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13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel - Jane Smiley Books about books can be interesting or deadly dull, and books with one author's arbitrary list of "100 books I think you should read" can likewise be great when they convince you to add a few to your TBR shelf, or annoying when you find yourself saying "Come on — a list full of obscure 19th century novels most people have never heard of, but no love at all for genre fiction?" I found myself doing both while reading 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Jane Smiley talks about novels with enthusiasm and wisdom and admirable depth, but she's not exactly exciting. She's a Pulitzer-prize winning literary author and she writes with a careful, analytical style that I found very informative and knowledgeable, but she did not exactly make me want to run out and read her novels. That said, I thought this was an excellent book and one that any serious reader should read.

Smiley started writing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel while she was suffering writer's block post-9/11. She decided to "go back to her roots" by reading through a bunch of novels — 100 of them — and over the course of three years, besides writing lovely and incisive synopses and literary analyses of all of them, produced this book about what a novel is. She also talked about how novels form society and form the mind, not just the other way around.

When, during the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Al Gore was asked to name his favorite book, he named The Red and the Black. Part of the reason I put it on my list was his recommendation. After I read it, I couldn't really understand what he liked about it—Julien Sorel seemed quite unlike Mr. Gore would want to seem, a cold, ambitious opportunist who uses and betrays women, then gets into trouble with the law and is executed in the end. But at least Gore's choice was a long and serious novel. The man in charge of the Western world had chosen a children's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle. Let's not remark that this book is a tale of gluttony; let's just observe that it isn't a novel, that its choice as George W. Bush's favorite book perhaps reflects the fact that he doesn't read, or hasn't read, any serious novels. After a hundred and more novels of all kinds and degrees of seriousness, I was well aware that the habit of reading novels molds the mind in several significant ways, ways that other forms of literature do not. I wish that my president was reading Pride and Prejudice. Or As I Lay Dying. Or The Harafish. Or A Journal of the Plague Year.

So, Jane Smiley is what you might call one o' them elitist lib'rul intellectual types. More power to her — while her literary tastes aren't exactly the same as mine (there is a hint of snootiness in her studious avoidance of much of anything that smacks of pop fiction, though of course some of the books she mentions were bestsellers because they were great books), her point is well taken, and one I wish more people took seriously. Not that a Presidential candidate's choice in reading is necessarily a litmus test for fitness of office, but you do have to kind of wonder about someone who hasn't read an actual book since high school. (Which unfortunately describes most of American society.) The main reason I read is because I enjoy reading (duh), but I also read because I think it exercises the mind and it's good to have some intellectual pursuits, which is also why I've been reading more classics and "literary" books lately, even though I've always been more of a SF&F fan. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is great because Smiley articulates a lot of my thoughts about novels that I had no clue how to articulate before, points out a lot of things I always knew intuitively but couldn't describe intelligibly, and also taught me a lot of things I didn't know.

Besides tracing the history of Western literature (Smiley does mention a few non-European/American books, but mostly it's pretty Eurocentric), this book describes several different models for looking at novels — as a reader, as a critic, as a historian, as a writer. The first half of the book is all about novels as novels, and novelists. Aspects of the novel you've probably never consciously thought about before unless you're a literature major, like types of discourse and questions novels ask about society and what novels say about society as social documents and so on. If this sounds kind of dull, it's not, actually, if you are a true lover of literature. I'd call this book a "biography of the novel," if you consider the novel a historical character with a history going back (depending on how you reckon it) 400 years or a thousand.

In the second half of the book, Smiley summarizes and talks about the 100 novels she read to overcome her writer's block. It's not really fair for me to describe this as a recommendations list, because she doesn't actually claim they are the 100 best books ever, nor are they her 100 favorite books (in fact, several of them she says outright she didn't like). She chose each one because she thought it had an important place in the novelistic landscape, either because it was historically important, or because it was the greatest example of a certain type of novel, or because it was so influential on so many subsequent novelists, etc. If like me you read a lot but sometimes have trouble saying much more about a book than whether or not you liked it, you will envy Smiley's ability to tease apart every little detail about a novel's structure, pacing, prose, themes, characterization, and then to put it in a historical and literary context and talk a little bit about the author. These are some of the best 2-4 page book reviews I've ever read. Like I said, Smiley doesn't actually like all of them, and she dings a few classics that might cause some book fans to gasp in outrage. But she doesn't trash any of them either — she finds something valuable in every one, and every review is worth reading.

As mentioned above, Smiley doesn't seem to like genre fiction much. She lists a few classics that are precursors to modern genre fiction (T.H. White, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, etc.) but she certainly didn't find any non-literary novels written in the 20th century or later to be worth examining. It would have been nice if she'd at least mentioned them. But that aside, if you do want to be more well-read, you'd have a hard time being more well-read than Jane Smiley. This book is the next best thing to reading everything she's read. Highly recommended.