Category: Non-Fiction/Literary Criticism – Paperback: 608 pages – Publisher: Random House – Imprint: Anchor Books – Source: My own bookshelves
First Published: 2005
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley has been on my shelves for about six years, ever since I first read it, and back in the summer, when I was shuffling my bookshelves, I pulled it forward for a re-read to decide whether to keep it or not as I didn’t remember much about it beyond the personal angle Smiley had added to her summaries of literary theory.
Back in 2001 she was writing her latest novel when she stalled and got bogged down in what she was writing and why. To get over the combination of angst and writer’s block she chose and read 100 novels (mostly classics) and then wrote this book.
The first half of the book is broken into thirteen chapters about novel reading, analysing and writing, the second is made up of 100 mini-essays on the novels Smiley read. The thirteen chapters that open up the book are:
2. What Is a Novel?
3. What 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
As you might guess from some of the chapter titles this isn’t quite thirteen ways of looking at the novel. The Introduction is scene-setting and focuses mostly on her own experiences as a reader, author and creative writing teacher, it explains about the personal impact of September 11th 2001′s tragedy, her writer’s block while working on the novel Good Faith and what she hoped to achieve by diverting her energy into this book instead. Chapters 10 and 11 will only appeal to aspiring writers, Chapter 12 is solely about the experience of finishing Good Faith and it’s journey through publication and promoting it. It’s worth bearing in mind that this was written in 2005 and is so pre-ebook explosion. The final chapter is on her experience of reading a hundred novels in about three years as the title suggests but doesn’t really draw any conclusions or discuss the pros and cons of immersing yourself in this kind of reading etc, it’s just about her own experiences.
Re-reading this in December justified my blurry memories of originally reading it, it’s a solid 6/10 book – but it’s still worth keeping around.
On the plus side, Smiley has a talent for talking about how novels came about and what they’re for. When she gets going in Chapters 2-8 she’s very enjoyable:
‘A novelist is a compleat generalist – he depicts as much as her can of what is around him. If he were more of a specialist, he wouldn’t be a novelist, he would have a field of study (if he were more of a specialist of words, he would be a poet). If he were more of a generalist, he wouldn’t be a novelist, he would be a roving bore, spouting theories to anyone who couldn’t get away fast enough. A novelist is on the cusp between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing.’
She has also read those 100 novels featured at the back of the book and written a mini-essay on each which means that in those chapters about the history and development of the novel and its social impact she is able to quote and draw from all those texts and authors. It will definitely help you if you’ve read some of the more well-known titles but she’s pretty good at not spoiling plot twists and summarising things so you’ll never feel dumb or stumble over the points she’s trying to make.
On the down side, only Chapters 2-8 are about ways of looking at the novel rather than writing advice or Smiley’s writing experience so if you’ve no interest in writing a novel you can skip the Introduction, skim-read Chapter 9 and skip Chapters 10-12. Obviously if you’re a fan of Smiley or an aspiring writer these sections will no doubt make the book feel far richer and rounded than they did for me so this is very much personal taste.
It’s also worth pointing out that Smiley is determined to refer to the author as ‘he’ and the reader as ‘she’ throughout the book which grated for me after a while. It’s not something I’d normally notice but perhaps because she is frequently switching from contemplating the writer to considering the reader the gendering of this two roles was very obvious and old-fashioned.
‘A novelist is someone who has volunteered to be a representative of literature and to move it forward a generation. That is all.’
Overall, I enjoyed the bits about books by authors other than Smiley and it’s definitely worth a look if you are interested in ideas about what books are *for* and how authors fit into society. I disagree with some of Smiley’s ideas wholeheartedly (children’s books all feature socially awkward and broken protagonists because all children’s authors are socially awkward and broken – I am paraphrasing but not much) but she does offer some lovely imagery. Likewise, the 100 mini-essays at the end of the book are a mix of insight and well, not very insightful summary.
It’s a book that you need to sift through to get to the good stuff but I’m keeping hold of my copy because while many literary theory/criticism books exist this is a very different approach to the genre: quirkier, far more personal and it is interesting to see what she gains and loses by taking such an informal approach. While it is by no means flawless it manages to create something very new and different that sits halfway between something like James Woods’ How Fiction Works (review to come) and Scarlett Thomas’ Monkeys with Typewriters (link is to my review). It’s also a very interesting ancestor to the Year of Reading X Books titles that we’ve seen in the last two or three years.
Rating: 6/10 (Book Review Scale)