13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

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Over an extraordinary twenty-year career, Jane Smiley has written all kinds of novels: mystery, comedy, historical fiction, epic. “Is there anything Jane Smiley cannot do?” raves Time magazine. But in the wake of 9/11, Smiley faltered in her hitherto unflagging impulse to write and decided to approach novels from a different angle: she read one hundred of them, from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith, Nicholson Baker, and Alice Munro.

Smiley explores—as no novelist has before her—the unparalleled intimacy of reading, why a novel succeeds (or doesn’t), and how the novel has changed over time. She describes a novelist as “right on the cusp between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing,” yet whose “job and ambition is to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.”

In her inimitable style—exuberant, candid, opinionated—Smiley invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft. She walks us step-by-step through the publication of her most recent novel, Good Faith, and, in two vital chapters on how to write “a novel of your own,” offers priceless advice to aspiring authors.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel may amount to a peculiar form of autobiography. We see Smiley reading in bed with a chocolate bar; mulling over plot twists while cooking dinner for her family; even, at the age of twelve, devouring Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which she later realized were among her earliest literary models for plot and character.

And in an exhilarating conclusion, Smiley considers individually the one hundred books she read, from Don Quixote to Lolita to Atonement, presenting her own insights and often controversial opinions. In its scope and gleeful eclecticism, her reading list is one of the most compelling—and surprising—ever assembled.

Engaging, wise, sometimes irreverent, Thirteen Ways is essential reading for anyone who has ever escaped into the pages of a novel or, for that matter, wanted to write one. In Smiley’s own words, ones she found herself turning to over the course of her journey: “Read this. I bet you’ll like it.”


“It hardly seems plausible that the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning author suffered from a serious writing crisis in the wake of 9/11; yet that is what Smiley candidly reveals. What did she do to remedy the situation? . . . Smiley not only chose the reading cure but also launched a fresh inquiry into the novel’s form, history, psychology, morality, and art, and the result is one of the most fluent, illuminating, and enjoyable studies of the novel ever assembled. Smiley dazzles the reader [with] zestful analysis . . . She then enhances her praise of the novel as a conduit for empathy in her pithy interpretations of the 100 novels chosen not because they are the ‘best’ but because they are intriguing. [She includes] many surprises. Smiley’s brilliant and bounteous critical feat and celebration of the novel’s humanitarian spirit will kindle new appreciation for the form, and inspire more adventurous reading.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Smiley decided to return to the enterprise that got her started as a writer: reading. The result is a book that sets out to investigate the novel itself . . . Her study is methodical and cumulative, producing a wonderful text, opinionated but not argumentative, instructive but not heavily theoretical . . . [In a] section [that] consists of a primer for fledgling novelists, Smiley’s years as a writing instructor show; her attitude toward all potential novelists is open-minded and generous, acknowledging the difficulty of the project while providing encouragement to continue . . . . Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is a thorough reflection on the art and craft of the novel from one of its best-known contemporary practitioners.”
Publishers Weekly

“Bracing literary criticism from a practitioner’s point of view . . . In the midst of writing a novel she didn’t much like, fearing at age 52 that she was running out of inspiration, Smiley decided in 2001 to read 100 novels . . . Naturally, the author’s selections and judgments reflect her sensibility and artistic convictions. She’s capable of appreciating a modernist classic like Ulysses, but she writes far more enthusiastically about other works, from The Princess of Cleves to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Whether praising or damning—The Great Gatsby is among the books that get severe though never nasty appraisals—Smiley approaches literature in a refreshingly direct, unpretentious way . . . You never forget in her down-to-earth assessments that novels are written by and about human beings . . . There are funny, apt phrases on every page, and Smiley’s analysis of the novel’s evolution over a millennium is cogent and convincing . . . [She also] offers a fascinating look at the working writer’s life. What ties together [the] text is Smiley’s profound love for her chosen genre, an art form she believes is accessible to everyone . . . Stimulating, provocative and unfailingly intelligent—in short, vintage Smiley.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Astonishing . . . interesting, provocative and insightful in so many ways that it is impossible to name or catalog them all. But at the very least, even the most casual novel-reader is certain to find pleasure in dipping at random into Smiley’s 13th and final chapter in which she writes brief, knowledgeable, sometimes funny, often surprising essays on each of the 100 books she read . . . In the other chapters, Smiley explores with compelling energy what a novel is, and who a novelist is. She examines the history, psychology, morality and art of the novel [and] includes two chapters of advice for novel writers. [She] is remarkably perceptive and generous in her views of other writers’ work . . . Smiley infuses [the book] with the full range of her sensibilities—her concern for the craftsmanship of the novel, her politics, psychological insight and moral vision, and her aesthetic concerns-the core values, so to speak, of who she is as a writer. [She] offers readers and writers alike a path to liberation, primarily because Smiley believes there is no such thing as the perfect novel . . . More importantly, Smiley thinks that the novel remains central to democratic Western society, ‘the opportunity in our bedroom to say, oh, I agree with this. And I don't agree with that.’ Remember that the next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time with a novel . . . Brilliant.”
—Alden Mudge, Bookpage

