politicize the personal.  We personalize the political.  Personal narratives—sexual narratives, family narratives—accomplish political work in the wider world. 

They are persuasive.  They have a rhetorical effect.

Because of its unique epistemological status among literary genres, memoir has, with the truth-claim it stakes, an unusual power to unsettle the status quo.  Some people fear or envy this power, and scorning and dismissing memoir as a genre is one one way they express their anxiety about who gets to speak.

2.

In valuing the sociopolitical illumination that memoir offers us, I'm helped by the feminist-of-color concept of intersectionality.  Many social-identity categories intersect in each of us—gender, race and ethnicity, economic class, religion, sexual orientation, nation, culture, physical ability, and so on—resulting in unique combinations, sums that are larger than their parts.  For each of us, our individual experience occupies a site, a node, where multiple categories intersect, and the ways these categories layer and ignite can open themselves to our analysis.

My own work in memoir, which occurs primarily in two books, is curious about a number of issues that extend beyond the boundaries of my personal experience and into the wider world. 

Because my 2005 memoir The Truth Book stakes sociopolitical claims, a strong investment in accuracy shaped my composition process.  The book concerns being adopted at birth by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and running away at fourteen.  For the sake of other children suffering domestic violence or sexual trauma, for the sake of current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses, for the sake of children whose parents commit suicide, for the sake of everyone who has suffered profound identity damage (as my father did) due to cultural assimilation, I didn’t want my work to be open to attacks regarding factual accuracy that a laissez-faire writing process can engender. 

To this end, I checked maps, read newspaper accounts, examined legal documents.  Sometimes I even folded their language into my own, letting the official accounts abrade, shadow, and illuminate my personal perspective. And since this was how I learned to write memoir, I retained that fidelity to research and to deliberate intertextuality in my second book as well. 

Several of the essays in my 2012 memoir, Island of Bones, were originally invited about different topics and for different audiences, and this awareness that they were doing different kinds of literary and political work in the world expanded my concept of memoir further.  The book explores Latina ethnic identity.  It’s curious about how the aftereffects of parental suicide play out over the years that follow.  It looks at how someone raised with violence, neglect, and abuse can become a safe and loving parent, and how poverty, trauma, and being raised as a religious fundamentalist have inflected my own academic and literary ambitions.

For each essay, I selected the best possible persona to serve the material and its audience, as Vivian Gornick advises in her book The Situation and the Story:  The Art of Personal Narrative.  For example, my essay “On Becoming Educated” was first solicited by Barnard’s journal Scholar & Feminist Online for a special issue on “Polyphonic Feminisms”; I had to look up the word polyphonic to respond to the editors’ invitation.  That moment sparked my thinking, and the essay is about encountering the assumptions of the academy as a Latina, first-generation college student from a background of poverty.  I was thinking about an academic audience when I wrote it.  It now appears in the anthology Wise Latinas:  Writers on Higher Education, which comes out tomorrow [March 1] from the University of Nebraska Press.

Two of the essays in Island of Bones originally appeared in collections that focus on the intersection of gender and class:  Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class from Seal Press, and An Angle of Vision:  Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots from University of Michigan.  A piece about my family’s history in the Cuban enclave in Key West since the 1870s originally appeared in the collection The Other Latin@:  Writing Against a Singular Identity, from the University of Arizona Press.  An essay on being an “apostate,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses call someone who leaves, and on being shunned by my mother because of it, was fine-tuned for the audience of The New York Times Magazine

Two of the essays are specifically about motherhood.  Two are about marriage.  One is about writing and teaching.  One began as an academic keynote for a Latino studies conference and grew into something more personal.

In each case, I used some aspect of the self, or some intersection of aspects, as a lens through which to make an argument, implicit or explicit, about the wider world and my experience in it.  Island of Bones, like The Truth Book, explores issues of social justice and voice.  Both books engage with current sociopolitical concerns.

3.

But to double back and play my own devil’s advocate, I would also question any insistence that the presence of the “wider world” in memoir is the thing that matters most.  Such a formulation can seem to dismiss the domestic sphere, diminishing the value of the experience of many children and women, whose lives in various cultures, including our own, are still fenced around by prohibitions, and to deride the life-narratives of anyone whose sphere is limited due to disability, age, or other factors.  It thus partakes of an exclusionary vision of whose experiences matter. 

