GRE Article of the Month – June 2014

It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?
By Evgenia Peretz for Vanity Fair

My Inspiration for Selecting this Article

A few months back, I had randomly started a novel because my wife had downloaded a free sample of it on her Kindle (as an avowed reader of books, I tend to poach my wife’s e-reading, so I can claim I’m still loyal to the tangible product). I got through the 90 or so free pages somewhat engaged but not totally intrigued. Still, my wife had convinced me in that it was time to get a Kindle app on my smartphone, and since parts of those 90 pages made public transportation go by faster, I figured I’d just download the entire thing.

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Over the next couple of months the book became a constant companion—even when I wasn’t engaged in tedious commutes (interestingly, I also learned in the process that reading an e-book is a lot easier on the finger and hand muscles—especially when the book is almost 800-pages long). The book is The Goldfinch, and the author, Donna Tartt, did a wonderful job of allowing me to lose myself in the plight of the hero, Theo Decker. His friends—and enemies—became my own.

Yet, when I was reading the book, I never considered it literature. Yes, I know: that sounds terribly snobbish. So I should probably provide a little more context: on Saturday I teach at an SAT school, in which one of my classes is a “Great Literature” course. Throughout the year, my brain is steeped in the likes of The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies. When I do read, it tends to be on the snooty side of things (The New Yorker short stories) not for mere affectation, mind you, but because I mostly gravitate towards books that have a profound take on the human condition. With Tartt’s novel, I didn’t feel I was in the company of great books. I found parts over-written, the syntax a little clumsy, the descriptions overwrought, and the story a little too light on taking on the human condition. For me, the adolescent and young adulthood struggles of the drug addled Theo just weren’t profound in the way that great books ostensibly are. (But boy what an engrossing read!).

And Now, June’s Article of the Month …

So I was very surprised when The Goldfinch ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. Wasn’t such an accolade reserved for high-minded literature? Well, I started asking myself a lot about literature, and what makes something Pulitzer Prize-winning. I’ll save you my musings here, and instead link you to the article of the month from Vanity Fair. In essence, this entire piece, “It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?”, is about the massive critical divide this book has engendered: some who find it an exquisite piece of writing and others who think of it as Harry Potter for adults. In trying to make sense of this polarity in the critical response, the Vanity Fair piece asks what makes a work literature—and if The Goldfinch passes that bar.

Some Words to Look Out For:

  • Cornucopia
  • Pans (not the kitchen implements)
  • Bildungsroman
  • Array
  • Dissolute
  • Bastion
  • Monotonous
  • Consummate
  • Expansive
  • Castigated


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10 Responses to GRE Article of the Month – June 2014

  1. Helena June 30, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

    Hello Chris,

    First of all: kudos. You sir, have single handedly helped students like me around the globe more than most of the prep options out there. Having said that, i have hit a road block as far as RC is concerned. I have completed the MGRE strategy guide and the 5lb book as well and i am still not confident about RC. I cannot even revisit the problems as i now remember the answers to most of them. Please point out an alternative source of practise questions for RC.

    I read your review for the 5lb book and now i am not so confident regarding the practise that i have already put in. HELP!!

  2. Mireille June 26, 2014 at 1:55 am #


    Where at exactly do your posts with Articles of the Month get stored in the Blog for later reference? For instance, if I was to look for your Vocab Wednesday posts, they are all so conveniently grouped together — I go to All Posts and they’re all grouped under Vocabulary / Mnemonics. With the Articles of the Month I wasn’t so lucky — I do find a few here and there, but I don’t seem to find that certain spot where there’re all there, one after another, full list. I was thinking to start building a Reading Folder and reading all articles that made the Article of the Month here would most likely be a good start. 🙂

    Thanks! No rush. Whenever you get the chance.

    • Margarette Jung
      Margarette June 26, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      Hi, Mireille!

      This isn’t perfect, but almost all Article of the Month posts are in, the “Reading in Context” category– you can find the link to this category (and any other relevant categories) under the blog post title of any given post.

      I hope that helps! 🙂


      • Mireille June 26, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

        Thanks, Margarette! It definitely helps — this is exactly what I was looking for! 🙂 Phew, if you only knew how many times I tried to figure it out, just to give up in the end… 😀 You made my day!!