“I have always believed that the world can be divided into two broad categories; English majors and non-English majors. However, as I was reading (and enjoying) Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, it occurred to me that there is a sizable third group that ought to be recognized as well: the über-English majors. It is to this group (and I admit to being one of them) that I most heartily recommend [Thirteen Ways] . . . Über-English majors will embrace this opportunity as they would the chance to reconnect with a favorite professor . . . They will also get a chance to decide whether or not they agree with Smiley’s provocative statements about novels . . . There are also two chapters of advice for aspiring novelists–wise and humane counsel that will more than justify the cost of the book for any would-be writers. But perhaps the greatest pleasure offered by this cross between a course syllabus and a love letter to the novel are the pages at the end [which] catalog the 100 novels Smiley read, [including some] entries that will surprise all but the most exhaustive readers. [Thirteen Ways] reminds readers of the novel why they love their avocation.”
—Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

“[Smiley] writes that the novel, contrary to Tom Wolfe’s infamous prediction of its demise, is alive and well and still capable of transporting the reader to a sublime state. [Her plan was to] read 100 novels that she had always meant to read or reread . . . But above all, she planned to leave her own artistic worries behind and escape into the pleasurable evocative and enlightening landscape of literature . . . A compelling book that is, at turns, autobiography, literary criticism [and] a kind of primer for aspiring novelists. It has an encouraging tone and argues that any writer possessing a modicum of talent, stamina and a fierce determination can write a novel . . . Ardent.”
—Paul Grondahl, Times Union

“Smiley’s unmediated voice–blunt, uncompromising and witty–rings from every page of her engaging meditation Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. A ferocious intelligence and sharp political sensibility are evident in Smiley’s fiction, but there her personality is rightly subordinated to the demands of story and character; she is, after all, our foremost contemporary practitioner of the traditional, realistic novel . . . Here, she speaks directly about her beliefs, her emotions and her craft. Casual in tone and idiosyncratic in organization, this study [illuminates] the author’s own conception of the novel and how it works . . . Smiley’s down-to-earth attitude distinguishes [Thirteen Ways]. She approaches the authors of the [101 novels she discusses] not as timeless geniuses but simply as peers–men and women creating narratives that reflect the issues of their eras. Yet what Smiley keeps coming back to is the fact that those issues, though different in detail, are in essence similar to the ones we grapple with today . . . But if there’s one thing she believes, it’s that reading fiction broadens our sympathies and stretches our imaginations so we understand that even bad guys have their reasons . . . If all Smiley did was affirm the virtues of empathy and reading in a polarized society increasingly focused on visual stimulation and individual gratification, she would have produced a work that is valuable and thought-provoking–though, perhaps, not a lot of fun. Instead, she inspires wicked delight as she seasons her text with sardonic characterizations and cogent deviations from received wisdom. She’s not afraid to make big statements, but she always grounds them in specific detail . . . Toward the end of the book, she includes two chapters on writing ‘A Novel of Your Own’ that are studded with useful information . . . She follows that with ‘Good Faith: A Case History,’ a fascinating glimpse into the life of a working writer . . . Inevitably, readers will quibble with some of Smiley’s selections and conclusions . . . What really lingers, though, is not any single judgment, but this gifted writer’s profound faith in ‘the power and vitality of that simple and complex object, a long story bound enticingly between the closed covers of a book.’”
—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Captivating . . . Smiley clearly knows about novels from the inside out . . . But in the wake of 9/11, Smiley felt her own focus falter [and] decided to do something many readers have promised to do: read 100 novels. [And] she did exactly what every reader might hope Jane Smiley would do. She wrote about it . . . It will come as no revelation to readers that Smiley’s entire prose journey [is] every bit as gripping as any novel she’s written . . . This is a reader’s buffet.”
—Rick Kleffel, Santa Cruz Metro

“[Thirteen Ways] is written in a relaxed style that makes the combination of analysis and Smiley’s own experience as an author enjoyable to read . . . Interestingly, her selections [of the 100 novels] say as much about Smiley as they do about the novels themselves.”
—Felicity D. Walsh, Library Journal

