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May 03, 2006

It won't help you write literature, but it just might help you write a bestseller: Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel - Jane Smiley

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
by Jane Smiley
London: Faber & Faber, 2006
Hardback, 16.99

There is a review on Amazon of Good Faith, one of Jane Smiley's eleven novels, that begins with the following sentence:

Opening a Jane Smiley novel is like slipping into a warm bath.
I always think that's such a bad sign.

If you go to the Random House website, you will find that Smiley:

has written on politics, farming, horse training, child-rearing, literature, impulse buying, getting dressed, Barbie, marriage, and many other topics. She is also the author of a book on craftspeople living in the Catskills.
I always think that this spread of interests from the cutesy to the cutting edge is a bad sign, too. Not just because of the "Jack of all trades" inference I draw, which makes me think I'm dealing with a hack, or indeed the boastfulness, but because this wide-ranging fluency suggests complacency. Nothing's too complicated or too trivial for our Jane. Smiley by name, smiley by nature. She is at home with all these subjects, she has "mastered" them. She is smug.

Just as her novels are the equivalent of a warm bath, life its joys and travails are easily wrapped up in an article, a book, a whatever.

With Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Smiley takes on a subject of which she should know quite a bit, having written eleven of them herself: the novel.

It starts badly. She namechecks 9/11 and her ensuing writers' block. Although I can see that a shock to her complacency really would render her silent, a true writer would use that shock to examine herself and the world around her in more depth. What did that awful day tell her about herself, I wonder, that she was turned to stone? We don't find out, because she turned to books instead, in an attempt to examine her craft. This book is about her reading of 100 seminal novels and what she discovered about her craft. From the 1,000-year-old Tale of Genji to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, she gives us the lowdown on what a novel is, how it works, and why it works. If we can get through her book, we'll write one, too.

The first few chapters are extremely interesting and show that she does indeed know what she is talking about. She has worked as a creative-writing teacher, and it shows. She has an engagingly discursive tone reassuring, brisk and unpretentious.

She quotes Edith Wharton remarking that the job of the novelist is to thoroughly think through each element or aspect of the novel he or she is writing. The feeling of completion the novelist creates is fictional. This is her first interesting point (on page 21). She then elaborates. Authors dig deep in their memory banks to deliver every aspect of the experience they are attempting to depict. It is when they switch from their own point of view to that of another character, that they have yielded to the urge to write something more complete, more finished, than reality would ever admit. This is fiction.

Then she refers to Marcel Proust constructing memories, and arranging them in a logical and understandable order, in such a way as to make them worth reading about. Her point here is that fiction may result from this process, because it involves inventing characters, but it does not dictate the resulting prose narrative. This, too, is an enlightening peek into the author's working methods. She later cites Charles Dickens, as observed by his daughter, writing at his desk and jumping up intermittently to stand in front of a mirror, talking in funny voices and gesticulating in a variety of manners. He was acting out what he was writing; testing its viability. He was quite unaware of his daughter's presence in the room.

For instances such as these I would recommend Smiley's book. She probes the unconscious forces that propel novelists to write and makes them easily accessible. She also makes some rather obvious statements. Prose, she points out, is what people use to talk, which is why, in a novel, we have protagonists who are ordinary; they are not necessarily the heroes of destiny and drama. Catharsis is only found in tragedy, she says. I would dispute this, naming Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov (which are not listed in her top 100) as well as Proust's A La Recherche (which is) as novels that deliver catharsis. But no, according to Smiley,

prose plus the protagonist plus the group tend to block catharsis, reminding the reader that whatever emotions we suffer, life goes on.
To this assertion, I would simply say, perhaps Jane Smiley is not open to catharsis in the novel, because she has been unable to supply such moments in her own. The novels I suggest as being cathartic told me that life will always go on, but sometimes we stop because we have felt something very deeply and we need to think about it. And then we go on, a little wiser, maybe sadder, but definitely having felt something, having lived, for a moment, more intensely. That's catharsis. And it happened for me on reading the final pages of each of those three novels. I was made to reflect on the novel I had just read, and see it in a transformative light, with the ending groping backwards to the beginning. This is the fictional completion Smiley speaks of, and it is something that would be hard to achieve in poetry or drama, because it requires the familiarity of having been with these characters over a long period of time, and the circularity of cause and effect. This is life going on, as she puts it, but it is catharsis, too.

Smiley is a highly organised writer. In her list of 100 novels she shows herself to be thoughtful and informed, with responses that are studied, not impassioned. In short, I can imagine her at her desk writing, and organising her elements. She concludes that there are twelve of them: travel, history, biography, tale, joke, gossip, diary/letter, confession, polemic, essay, epic, romance. And she sits there sorting them out until she comes up with the thirteenth.

she cries,
I've written a novel.
But I can't imagine her losing her grip, experimenting with she knows not what, getting up from her desk and doing a Dickens, allowing her emotions their catharsis.
In a society that promotes conformity,
Smiley says, as if to convince herself that what she does is provocative,
novel-reading one person experiencing both the mind of another person and her own mind experiencing is a subversive force.
(She has an irritating habit of feminizing her reader and making her generic writer male. I think she's making a point about gender.) I'm all for subversion. I just wish Jane Smiley were more provocative. She seems far too keen to provide a sap, though. When novels like The Da Vinci Code dominate the sales charts, where are the signs of the novel's subversive force? And isn't she doing just what Dan Brown does? de-coding a mystery, and making the enigma of the un-knowable safe and accessible to everyone? Look, she is saying, anyone can write a novel. All you have to do is read my book!

In her attempts to demystify the genre, she has written something that's not so good for literature. It's good for sales, though.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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Just this morning I was listening to the Diane Rehm radio show and they were interviewing Jane Smiley. She's doing the talk radio circuit promoting her latest novel (her 13th- uses Boccaccio's Decameron as a template). She mentioned that the novel is subversive, which I thought was by far the most interesting thing she had to say, and I'd wished she said more about it. So I googled "novel subversive" and found this page. I've never read any of Smiley's novels. She came across as, well, Smiley on the radio. But it got me thinking of my Novel Perpetually in Progress... (my second). I have a stack of books on novels and novel writing and how to do it and so forth, and I would agree that there's something mysterious about it all that no "how to" is able to capture. That's maybe because everyone does it a bit differently.

Posted by: Joshua Berlow at February 21, 2007 02:37 AM
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