  3. Mireille June 24, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    …reading the article I remembered what our Linguistics professor tried to set straight for us at some point. How many thousands of years ago did he give us that dissertation?! If I remember right, he was talking about dictionaries back then, which supposedly give us all the guidelines for word usage / pronunciation and so on. However, apparently, if the dictionary says a word is being pronounced this way, yet the majority of people are pronouncing it a different way, then the latter is actually the “correct” one, *regardless* what the dictionary says. He stressed this quite a few times — not the dictionaries set the rules, but the people, the majority of people.

    Personally, I never agreed with that statement and in a way, never will. In my mind, if most of people are uneducated, just because there’s so many of them, shouldn’t really be given the right to decide on “educational rules”. So, in my mind, I somehow find a similarity between these two scenarios — who decides what’s the correct way to pronounce / spell / use a word and who gets to decide whether or not a book is quality “literature”.

    Although I am personally more inclined towards giving the “troglodytic lexicographers” — just to cite some classics here 🙂 — the decision power they do deserve — I still can see people having their own saying, deciding for themselves, what they want to consider high quality literature, regardless what Paris (and London) reviews tell them.

    So, because I already said I’d never agree with my professor on that, I will then agree with Evgenia — in the end, time is the one having the last saying — whether or not in our mind Donna Tartt will breath the air in the same room with, say Virginia Woolf. In the meantime, Donna may enjoy each and every second of her success; she might never get the respect and recognition of Paris and London Reviews, but who knows, the bottom line of the book’s sales might be even counter-balancing that and actually the “pans” might even… help her in that respect.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 26, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      Hi Mireille,

      Interesting point–the connection between prescriptivist and descriptivist grammar, and what constitutes literature. What I’m curious about are the other Pulitzer Prize winners: do they all adhere to a certain literary standard? If so, then the award to Tartt is still surprising, because it runs contrary to the type of fiction the Pulitzer committee has selected before.

      As to what constitutes great literature, the literary reviews are always going to draw some embarrassing verdicts, at least when viewed in retrospect (The Great Gatsby was panned; books gushed over are now consigned to some dust heap). I think that definition does change over time, and may be very well changing now (that idea ties in very well with your thoughts on pronunciation). Just because something is highly entertaining, and in the case of The Gold Finch, wedded to the drug-fueled zeitgeist of the last decade, does not mean it can’t be classified as literature–and win some impressive awards along the way.

      Anyhow, thanks for sharing your thoughts. And I’m happy I chose this article because it has engendered quite a few thoughtful responses 🙂

  4. Hanumanth June 24, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I found below article little challenging. And also some interesting words, so thought of sharing it.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 26, 2014 at 11:38 am #

      Great article!

      I myself am a Liszt-o-phile (though I swoon over his piano music and not his flowing locks :)).

      Keep looking for challenging articles and the GRE words contained within. It will help you lots on the verbal side.

      Thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. Sriram June 23, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    The review begs the question, should there be a standard to judge literature? A pulitzer prize winning novel is a bestseller, gets copious praise from a senior editor of NYtimes, is well on its way to be made into a movie; everything hinting towards an inexorable ascendency and then it happens – the inclement ubercritics,whose reviews are implicated to carry the most heft, short shrift the party with a pointed rebuke; James Wood, of the New Yorker being the most critical of them all, likening the raptures to infantilisation of literary culture. Its all downhill from here with the editor of the Paris Review taking a presumptuous stand, even belittling the NYTimes review. The only saving grace,if any, comes in the form of evidence offered that masterpieces were mostly acknowledged in due course, attenuating the critical backlash,albeit unconvincingly. In all this kerfuffle, there seems to be no middle ground and this ends up being a zero-sum game. Perhaps the critical views are parochial, only time will tell. Till then, Goldfinch’s popularity will probably continue,unabated.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 26, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

      Hi Sriram,

      Thanks for the eloquent and trenchant response :).

      I’m not sure I completely agree with the idea that there is “no middle ground”. The article gleaned responses from the extreme side of the spectrum. A few notable critics received the book neither with rapturous delight nor curt disdain. I guess what is inevitable is somebody will snub a book. What is interesting is I don’t think the high-brow literary journals even reviewed the book in the first place, only getting to it after the other critics had. Does this put them on the defensive, so they feel they have to uphold the august edifice of Literature? Or would they have panned the book from the very beginning because TGF lacks certain trappings commonly found in literature?

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