“Swimming through 1,000 years of novels from all over the globe provides Smiley with enough inspiration and energy to express what she knows and feels and adores about literature . . . Smiley gives us a book that is sometimes a confession, occasionally a diatribe and always a pleasure. [Thirteen Ways] begins as a memoir but becomes an insightful examination of the history and form of the novel. With a mixture of some fabulous research and a vibrant imagination, Smiley traces the development of the novel . . . Smiley is unafraid to be frank [and] she comes up with ideas both unique and awfully smart . . . Reading this one-of-a-kind book may well remind you of sitting in your favorite college course listening to an unforgettable professor forage through a lifetime of adoring novels . . . A massive victory.”
—Greg Changnon, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Impressive . . . Among the many things this splendid book accomplishes is to settle the long-standing dispute about whether the novel is dead . . . Not only does Jane Smiley find much solace in the course of contemporary writing, but why would a writer as sensible and intelligent as Smiley devote three years of her life to reading and writing about a moribund art form? . . . . Smiley’s opinions are always interesting, but the real strength of the book is her genuine love of the novel, and it is hard to quarrel with her judgment that it remains, despite its many obituaries, a continuing source of power and vitality.”
—Roger Harris, The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)

“Thorough, insightful . . . With great intellect, and no little enthusiasm, [Smiley] peers into the origin, psychology, morality, art and history of the novel . . . Smiley’s [advice to aspiring novelists is] sensitive and practical . . . Her critiques are shrewd, artful and unflinching, much like the book they inspired. For the literati, Smiley’s latest is sure to inspire delicious debate; for the more pragmatic reader this book is certain to excite interest in undiscovered works and for authors. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel will elicit empathetic pangs of understanding while also instigating a broader view of the novel as a living, breathing entity . . . There are a rare few novels, and some nonfiction books like [Thirteen Ways] that continue to whisper their profundities long after the last page is turned.”
—Terri Clark, Rocky Mountain News (September 11, 2005)

“Combining wide-ranging literary history, insightful criticism, professional autobiography, and expert advice for budding novelists, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is a marvelous celebration, written with generosity, wit and candor, of the most varied and inclusive of all literary forms. Readers wishing to enhance and extend their appreciation of literary fiction without venturing into the jargon-heavy pages of academic lit. crit. could not find a better guide than Jane Smiley’s highly original and enjoyable book.”
—David Lodge, author of The Art of Fiction and Author, Author
© Derek Shapton
JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some LuckEarly Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California. View titles by Jane Smiley
The end of September is a great time to have a birthday if you want to be a writer. Jane Austen might be December 16 and Shakespeare April 23 and Charles Dickens February 9, but for a sheer run of greatness, I challenge anyone to match September 23 through September 30--F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Marina Tsvetayeva, William Blake, and Miguel Cervantes. And, I used to add (to myself, of course), moi. There is also a gratifying musical backup--George Gershwin on the twenty-sixth, my very own birthday. I never hesitated to bring anyone who cared (or did not care) to know up to date on late September (Ray Charles, Dmitri Shostakovich) and early October (John Lennon) birthdays. It was rather like listing your horse's pedigree or your illustrious ancestors--not exactly a point of pride, but more a reassurance that deep down, the stuff was there, if only astrologically.

But in 2001, the year I turned fifty-two, whether or not the stuff was there astrologically, it did not seem to be there artistically. All those years of guarding my stuff--no drinking, no drugs, personal modesty and charm, good behavior on as many fronts as I could manage, a public life of agreeability and professionalism, and still when I sat down at the computer to write my novel, titled Good Faith, my heart sank. I was into the 250s and 260s, there were about 125 pages to go, and I felt like Dante's narrator at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. I had wandered into a dark wood. I didn't know the way out. I was afraid.

I tried hard not to be afraid in certain ways. Two weeks before my birthday, terrorists had bombed the World Trade Center in New York. Fear was everywhere--fear of anthrax, fear of nuclear terrorism, fear of flying, fear of the future. I felt that, too, more than I was willing to admit. I tried to remind myself of the illusory nature of the world and my conviction that death is a transition, not an end, to discipline my fears to a certain degree. And my lover and partner was diagnosed at about that time with heart disease and required several procedures. I feared that he might also undergo a sudden transition and I would be bereft of his physical presence, but I also believed that we were eternally joined and that there was no transition that would separate us. This is how we agreed to view his health crisis. Physical fears were all too familiar for me--I had been wrestling with them my whole life, but in the late 1990s, divorce, independence, horses, Jack, and a book called A Course in Miracles had relieved most of them.

When I sat down at my computer, though, and read what I had written the day before, I felt something new--a recoiling, a cold surprise. Oh, this again. This insoluble, unjoyous, and unstimulating piece of work. What's the next sentence, even the next word? I didn't know, and if I tried something, I suspected it would just carry me farther down the wrong path, would be a waste of time or worse, prolong an already prolonged piece of fraudulence. I wondered if my case were analogous to that of a professional musician, a concert pianist perhaps, who does not feel every time he sits down to play the perfect joy of playing a piece he has played many times. I had always evoked this idea hopefully for students--however such a musician might begin his concert, surely he would be carried away by his own technique and mastery; after a few bars, the joy contained in the music itself would supply the inspiration that was lacking only moments before. But I didn't know that. Maybe that sort of thing didn't happen at all.