It also dismisses many of the experiences of the poor. 

I have been very poor.  I know how poverty can circumscribe one’s life to the apartment, the bus route, the workplace, the laundromat—how it can narrow one’s social life to 15-minute stints in the break-room with other minimum-wage workers.  Such lives, filled with burdens and routine humiliations, do not include the lively benefits of world travel or leisurely intellectual discourse.  They produce no narratives of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or revamping houses in Tuscany. 

Yet not all artists are conveniently born to the privileged classes, and there are people living lives circumscribed by poverty who have profound, upsetting, and beautiful things to tell us.  I would not want to have missed, for example, Rigoberto González’s Butterfly Boy, or Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, or Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running:  La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., or a host of other memoirs.

Restricting our own sense of what is valuable and important in literature to some constructed “wider world” might be a mistake—or rather, believing that the “wider world” does not infuse these more tightly focused texts perpetuates, itself, a false dichotomy:  the notion that national and global political and economic systems and racial prejudice are not precisely structuring those experiences of harshly limited opportunities, of heartbreaking choices that well-to-do people never have to make.

There are fledgling writers out there right now, people who couldn’t make it to this conference, who are struggling to find time between minimum-wage jobs and urgent family pressures in order to write down the stories of their lives.  I would not want to discourage them by valorizing some “wider world” they cannot access as being the true subject of literature.

4.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed in daily life that people who brandish the accusation of “navel-gazing” often seem to lack much capacity for self-reflection and contemplation.  To defend against their charge is to tacitly accept their terms of engagement. 

I’d like to resist doing so. 

We live in a cultural moment that privileges celebrity, performance, and spectacle over interiority, privacy, and introspection.  As an artist and an intellectual, I would not want inadvertently to collude with such a formulation. 

I would not want it to influence the work I write, or choose to read.

5.

To abjure writers for self-absorption is a fine pastime, but it’s plainly illogical to attach self-absorption to any one genre. 

There can be solipsistic poetry, narcissistic fiction, and so on. 

Moreover, the genre of memoir itself is no guarantee against the relentless refusal to reflect, as Mark Danner’s recent review essay in The New York Review of Books about Dick Cheney’s three books of memoir amply demonstrates. 

The focus, the emphasis—a work’s preponderance of self or world—comes not from its genre, a set of formal conventions and claims about epistemological status developed over centuries, but rather, from the author herself or himself. 

The way he or she sees.  The view.

As Joan Didion observes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’” 

It’s that implacability I would have us hold onto:  that shamelessness.  That refusal to be shamed, or placated, or silenced.





 
 

Excited about AWP



If you're going to AWP in Seattle this year, you're probably not reading this:  you're packing, or you're boarding a bus or train or plane as I type.  (Me, I've left all practicalities until the last possible minute.)

There are so many incredible events at AWP, and--with approximately twelve thousand writers in attendance--it's a great opportunity to learn a lot, make new friends, and reconnect with old ones.  (Even though I remain afflicted by qualms about the carbon emissions that conferences generate, I will always recommend AWP as a great experience for writers.)

My own events all take place on Friday: a panel about Family Trouble with four of the contributors, a panel about memoir organized by Sue William Silverman, and an off-site reading from Madeline Wiseman's edited poetry collection Women Write Resistance

But I'll also be working at the Prairie Schooner booth (#1606) on Thursday and Saturday, and doing a signing for the super new anthology The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre at the Michigan State University Press booth (#1201) from 2 to 3 p.m. on Thursday.  And then there are the receptions, the parties, the Con Tinta pachanga, the dinners...

Truth be told, I'll no doubt spend several hours wandering in a fugue state through the Bookfair, and a couple more hours utterly lost, trying to find the next session in a labyrinth of identical-looking hallways and rooms.  I also hope to trek down the hill and find the "anti-authoritarian, anarchist, independent, radical" Left Bank Books, which I'm assured by a reliable source is excellent. 

Mostly, though, I hope to drink good wine with old friends.  To everyone who's going:  safe travels!

 
 

 
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