Jane Smiley is widely known as the best selling author of 11 well-respected novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, though she’s also written three works of non-fiction and numerous essays, short stories, and magazine articles. She straddles both academic and popular worlds with ease; not only is she a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, she also authored a 1995 episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is, at first sight, an intimidating book. It’s roughly 600 pages long, and from its rather daunting title, the wary reader might be forgiven for expecting some literary criticism of the dry, heavy, academic variety. After all, Smiley has an MFA and a PhD, and was a tenured English professor at Iowa State University for 15 years, until 1996; she’s also the author of a biography of Charles Dickens, so it’s reasonable to suspect she might have decided the time has come to show off her academic chops. The book’s appealing, brightly colored cover should be a clue, however, that it’s not going to be too stodgy, and in this case, I’m pleased to say, a book can be judged by its cover. 13 Ways is lively, accessible, informative, broad ranging and, above all, it’s an interesting, enlightening read.
All this is mostly thanks to Smiley’s clear, engaging, unpretentious voice. She’s writing about the history of the novel, but she’s also writing about herself, as a reader, and she does so, refreshingly, in the first person. While 13 Ways is far from being a memoir, even a memoir of reading, we do get a glimpse at the woman behind the scenes, a woman who reads and writes constantly, and has plenty to share with us about it, though it never feels like she’s actually teaching.
She begins by giving readers enough background details to satisfy their curiosity, without being too revealing or pushing herself on to center stage. She explains how her book developed out of a minor crisis she experienced when working her most recent novel, Good Faith, in the shadow of 9/11, whose events had a powerful effect on her. Around the same time, her lover and partner, Jack, was diagnosed with heart disease, and had to undergo a number of medical procedures. Smiley explains how, in these circumstances, for the first time in her life, she found herself losing interest in her current novel, sitting down every day to work that she suddenly began to experience as “insoluble, unjoyous, and unstimulating.” Half way through Good Faith she stopped writing, closed the file on her computer, and set about re-reading 100 novels — and writing about them, and about her experience of reading them for the second time. If she can’t work on her own novel, she reasons, she can write about other novels, ones she loves, in order to work through her crisis and reconnect with her muse.
The first part of the book — “13 ways of approaching the novel” — is best seen as a refresher course in literary history and criticism. Through Smiley’s clear, helpful, and remarkably intelligent guidance, we’re taught how to consider novels from various perspectives, how to focus, for example, on a novel’s structure, psychology, morality, art, or history. She follows this up with two encouraging chapters on how to start writing a novel of your own. In the second part of the book, Smiley takes us on a tour of the hundred novels she re-read after 9/11, with a synopsis of each, a brief description of the main characters, and a short analysis of their literary and historical importance. It’s not a “100 Best” list, as Smiley makes clear; it’s more a list of 100 novels that she believes to be important and interesting, in a variety of different ways. Most of these novels are part of the western canon, though there are some from elsewhere in the world, and — especially in the contemporary section — she includes many of what she believes to be seriously underrated novels by women, including Jamaica Kincaid, Jean Rhys, Alice Munro, and A.S. Byatt. You might argue with her judgments, as I did with her criticism of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but you can’t help but sense that hers is the more grounded point of view.
Smiley has the engaging habit of using “she” rather than “he” as her third person pronoun, and it seems that her ideal reader is a woman. There’s a down-to-earth quality to her own writing, too, that seems distinctly female. Unlike similar books written by male authors, there’s no sense that Smiley’s ever trying to impress, to show off her knowledge, although she’s certainly got plenty of knowledge to show. She’s never snarky or sarcastic about books or their authors; you get the feeling she reads and writes not for any greater good, but because she can, because it comes naturally to her, and because she loves it. The only problem with this is that she sometimes seems a bit of a Pollyanna, slightly too generous, to slow to criticize. But when she tells you that she’s always found Huckleberry Finn “boring,” and can hardly remember Moby Dick, even after reading it twice, you realize that Jane Smiley is human, after all.