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The Packaging of a Literary Persona

The world’s only negative review of The Secret History by twenty-something superstar Donna Tartt, Knopf, 524 pages.

I’m Nobody! / Who are you? / Are you Nobody — too? / Then there’s a pair of us? / Don’t tell—they’d advertise—you know! / How dreary to be Somebody / How public, like a Frog / To tell one’s name— / the livelong June / to an admiring Bog!

Surely you’ve heard of Donna Tartt? Judging from the hoopla surrounding the publication of her first novel, The Secret History, Tartt is definitely a somebody. Which is not to say that she would disagree with the sentiments in Emily Dickinson’s paen to obscurity. Tartt’s ever-so-eccentric love of privacy—it’s right up there with Michael Stipe’s—naturally received plenty of press. In fact, Tartt could probably recite the poem for you. Her ability to recall reams of poetry (“I know ‘The Waste Land’ by heart. ‘Prufrock.’ Yeats is good.”) is extolled with high seriousness in one national magazine’s typical profile of the 28-year-old author—evidently to convey some sort of demonstrable Girl Scout badge of intellectual virtue.

But it’s hard to imagine her quoting the decidedly unglamorous Dickinson. The Tartt media blitz made it abundandy clear that Emily simply doesn’t rate as a literary model. In order to appeal to glossily literate, expensively educated consumers (usually neo-yuppies hearkening back to undergraduate intellectual purity), publicity packages like Tartt’s (and McInerney’s and Ellis’s) must espouse a canon more narrow and more predictable than anything anywhere outside the campus of St. John’s College.

To get Sam and Libby to put down the New Yorker, turn off PBS and shell out the cash for a work of fiction, the book-hustlers present today’s promotable “bright young things” as serious artists. It is a role which, spurious or not, cannot help but ring false—not only because it is premature, but because it is so clearly prefabricated. This reification of the writer requires the author/product to pose on the literary landscape cloaked in ennui, incessantly (but carefully) invoking artistic influences, establishing an aura of painstakingly consumer-friendly intellectual sophistication. The strategically chosen literary references the young writers spout reveal that the paramount goal is not artistry, but marketability, because the allusions consistently smack of café conversation—they’re deep, but not too deep. They entice, rather than challenge.

The publicity frenzy that has lifted Tartt and her colleagues to the top has established a literary hierarchy for the ad pages. It has created a world in which neophyte authors vie to be the Fitzgerald of the generation, a world in which indeed all writers from the Twenties reign supreme, where Twain and Shakespeare (perhaps because they are so surpassingly famous) manage to get an occasional nod, and where Ayn Rand is actually considered to have merit. The result is an unquestioned triumph of personality over art, image over intellect. Donna Tartt, a budding literati, cannot possibly invoke Dickinson to demonstrate possession of a lonely artistic soul. She has to stick to Salinger.

The paramount goal is not artistry, but marketability—they’re deep, but not too deep.

Writers have always cultivated a persona, of course. But Tartt, who received a $450,000 advance from Knopf, is not your ordinary first-time novelist. A Bennington College chum of gross-out-hack turned First-Amendment-martyr Bret Easton Ellis, she is represented by his agent, ICM’s Amanda Urban. Her book soon grabbed the attention (and the cash) of Alan Pakula’s Pakula Productions, which snapped up the screen rights. The novel has been eclipsed by the event of its publication.

With all this money on the line, Tartt’s handlers could not simply tout a “hotly awaited highbrow chiller” alone. Instead we are getting a full-blown portrait of the artist as a sort of post-punk, brainy Holly Golightly in the pages of Mirabella, People, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, Esquire, et al., and even in the more “serious” publications. She’s what every swooning English major ever wanted to be—she’s intellectual, and she’s hip. She dresses in college-bohemian high style. Tartt may well turn out to be the best thing that’s happened to vintage clothing since Cyndi Lauper—in one spread she’s prancing about in a black frock, long pearls, and of course, Doc Martens (“the author’s winsome pose masks a wicked intelligence”), elsewhere she’s sporting a severe tailored suit complete with trendy polka-dot necktie (“if her appearance offers any hint of the darkness within, it’s in the way her pale face is framed by her nearly black hair, a contrast suggestive of something vaguely gothic”).

Happily, no one quite brings up Louise Brooks while publicizing Tartt, but Vanity Fair’s James Kaplan does his best, describing her as

a kind of boy-girl-woman in her lineaments, with lunar-pale skin, spooky light-green eyes, a good-size triangular nose, a high-pixieish voice. With her Norma Desmond sunglasses propped on her dark bobbed hair … and her ever-present cigarette, she is somehow a character out of her own fictive creation: a precocious sprite from a Cunard Line cruise ship, circa 1920-something.

All it then takes is talk of Tartt’s answering machine, on which T. S. Eliot intones “The Waste Land,” (!) and Kaplan is quite swept away. He breathlessly repeats much of the poetry she knows, mentions that she was a quirky, formal child, who used “I should like” instead of “I would like,” (Tartt smugly comments about this riveting evidence of precociousness: “It was starting even then. Child is father to the man”) and rhapsodizes about the “small, hard-drinking, southern writer, a Catholic convert, witheringly smart, with an occluded past, sadness among the magnolias.” In case readers don’t get the message, the article is titled “Smart Tartt.”