I came up with all sorts of diagnoses for my condition. The state of the zeitgeist was tempting but I refused to be convinced.* I reminded myself that I had lived through lots of zeitgeists over the years, and the geist wasn't all that bad in California. The overwhelming pall of grief and fear and odor and loss reached us more or less abstractly. Unlike New Yorkers, we could turn it off and get back to work, or so it seemed. But perhaps I was sensitive to something other than events--to a collective unconscious reaction to those events that I sensed in the world around me? I felt scattered. Even after I lost my fascination with the images and the events, my mind felt dissipated and shallow. It didn't help that I was annoyed with everything other writers wrote about the tragedy. There was no grappling with its enormity, and everything everyone said sounded wrong as soon as they said it. After this should come only silence, it seemed, and yet I didn't really believe that. I believed that the world was not now changed for the worse--that anyone who had not reckoned upon the world to deliver such a blow, after lo these many years of genocide, mass murder, war, famine, despair, betrayal, death, and chaos, was naive. I believed at the time that if the world was a little changed, then perhaps it was changed for the better. The images had gone global, moving many individuals to look within and find mercy and compassion rather than hatred and anger. Hatred and anger were the oldest old hat, but mercy and compassion were something new. If there was more of those, and there seemed to be, then the turning point had actually been a turning point. Only time would tell. At any rate, surely talking was good, writing was good. Communicating was good, the antidote to the secrecy and silence the terrorists had attempted to foist upon us. Perhaps, I thought, I would stay scattered until the collective unconscious pulled itself together and raised itself up and put fear aside.

But really, events were events. I had known events and written through them, written about them, written in spite of them. I had grown up during the cold war, when obliteration seemed imminent every time the Russians twitched. I had an engagement photo of my parents from a newspaper; the headline of the article on the reverse side was "Russians Develop H-Bomb." Fear of terrorism, I thought, was nothing compared with the raw dread I had felt as a child. The problem with the novel was not outside myself, or even in my link to human consciousness. Perhaps, I thought, it was my own professional history. I had experienced every form of literary creation I had ever heard of--patient construction (A Thousand Acres), joyous composition (Moo, Horse Heaven), the grip of inspiration that seems to come from elsewhere (The Greenlanders), steady accumulation (Duplicate Keys), systematic putting together (Barn Blind), word-intoxicated buzz (The Age of Grief), even disinterested professional dedication (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton). I could list my books in my order of favorites, but my order of favorites didn't match anyone else's that I knew of, and so didn't reveal anything about the books' inherent value or even about their ease of composition. I didn't put too much stock in my preferences, or even in my memories of how it had felt to write them.

But I had penned a concise biography of Charles Dickens, and maybe I had learned from Dickens's life an unwanted lesson. I wrote the Dickens book because I loved Dickens, not because I felt a kinship with him, but after writing the book, it seemed to me that there was at least one similarity between us, and that was that Dickens loved to write and wrote with the ease and conviction of breathing. Me, too. When he took up each novel or novella, there might be some hemming and hawing and a few complaints along the way, but his facility of invention was utterly reliable and he was usually his own best audience. In the heat of composition, he declared almost every novel he wrote his best and his favorite, even if his preferences didn't stand. Toward the end of his life, though, his energy began to fail. When he was fifty, planning a new publication, he plunged rapidly into Great Expectations and wrote in weekly parts, modifying an earlier plan for the novel and producing a masterpiece largely because his journal needed it. When he began Our Mutual Friend a few years later, he was taxed almost beyond his powers. Several numbers were short, he complained of his lack of invention, and he didn't really like the novel much, though a case can be made (I have made it) that it is one of his most perfect. And he died in the middle of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, having not quite mastered the whodunit form. Even Dickens, I thought, even Dickens faltered in the end, though you might say that he was careful and nurturing of his talents--abstemious and hardworking. He always deflected his fame a bit, wore it lightly. Was the lesson I had learned from Charles Dickens that a novelist's career lasts only a decade or two, can't be sustained much longer even by the greatest novelist (or most prolific great novelist) of all time?

Look at them all--Virginia Woolf, twenty-three or twenty-four years. George Eliot, twenty years. Jane Austen, twenty years, Dickens, twenty-four years, Thomas Hardy, fifty years of writing, but less than half of that novels. James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Miguel Cervantes. Short short short. I had meant to write my whole life. Surely modern life and modern medicine and modern day care and modern technology and modern publishing would make Henry James the paradigmatic novelist, not Jane Austen. I wondered if novel-writing had its own natural life span and without knowing it, I had outlived the life span of my novel-writing career.

