Jane Smiley

"13 Ways of Looking at the Novel"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann JAN 29, 2006)

Acclaimed novelist Jane Smiley has written a loving, intelligent analysis of the form, function, and reading experience of the novel, which she describes as a "small, rectangular, boxlike object a few inches long, a few inches wide, and an inch or so thick . . . As an object, it is user-friendly and routine, a mature technological form, hard to improve upon and easy to like."  Smiley is in love, both intellectually and emotionally, with her chosen form, and her passion shows on every page.  She examines aspects of the novel from different perspectives and illustrates her points with examples, from Alcott's Little Women to Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, from Proust's In Search of Lost Time to Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, from Richardson's Pamela to Nabokov's Lolita, from Austen's Persuasion to McEwan's Atonement, from Thackeray's Vanity Fair to Egan's Look at Me–– a hundred novels in all.

Smiley begins her 568 page elegy with the basics:  What is a Novel?  Who is a Novelist?  These seemingly simple questions receive intricate answers, as Smiley delves into theories put forth by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James, and into the works of fiction themselves.  Throughout her academic analysis, Smiley never loses sight of what the form means to her, and what she has learned from it. When she writes, "But, of course, the novel is a particular type of hypothesis–– it is an ontological  construct, it is a theory of being.  A novel proposes that the world has a certain mode of existing.  It doesn't propose this by asserting it specifically, but by depicting it implicitly," we know she is speaking from her own relationship to her writing as well as generalizing to include all novels.

Academics and students of literature will find themselves engrossed in the author's meaty discussions of the history of the novel, its psychology, its use of morality, its role as a historical document, and the art of it.  Perhaps the most accessible chapters, however, are also the most personal.  Smiley addresses the reader as though a writing peer in her two chapters, "A Novel of Your Own I" and "A Novel of Your Own II," 45 pages of writing advice and conversation.  Even more intimate is her revealing look into the writing of her novel Good FaithIn this chapter, she confesses the hardships and missteps of writing fiction, as well as her unreliable judgment of her own fiction.  Smiley treats the reader to the details of her revision process––the decisions she makes, the insights she gains, the struggle she endures to get everything right.  With honesty and clarity, she gives the reader a rare glimpse into the creative process.

Avid readers will be most delighted by Smiley's "mini-essay(s)" of the hundred novels she selected as a reading exercise, which she uses as the final section of 13 Ways. . . .   She states that these novels are meant to be representative, not comprehensive, since it is impossible to construct a top 100 list without omitting fine literary works.  She writes, "My preferences on the list do what preferences always do––they make an outline of who I am, depict me as a reader and as a person.  But, I think, they are transitory preferences, as preferences in novels almost always are."   Readers who, say, were put off by the academic nature of A.S. Byatt's Possession, or the unlikable characters of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, or the comic distance created by Zadie Smith in White Teeth will find new reasons to appreciate those works, and all the others included in this brilliant book.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read an excerpt from 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel at Randomhouse.com

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About the Author:

Jane SmileyJane Smiley was born in Los Angeles, California in 1949 but her family only lived there for one year before moving to St. Louis.  She grew up in St. Louis and went to Vassar college, graduating in 1971.  She then traveled in Europe for a year, working on an archeological dig and sightseeing, and then returned to Iowa for graduate school at the University of Iowa where she earned her M.F.A. and Ph.D. and taught until 1996.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres in 1992. In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Jane, the mother of three, lives in northern California.

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