And the role is played out everywhere: her “eyes, animated by the pleasure of a good phrase, widen out of their squinty concentration into a clear and guileless green” as she confides her love of T. S. Eliot answering-machine message to Mirabella’s Paul Gediman. She asserts that her life “is like Candide’s,” talks “cheerfully of life and death, dread and evil, in a voice both high and smooth, tuned to a fine Mississippi pitch,” and carries on a determinedly post-modern conversation that “teems with references from Stephen King to Nietzsche.”

Whew. Donna Tartt is likely to remind one of nothing so much as an English grad student who’s been studying too long for her comprehensives. She was actually a classics student at Bennington, and her book is about a group of classics majors with distinctly Dionysian interests. So why not record her quoting Virgil at length (I’m sure she could) or photograph her standing beside a Doric column or a wine-dark sea? Because, faster than you can say Thucydides, someone in publicity recognized that Suetonius will lose to Stein in the image marketplace any day. There are a lot of former English majors out there, and Tartt is being served to them as a reminder of the good old days when they, too, sat around and read the Norton Anthology. She is the embodiment of the post-collegian’s intellectual fantasy.

This cultivated image does a great disservice to Donna Tartt, and to The Secret History. She is unquestionably one of the most gifted members of the new gliterati, and her book is an elegantly written, fast-paced read. Richard Papen, the narrator, gives the lyrical confession of a group of classics majors at a small Vermont college who idolize their professor and resolve to replicate a bacchanal. Four of his friends succeed in attaining Dionysian ecstasy, but their orgiastic embrace of the sublime results in the inadvertent slaying of a passerby. When it looks as though one member of the group may squeal, the others, with Richard, calmly plot to murder him. Undoubtedly, the novel is nothing if not sensational.

But a lyrical prose style and attention-grabbing plot cannot make up for serious literary deficiencies. The book is flawed by a pronounced lack of credibility. It is simply inexplicable why drippy, weak-willed Richard whose (what else?) suburban upbringing is supposed to be enough reason for his desensitized soul, not only would be drawn to this arrogant, smart-aleck lot, but also why he would go along with their chilling plans—and what, for that matter, any of them would see in him. The characters’ putative glamour is a donnée in Tartt’s eyes, but not in the reader’s. We are informed of their charisma but do not experience it, in great part because the characters are remarkably clichéd; for example, it will come as no surprise that the Southern twins are (again, what else?) incestuous. The clique’s hubris is utterly manufactured, and its fall therefore never transcends abstraction. Ultimately, what is meant to be a tale of innocence lost, glamour tarnished, and intellectualism gone berserk succeeds only as a page-turner, and as 1992’s recreational equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons or The Dead Poets Society.

For all its references to Pliny, Homer, Milton, and others, The Secret History is resoundingly a work of entertainment, not a work of art.

And though The Secret History is certainly a testimony to the love of learning, what is intended to be viewed as the group’s high-minded devotion to scholarship often merely comes across as irritating pretentiousness. The characters are lifeless imitations of what smart people are supposed to be like—and Tartt is far too impressed with them. Her frequently gratuitous classical and modern literary allusions could have been less grating if Tartt had injected even the slightest hint of self-knowing humor, but her tone is consistently reverent and annoyingly superior. You know you’re in trouble when an author prefaces her list of acknowledgements with an apology that she’s running “the risk of sounding like a Homeric catalog of ships.”(Despite all the obscure and not-so-obscure classical allusions, don’t bother looking for “semper ubi sub ubi,” it isn’t here; this is a highbrow chiller, remember?) And while there is nothing more enjoyable than an intellectual strutting her stuff (cf. A. S. Byatt’s Possession), “Smart Tartt” gives ample demonstration that parroting and posing do not equal erudition.

And yet in spite of all this, the sages have spoken: Donna Tartt is a star. Everybody says so. Quite simply, the praise heaped upon The Secret History cannot be explained away as sheer critical joy at the discovery of an elegant new wordsmith. The book’s flaws make it clear that criticism itself has been thrown out the window in favor of celebrity-making. The commodification bandwagon rolls merrily along. Young, professional, liberal-arts alumni, nostalgic for the life of the mind while experiencing the harsh truths of the life of the paycheck, have been targeted to consume the Tarttian version of their most cherished myth—if it’s elitist, it must be art.

But Donna Tartt is no Eudora Welty, at the very least not yet, no matter what the commentators pant. The hype manifests that the publishing industry does not know—or perhaps simply does not care—to distinguish between best-sellers and literary masterpieces, between cleverness and profundity, between John Le Carré and Joseph Conrad. Market status once again triumphs over literary stature. For all its references to Pliny, Homer, Milton, and others, its Fitzgeraldian glamor and mock-Eliot portentousness, and its great, big, flat-out Faustian themes, The Secret History is resoundingly a work of entertainment, not a work of art.