Another thing I learned about Dickens was that after 1862, he began to live a much more active life than he had before. In 1856, he left his wife in a scandalous divorce and took up with a much younger woman. Sometime in the very early 1860s, the younger woman disappeared. Some authorities think that she and her mother moved to France and that Dickens visited her there, in a small city or town, and that possibly she produced a child. Dickens's work was based in London, his family was near Chatham in Kent, and his beloved was in France. Dickens traveled back and forth incessantly, sometimes spending only a few days in each place. He also embarked on several arduous dramatic reading tours. It may be that such a schedule dissipated his energy or his concentration. I found myself in that, too. Once, when I lived in Ames, Iowa, where errands were easy and day care was exceptional, I had hours on end in which to marinate my day's work. After I moved to California, gave in to my obsession with horses, and became a single mother, to fritter away an hour meant to fritter away most of the day's allotted writing time. Distractions abounded, and they all seemed important. But then, I had always had children, I had always had something else to do during the day--not riding and horse care, but teaching and professorial responsibilities.

If to live is to progress, if you are lucky, from foolishness to wisdom, then to write novels is to broadcast the various stages of your foolishness. This was true of me. I took up each of my novels with unwavering commitment. I did not begin them by thinking I had a good subject for a novel. I began them by thinking that I had discovered important truths about the world that required communication. When I was writing Duplicate Keys, for example, a murder mystery, I was convinced of the idea that every novel is really some sort of mystery or whodunit because every novel is a retrospective uncovering of the real story behind the apparent story. I thought I might write mysteries for the rest of my life. When I was writing The Greenlanders, it was obvious to me that all novels were historical novels, patiently reconstructing some time period or another, recent or distant. Horse racing, medieval Greenland, farming, dentistry. I would get letters and reviews from all sorts of people who found themselves reading with interest about subjects they had never thought of before. But at the end of each novel, I would more or less throw down that lens along with that subject. My curiosity was always about how the world worked, what the patterns were, and what they meant. I was secular to the core, and I investigated moral issues with the dedication only someone who is literally and entirely agnostic would do--my philosophical stance was one of not knowing any answers and not believing that there were any answers.

While I was writing Horse Heaven, though, I embarked on a spiritual discipline that was satisfying and comforting. I came to believe in God and to accept a defined picture of Reality that took elements of Christianity and combined them with elements of Eastern religions. It was not an institutionalized religion, but it was a defined faith and had a scripture. It was called A Course in Miracles, and it completely changed the way I looked at the world.

The essential premise of A Course in Miracles is that God did not create the world and that the apparent mixture in the world of good and evil is an illusion; God is not responsible for apparent evil. In fact, the world itself and all physical manifestations are illusory, an agreed-upon conceit that is useful for learning what is true and real, but otherwise a form of dreaming--bad dreaming. The essential falsehoods of the world are that beings are separate from one another, that bodies are real and of primary importance, and that the physical preexists the spiritual. A Course in Miracles, like many Eastern religions, maintains that the world, all physical things, all elements of the universe, and all dimensions, including time, are a mental construct, and that the Mind or the Source preexists matter and is connected to itself all the time and in every way. It took me about three years to turn my image of the world upside down and to become comfortable with this new way of thinking. It wasn't hard, though it was disconcerting at the beginning. The payoff, other than my conviction that these ideas were true, was that I grew less fearful, more patient, less greedy, and more accepting. I greeted events more calmly as a rule, and didn't feel that old sense of vertigo that I had once felt much of the time. I got analyzed, or therapized, or counseled. My counselor shared my beliefs. Together we fixed my relationships and my worldview.
“Engaging.... Down-to-earth.... Smiley’s unmediated voice—blunt, uncompromising and witty—rings from every page.... She inspires wicked delight.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A massive victory.... Awfully smart.... Always a pleasure.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Provocative.... Wise and humane.... It reminds readers of the novel why they love their avocation.... I most heartily recommend it.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Thorough, insightful.... Sure to inspire delicious debate and excite interest in undiscovered works.... Her critiques are shrewd, artful and unflinching.... Thirteen Ways continues to whisper its profundities long after the last page is turned.” —Rocky Mountain News

About

Over an extraordinary twenty-year career, Jane Smiley has written all kinds of novels: mystery, comedy, historical fiction, epic. “Is there anything Jane Smiley cannot do?” raves Time magazine. But in the wake of 9/11, Smiley faltered in her hitherto unflagging impulse to write and decided to approach novels from a different angle: she read one hundred of them, from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith, Nicholson Baker, and Alice Munro.

Smiley explores—as no novelist has before her—the unparalleled intimacy of reading, why a novel succeeds (or doesn’t), and how the novel has changed over time. She describes a novelist as “right on the cusp between someone who knows everything and someone who knows nothing,” yet whose “job and ambition is to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.”

In her inimitable style—exuberant, candid, opinionated—Smiley invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft. She walks us step-by-step through the publication of her most recent novel, Good Faith, and, in two vital chapters on how to write “a novel of your own,” offers priceless advice to aspiring authors.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel may amount to a peculiar form of autobiography. We see Smiley reading in bed with a chocolate bar; mulling over plot twists while cooking dinner for her family; even, at the age of twelve, devouring Sherlock Holmes mysteries, which she later realized were among her earliest literary models for plot and character.

