Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley

A long, thorough study of the novel. If novels were a person, this book would be that person's biography.

13 Ways of Looking at the novel

Knopf, 2005, 608 pages (247,886 words)

Publisher's Description:

Over an extraordinary twenty-year career, Jane Smiley has written all kinds of novels: mystery, comedy, historical fiction, epic. “Is there anything Jane Smiley cannot do?” raves Time magazine. But in the wake of 9/11, Smiley faltered in her hitherto unflagging impulse to write and decided to approach novels from a different angle: she read one hundred of them, from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith, Nicholson Baker, and Alice Munro.

Smiley explores—as no novelist has before her—the unparalleled intimacy of reading, why a novel succeeds (or doesn’t), and how the novel has changed over time. She describes a novelist as "right on the cusp between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing," yet whose "job and ambition is to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive."

In her inimitable style—exuberant, candid, opinionated—Smiley invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft. She walks us step-by-step through the publication of her most recent novel, Good Faith, and, in two vital chapters on how to write "a novel of your own," offers priceless advice to aspiring authors.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel may amount to a peculiar form of autobiography. We see Smiley reading in bed with a chocolate bar; mulling over plot twists while cooking dinner for her family; even, at the age of twelve, devouring Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which she later realized were among her earliest literary models for plot and character.

And in an exhilarating conclusion, Smiley considers individually the one hundred books she read, from Don Quixote to Lolita to Atonement, presenting her own insights and often controversial opinions. In its scope and gleeful eclecticism, her reading list is one of the most compelling—and surprising—ever assembled.

Engaging, wise, sometimes irreverent, Thirteen Ways is essential reading for anyone who has ever escaped into the pages of a novel or, for that matter, wanted to write one. In Smiley’s own words, ones she found herself turning to over the course of her journey: “Read this. I bet you’ll like it.”

Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist. She's also written a biography of Charles Dickens. I've never read any of her other books. I picked this book up on someone's recommendation, as a good book about novels, about writing, about the history of novels, and about how to understand novels better. In the category of "books about books," this is one of the best I've ever read. It was like an upper-level college course in the history of the novel, the meaning of the novel, the definition of the novel, the psychology of the novel, the form of the novel, the relationship between the novel and society, between the novel and the author, between the novel and the reader. Anyone who is serious about learning how to deconstruct and analyze novels without the benefit of a background in literary theory, or the bias of any particular literary school, could hardly find a better primer than this book.

Smiley's ways of looking at the novel

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Smiley runs through everything she has to say about the novel as a creative work and a cultural artifact, from what makes a novel to her own personal experience with novels, as a reader and writer of them.

  1. Introduction
  2. What Is a Novel?
  3. Who Is a Novelist?
  4. The Origins of the Novel
  5. The Psychology of the Novel
  6. Morality and the Novel
  7. The Art of the Novel
  8. The Novel and History
  9. The Circle of the Novel
  10. A Novel of Your Own (I)
  11. A Novel of Your Own (II)
  12. Good Faith: A Case History
  13. Reading a Hundred Novels

Her examination of novels is informed by an obviously expansive education, but it is also personal. Some of her observations the reader may disagree with, but she has insights about everything, examining the cultural context of each novel she looks at, the novelist (framing each individual novel within the context of that novelist's entire body of work and the society in which he or she lived), and each novel's place in history, and how it compares to novels that preceded or followed it.

Smiley traces the history of the novel the way most scholars do: Don Quixote is arguably the first true novel in European literature, but the first novel she catalogs is Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji from a thousand years earlier, and she also reviews the Icelandic sagas and such works as Boccaccio's Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron as predecessors of Cervantes in the Western literary tradition.

But the book is not just a list of important milestones in the history of the novel. She takes on the novel from many different angles, and I found much of her discussion fascinating. For example, when she delves into the history of the novel and how novels have impacted society, she makes a compelling case that novels, beginning in the 19th century, were not just reflections of society, but had a signature effect in transforming it:

What nineteenth-century novelists discovered was that the exploration of cause and effect that is natural to the novel mitigates the idea that evil is random, and that the requirement of the novel form that the protagonist be in a continuously depicted relationship with his society has the effect of placing responsibility. As soon as responsibility is apportioned, both author and reader start to feel that evil can be fixed, and fixed by amateurs, since the novel is always an amateur production. The effect of novels by Dickens, Stowe, and their contemporaries (which were, in some sense, the cultural phenomena of their day similar to Star Wars or Sex and the City in our day) was to make morality a political question—a discussion of good and bad individual actions and their effects, as always, but also of wealth, power, and influence. The novel has certain inherent characteristics—it is naturally democratic; it promotes individuality and freedom; it is intimate and sociable and connective; it elevates inner life over appearance; it is, often in spite of itself, hopeful; and it is naturally popular. These qualities fit into and exemplify the idea of the modern liberal society and in the course of the nineteenth century came to be seen as moral issues (though they can as easily contradict another sort of society's system of morality as uphold it).

