Is The Goldfinch a success?
How should Donna Tartt view the results of her novel The Goldfinch? Should she feel a sense of affirmation and accomplishment after reading reviews like this:
"A glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all [Tartt’s] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole. . . . It’s a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns," wrote Michiko Kakutani, the chief New York Times book reviewer for over three decades.
Or how about receiving respect from a major writing peer.
"'The Goldfinch’ is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind," wrote Stephen King.
But then she opens up The New Yorker:
“Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote critic James Wood.
Or The New York Review of Books:
“Reading The Goldfinch,” Prose concluded, “I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’"
Or The Paris Review:
“A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them,” says Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. “It coats everything in a cozy patina of ‘literary’ gentility. Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap."
Can a book be considered a literary success if a magazine with the name "Paris" in it didn't write a glowing review?
Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, now that had to decide once and for all this was a great book, right?
Well, not according to James Wood.
“I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”
Donna Tartt could look at the 26,000 Amazon reviews and feel a sense of success. Not many books even reach 26 reviews. Overall she has 4 stars. That's great. Especially with that many reviews.
But what should she do with these ones? And the hundreds of people who found these reviews helpful. Should she try to respond? Reach out via email?
There was probably a literary agent who said no. A publisher who said no. An editor who said 800 pages was too long.
There were English majors reading her book on their commutes to work. There were non-English majors who might still say, "Goldfinch? Never heard of it."
In 2017, she had no movie version. 2019 she does. Will it be up for awards? Someone will say, "The book was WAY better than the movie." Someone else will say, "There never should have been a movie. It was a terrible book."
Whew. What a roller coaster ride. Point being: Bestseller lists. Pulitzer prize. Movie version. A publisher saying yes. A glowing review in The New York Times. Thousands of five-star Amazon reviews. None of these moments offered a once and for all verdict for Donna Tartt. There were and will always be dissenting opinions. Books are not very black and white.
So, if the reception is still a mixed bag, even for a book that reaches The Goldfinch's level of success, maybe writers need a different metric. Maybe the most accurate measure, as a writer, is to just ask yourself, "Am I happy with this book? Was this the best I could possibly do? Was this work meaningful?"
At least that approach has one yes or no answer.