And in an exhilarating conclusion, Smiley considers individually the one hundred books she read, from Don Quixote to Lolita to Atonement, presenting her own insights and often controversial opinions. In its scope and gleeful eclecticism, her reading list is one of the most compelling—and surprising—ever assembled.

Engaging, wise, sometimes irreverent, Thirteen Ways is essential reading for anyone who has ever escaped into the pages of a novel or, for that matter, wanted to write one. In Smiley’s own words, ones she found herself turning to over the course of her journey: “Read this. I bet you’ll like it.”


“It hardly seems plausible that the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning author suffered from a serious writing crisis in the wake of 9/11; yet that is what Smiley candidly reveals. What did she do to remedy the situation? . . . Smiley not only chose the reading cure but also launched a fresh inquiry into the novel’s form, history, psychology, morality, and art, and the result is one of the most fluent, illuminating, and enjoyable studies of the novel ever assembled. Smiley dazzles the reader [with] zestful analysis . . . She then enhances her praise of the novel as a conduit for empathy in her pithy interpretations of the 100 novels chosen not because they are the ‘best’ but because they are intriguing. [She includes] many surprises. Smiley’s brilliant and bounteous critical feat and celebration of the novel’s humanitarian spirit will kindle new appreciation for the form, and inspire more adventurous reading.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Smiley decided to return to the enterprise that got her started as a writer: reading. The result is a book that sets out to investigate the novel itself . . . Her study is methodical and cumulative, producing a wonderful text, opinionated but not argumentative, instructive but not heavily theoretical . . . [In a] section [that] consists of a primer for fledgling novelists, Smiley’s years as a writing instructor show; her attitude toward all potential novelists is open-minded and generous, acknowledging the difficulty of the project while providing encouragement to continue . . . . Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is a thorough reflection on the art and craft of the novel from one of its best-known contemporary practitioners.”
Publishers Weekly

“Bracing literary criticism from a practitioner’s point of view . . . In the midst of writing a novel she didn’t much like, fearing at age 52 that she was running out of inspiration, Smiley decided in 2001 to read 100 novels . . . Naturally, the author’s selections and judgments reflect her sensibility and artistic convictions. She’s capable of appreciating a modernist classic like Ulysses, but she writes far more enthusiastically about other works, from The Princess of Cleves to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Whether praising or damning—The Great Gatsby is among the books that get severe though never nasty appraisals—Smiley approaches literature in a refreshingly direct, unpretentious way . . . You never forget in her down-to-earth assessments that novels are written by and about human beings . . . There are funny, apt phrases on every page, and Smiley’s analysis of the novel’s evolution over a millennium is cogent and convincing . . . [She also] offers a fascinating look at the working writer’s life. What ties together [the] text is Smiley’s profound love for her chosen genre, an art form she believes is accessible to everyone . . . Stimulating, provocative and unfailingly intelligent—in short, vintage Smiley.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Astonishing . . . interesting, provocative and insightful in so many ways that it is impossible to name or catalog them all. But at the very least, even the most casual novel-reader is certain to find pleasure in dipping at random into Smiley’s 13th and final chapter in which she writes brief, knowledgeable, sometimes funny, often surprising essays on each of the 100 books she read . . . In the other chapters, Smiley explores with compelling energy what a novel is, and who a novelist is. She examines the history, psychology, morality and art of the novel [and] includes two chapters of advice for novel writers. [She] is remarkably perceptive and generous in her views of other writers’ work . . . Smiley infuses [the book] with the full range of her sensibilities—her concern for the craftsmanship of the novel, her politics, psychological insight and moral vision, and her aesthetic concerns-the core values, so to speak, of who she is as a writer. [She] offers readers and writers alike a path to liberation, primarily because Smiley believes there is no such thing as the perfect novel . . . More importantly, Smiley thinks that the novel remains central to democratic Western society, ‘the opportunity in our bedroom to say, oh, I agree with this. And I don't agree with that.’ Remember that the next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time with a novel . . . Brilliant.”
—Alden Mudge, Bookpage

“I have always believed that the world can be divided into two broad categories; English majors and non-English majors. However, as I was reading (and enjoying) Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, it occurred to me that there is a sizable third group that ought to be recognized as well: the über-English majors. It is to this group (and I admit to being one of them) that I most heartily recommend [Thirteen Ways] . . . Über-English majors will embrace this opportunity as they would the chance to reconnect with a favorite professor . . . They will also get a chance to decide whether or not they agree with Smiley’s provocative statements about novels . . . There are also two chapters of advice for aspiring novelists–wise and humane counsel that will more than justify the cost of the book for any would-be writers. But perhaps the greatest pleasure offered by this cross between a course syllabus and a love letter to the novel are the pages at the end [which] catalog the 100 novels Smiley read, [including some] entries that will surprise all but the most exhaustive readers. [Thirteen Ways] reminds readers of the novel why they love their avocation.”
—Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