I also found particularly interesting her discussion of the distinctive character of national literatures. French novels are notable for being deeply psychological and treating sordid subjects that English novelists mostly disdained. German novels treat the government as an immutable presence; American novels glamorize those who oppose the government. English novels are preoccupied with social class and those who transgress against it; Russian novels are preoccupied with the Russian identity and defining who is a Russian.

Smiley's writing is fluid but a bit dry -- it's very, very liberal-artsy-literary-intellectual, which you may or may not consider a good thing. I'd love to take one of her classes; I'm not sure I want to go read her Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Thousand Acres. But now and then she does show a bit of sardonic wit:

...while English novels, especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ones, depict an England that is perhaps more appealing than England truly was, French novels depict a nation of vipers. One can only hope that for all that French novelists present themselves as social documentarians, they were actually just trying to make money.

Discourse Clocks and Writing Pyramids

There were two particularly useful constructs Smiley describes in this book. The first pertains to a set of categories into which every novel falls (usually into multiple ones), according to its discourse type.

Novel discourse types as stations of a clock

(Okay, remember what I said above? If thinking about "discourse types" makes your eyes glaze over, this book is probably not for you. But if that's the level of nerdy intellectual dissection of novels that gets your brain-juices flowing, it really is pretty interesting.)

The easiest way, I think, to conceptualize this aspect of the novel is to imagine an analog clock face with the novel in the middle and the forms of discourse it is related to arranged around the circumference. If we then plot some of our novels around the clock, how the catalog of novels arranges itself is easier to understand, and how novels succeed or fail is also easier to understand. Most authors do not, of course, consciously position their novels in relation to all the others, but inevitably, after the novel is out of the author's hands, it takes up its position in the bookcase, in the reader's mental library, and, for the sake of argument, on the face of our clock.

If you are an aspiring writer, the two chapters on A Novel of Your Own are addressed to you. She does not give much in the way of professional advice, but she talks to you, novelist to novelist. Her theory of a "pyramid" of novel-writing skills, in particular, is some of the best and most clarifying explanation I've ever read on the subject.

Every aspect of novel-writing, from knowing the difference between a comma and a semicolon to being able to conceive a multivolume historical saga of French cosmopolitan life, is as likely to be a skill as a talent. No theory of the workings of the brain has revealed a specific novel-writing center in either the right brain or the left brain. For your purposes, this means that there is no definable end to the process of developing your tools—you will not hit a novel-writing glass ceiling in the way that you might hit a piano-playing glass ceiling or a pitching-speed glass ceiling. Let's imagine a novel-writing pyramid of skills. The bottom layer of punctuation, grammar, and spelling is knowledge you will use in every sentence you write. This, the layer that needs to be mastered first, is the most artificial one.

She goes on to describe the higher layers: diction, plot and protagonist, setting and theme, and finally, complexity. She also discusses other common writers' topics (Outline or no outline? What about research? Boredom? Writer's block?) and then in part two, assumes you have written a first draft of your novel and talks about how to take it apart.

She then writes an entire chapter in which she takes the writing of her own novel, Good Faith, as a case study. I didn't think this chapter would be interesting. It was. I still don't think I really want to read her book; a psychological drama about greed and corruption during the 1980s real estate boom just does not interest me, and she failed to interest me in it. But she examines the entire process she went through in writing it with the same critical eye she applies to every other novel, and also gave me an appreciation for the meticulous approach she takes to her work:

At any rate, I read the novel over one more time, and I did end up adding one last thing, the second-to-last phrase, which is, "for once I recognized something my parents had talked about all my life, and that was the operation of grace in the material world." I added this with an intense sense of satisfaction. It brought several things together—Joe and his parents, Joe's secular view of life and his parents’ faith-based view of life, the legal and religious connotations of the novel's title, and the two halves of Felicity (the female protagonist)—her exuberance and her physical grace. At the same time, the word "grace" set up unfortunate verbal and thematic echoes with the name of one of the characters, Marcus's sister Grace. Her name had to be changed, and I thought about this for about a day, trying out typical Catholic names of Grace's generation. I read over some of her lines, and they didn't work with a two-syllable name. I also felt I had to use a name with a long "a" sound, which left few names—not Amy, not Elaine, not any one I could think of other than Jane, my own name.

Okay, if this sort of obsessive meditation over tiny details of your writing doesn't interest you, you're not a writer.

Although this isn't the primary focus of the book, I would compare these chapters to Stephen King's excellent book On Writing; Smiley is much more formal and literary in her language than King, but they are both masters of the craft and communicate their love of it in every word.

Can the novel save civilization?

As much as I enjoyed this book (and I had to pick and choose which chunks I was going to quote from it!), I do think Smiley's aforementioned hyper-acute literary sensibilities veer into elitism and perhaps verge on worship for the novel. She argues that novels can transform society; conversely, she argues that without novels, society is doomed:

When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies. If the novel has died for men (and some publishers and critics say that men read fewer novels than they used to), then the inner lives of their friends and family members are a degree more closed to them than before. If the novel dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well. If the novel should die, what is to replace it?