“[Smiley] writes that the novel, contrary to Tom Wolfe’s infamous prediction of its demise, is alive and well and still capable of transporting the reader to a sublime state. [Her plan was to] read 100 novels that she had always meant to read or reread . . . But above all, she planned to leave her own artistic worries behind and escape into the pleasurable evocative and enlightening landscape of literature . . . A compelling book that is, at turns, autobiography, literary criticism [and] a kind of primer for aspiring novelists. It has an encouraging tone and argues that any writer possessing a modicum of talent, stamina and a fierce determination can write a novel . . . Ardent.”
—Paul Grondahl, Times Union

“Smiley’s unmediated voice–blunt, uncompromising and witty–rings from every page of her engaging meditation Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. A ferocious intelligence and sharp political sensibility are evident in Smiley’s fiction, but there her personality is rightly subordinated to the demands of story and character; she is, after all, our foremost contemporary practitioner of the traditional, realistic novel . . . Here, she speaks directly about her beliefs, her emotions and her craft. Casual in tone and idiosyncratic in organization, this study [illuminates] the author’s own conception of the novel and how it works . . . Smiley’s down-to-earth attitude distinguishes [Thirteen Ways]. She approaches the authors of the [101 novels she discusses] not as timeless geniuses but simply as peers–men and women creating narratives that reflect the issues of their eras. Yet what Smiley keeps coming back to is the fact that those issues, though different in detail, are in essence similar to the ones we grapple with today . . . But if there’s one thing she believes, it’s that reading fiction broadens our sympathies and stretches our imaginations so we understand that even bad guys have their reasons . . . If all Smiley did was affirm the virtues of empathy and reading in a polarized society increasingly focused on visual stimulation and individual gratification, she would have produced a work that is valuable and thought-provoking–though, perhaps, not a lot of fun. Instead, she inspires wicked delight as she seasons her text with sardonic characterizations and cogent deviations from received wisdom. She’s not afraid to make big statements, but she always grounds them in specific detail . . . Toward the end of the book, she includes two chapters on writing ‘A Novel of Your Own’ that are studded with useful information . . . She follows that with ‘Good Faith: A Case History,’ a fascinating glimpse into the life of a working writer . . . Inevitably, readers will quibble with some of Smiley’s selections and conclusions . . . What really lingers, though, is not any single judgment, but this gifted writer’s profound faith in ‘the power and vitality of that simple and complex object, a long story bound enticingly between the closed covers of a book.’”
—Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Captivating . . . Smiley clearly knows about novels from the inside out . . . But in the wake of 9/11, Smiley felt her own focus falter [and] decided to do something many readers have promised to do: read 100 novels. [And] she did exactly what every reader might hope Jane Smiley would do. She wrote about it . . . It will come as no revelation to readers that Smiley’s entire prose journey [is] every bit as gripping as any novel she’s written . . . This is a reader’s buffet.”
—Rick Kleffel, Santa Cruz Metro

“[Thirteen Ways] is written in a relaxed style that makes the combination of analysis and Smiley’s own experience as an author enjoyable to read . . . Interestingly, her selections [of the 100 novels] say as much about Smiley as they do about the novels themselves.”
—Felicity D. Walsh, Library Journal

“Swimming through 1,000 years of novels from all over the globe provides Smiley with enough inspiration and energy to express what she knows and feels and adores about literature . . . Smiley gives us a book that is sometimes a confession, occasionally a diatribe and always a pleasure. [Thirteen Ways] begins as a memoir but becomes an insightful examination of the history and form of the novel. With a mixture of some fabulous research and a vibrant imagination, Smiley traces the development of the novel . . . Smiley is unafraid to be frank [and] she comes up with ideas both unique and awfully smart . . . Reading this one-of-a-kind book may well remind you of sitting in your favorite college course listening to an unforgettable professor forage through a lifetime of adoring novels . . . A massive victory.”
—Greg Changnon, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Impressive . . . Among the many things this splendid book accomplishes is to settle the long-standing dispute about whether the novel is dead . . . Not only does Jane Smiley find much solace in the course of contemporary writing, but why would a writer as sensible and intelligent as Smiley devote three years of her life to reading and writing about a moribund art form? . . . . Smiley’s opinions are always interesting, but the real strength of the book is her genuine love of the novel, and it is hard to quarrel with her judgment that it remains, despite its many obituaries, a continuing source of power and vitality.”
—Roger Harris, The Star-Ledger (New Jersey)