Now, I'm as strongly in favor of a well-read populace as the next avid reader, and I agree wholeheartedly with Smiley's genteel but pointed observation that when asked during the 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign what their favorite book was, Al Gore named The Red and the Black by Stendhal, and George Bush named The Very Hungry Caterpillar. However, I think it's going a little far to claim that empathy and responsible government cannot exist unless everyone is reading novels. Yes, I'm suspicious of people who never read, but not because I think novels are a requirement for developing moral awareness, but because people who scorn novels also tend to be the sort of people who scorn any intellectual pursuits. Smiley almost seems to be implying that before the 19th century, people weren't as empathetic or intimate with one another as they are now, and that's thanks to novels, and I don't quite buy that argument.

100(+1) Novels

The second part of the book consists of a review of 100 novels Smiley read over a three-year period, during a time when she was experiencing writer's block with her own WIP. (She cheats and slips in a Jennifer Egan novel at the end, so it's really 101.) They aren't her personal list of "the best 100 novels ever" -- some of them she loves, some of them she does not like and she tells the reader why. She chose them because she felt they were all significant in the history of the development of the novel, and because each one said or did something she considers notable, something that no other novelist had done before, or which she thinks this novel did better than its predecessors.

You can find the list here. Many are the sort of the classics you'd expect to find on any "100 great books" list; some are more obscure. Most will be found on the books1001 list, though Smiley limits herself to one book per author (so for example, she chose only one Austen and one Dickens novel, though she's read all of them and talks a bit about several in the first part of the book).

It must be pointed out that her survey is almost entirely Western-centric, other than a few entries from India, Egypt, and Japan. Also, all the novels she examines and the types of novels she reads are very solidly, respectably literary. About the closest she comes to discussing genre fiction is Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. She does take a final detour to review a "chick lit" novel by Jennifer Egan, and applies the same careful analysis to it that she did to every novel from The Tale of Genji to Atonement, and amazingly, made it sound interesting enough that I'm almost tempted to read it, but she pretty obviously only cares about the sort of books that win Pulitzer and Booker prizes and can't spare the time of day for science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, detective mysteries, or even romances (though I'd say the majority of her selections fall into that umbrella category becoming known as "women's fiction").

Some of her reviews ran together for me, which is natural when you read 100 of them, but it's amazing to me how thoroughly she's able to describe each novel and incorporate everything she has said about novels in the first half of the book into each review in the second half. Observations like this:

Trollope has many virtues as a novelist. He is organized and efficient; he has a good sense of pace and of proportion, too. His characters are more than believable—they seem perfectly familiar, both as types and as individuals. Trollope's wisdom about the workings of marriage seems almost modern, and contrasts strongly with that of almost every other Victorian writer—he seems actually familiar with intimacy as most people know it, especially the way marriages have two manifestations—the one presented to the outside world, and the one the spouses themselves know. But the best thing about Trollope is that he is always one step ahead of the reader, who comes to feel that there is nothing in the world that the author doesn't know everything about. And Trollope's style, which is objective, understated, detailed, and eloquent, is perfectly suited for his sort of sociological and psychological expertise.

are the sort of observations I wish I had a refined enough novelist's eye to make.

She does not love every book she reviews. She doesn't write any "bad" reviews -- every book on her list is meaningful and important, in her view -- but it's clear that if she were rating them on Amazon or Goodreads, she wouldn't be giving all of them 5 stars. And since all reviews are personal, her judgment is subjective, and some of her 1- and 2-star reviews on Goodreads seem to be the result of people pissed off that she doesn't think The Great Gatsby or Lolita are quite as great as many other people do.

This was a long, somewhat exhausting read. The first part of the book is pretty heavy at times, as it does not lend itself to a quick read and if you're really engaged with Smiley's arguments, you'll have to stop and think and relate your own experiences and thoughts about novels you've read to her arguments and the frameworks she constructs. Then there are 101 book reviews in the second half. It takes a while to read through them, and some people may well just read the first half of the book and skim a few reviews in the second half that interest them. But I read every one, and it was worthwhile. I must confess that I've only read a handful of the books on Smiley's list. Of those, for the most part I agreed with her observations. Of the others, she convinced me to add a few to my TBR list, and convinced me that many more probably won't interest me, but I am glad to know about them.

Verdict: This isn't a light read, but it's a serious read for serious readers. If you like literary fiction and would like to consider yourself well-informed about it, I'd almost call it a must-read. There is a lot here to digest, but it's one of the few books that I think really will make you a better reader, and as a bonus, if you're one of the many serious readers who also entertains writing ambitions, there's a lot here for aspiring writers as well. Lastly, it contains 101 exceedingly well-written book reviews, so if you're one of those people (like me) who wishes you could write better book reviews (and maybe without great galloping hordes of teal deer and copypasta like I wrote above ;)), these might not be the style you aspire to, but they're certainly excellent examples.
Tags: books, jane smiley, literary, non-fiction, reviews, writing

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