“Thorough, insightful . . . With great intellect, and no little enthusiasm, [Smiley] peers into the origin, psychology, morality, art and history of the novel . . . Smiley’s [advice to aspiring novelists is] sensitive and practical . . . Her critiques are shrewd, artful and unflinching, much like the book they inspired. For the literati, Smiley’s latest is sure to inspire delicious debate; for the more pragmatic reader this book is certain to excite interest in undiscovered works and for authors. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel will elicit empathetic pangs of understanding while also instigating a broader view of the novel as a living, breathing entity . . . There are a rare few novels, and some nonfiction books like [Thirteen Ways] that continue to whisper their profundities long after the last page is turned.”
—Terri Clark, Rocky Mountain News (September 11, 2005)

“Combining wide-ranging literary history, insightful criticism, professional autobiography, and expert advice for budding novelists, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is a marvelous celebration, written with generosity, wit and candor, of the most varied and inclusive of all literary forms. Readers wishing to enhance and extend their appreciation of literary fiction without venturing into the jargon-heavy pages of academic lit. crit. could not find a better guide than Jane Smiley’s highly original and enjoyable book.”
—David Lodge, author of The Art of Fiction and Author, Author

Author

© Derek Shapton
JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some LuckEarly Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California. View titles by Jane Smiley

Excerpt

The end of September is a great time to have a birthday if you want to be a writer. Jane Austen might be December 16 and Shakespeare April 23 and Charles Dickens February 9, but for a sheer run of greatness, I challenge anyone to match September 23 through September 30--F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Marina Tsvetayeva, William Blake, and Miguel Cervantes. And, I used to add (to myself, of course), moi. There is also a gratifying musical backup--George Gershwin on the twenty-sixth, my very own birthday. I never hesitated to bring anyone who cared (or did not care) to know up to date on late September (Ray Charles, Dmitri Shostakovich) and early October (John Lennon) birthdays. It was rather like listing your horse's pedigree or your illustrious ancestors--not exactly a point of pride, but more a reassurance that deep down, the stuff was there, if only astrologically.

But in 2001, the year I turned fifty-two, whether or not the stuff was there astrologically, it did not seem to be there artistically. All those years of guarding my stuff--no drinking, no drugs, personal modesty and charm, good behavior on as many fronts as I could manage, a public life of agreeability and professionalism, and still when I sat down at the computer to write my novel, titled Good Faith, my heart sank. I was into the 250s and 260s, there were about 125 pages to go, and I felt like Dante's narrator at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. I had wandered into a dark wood. I didn't know the way out. I was afraid.

I tried hard not to be afraid in certain ways. Two weeks before my birthday, terrorists had bombed the World Trade Center in New York. Fear was everywhere--fear of anthrax, fear of nuclear terrorism, fear of flying, fear of the future. I felt that, too, more than I was willing to admit. I tried to remind myself of the illusory nature of the world and my conviction that death is a transition, not an end, to discipline my fears to a certain degree. And my lover and partner was diagnosed at about that time with heart disease and required several procedures. I feared that he might also undergo a sudden transition and I would be bereft of his physical presence, but I also believed that we were eternally joined and that there was no transition that would separate us. This is how we agreed to view his health crisis. Physical fears were all too familiar for me--I had been wrestling with them my whole life, but in the late 1990s, divorce, independence, horses, Jack, and a book called A Course in Miracles had relieved most of them.

When I sat down at my computer, though, and read what I had written the day before, I felt something new--a recoiling, a cold surprise. Oh, this again. This insoluble, unjoyous, and unstimulating piece of work. What's the next sentence, even the next word? I didn't know, and if I tried something, I suspected it would just carry me farther down the wrong path, would be a waste of time or worse, prolong an already prolonged piece of fraudulence. I wondered if my case were analogous to that of a professional musician, a concert pianist perhaps, who does not feel every time he sits down to play the perfect joy of playing a piece he has played many times. I had always evoked this idea hopefully for students--however such a musician might begin his concert, surely he would be carried away by his own technique and mastery; after a few bars, the joy contained in the music itself would supply the inspiration that was lacking only moments before. But I didn't know that. Maybe that sort of thing didn't happen at all.

I came up with all sorts of diagnoses for my condition. The state of the zeitgeist was tempting but I refused to be convinced.* I reminded myself that I had lived through lots of zeitgeists over the years, and the geist wasn't all that bad in California. The overwhelming pall of grief and fear and odor and loss reached us more or less abstractly. Unlike New Yorkers, we could turn it off and get back to work, or so it seemed. But perhaps I was sensitive to something other than events--to a collective unconscious reaction to those events that I sensed in the world around me? I felt scattered. Even after I lost my fascination with the images and the events, my mind felt dissipated and shallow. It didn't help that I was annoyed with everything other writers wrote about the tragedy. There was no grappling with its enormity, and everything everyone said sounded wrong as soon as they said it. After this should come only silence, it seemed, and yet I didn't really believe that. I believed that the world was not now changed for the worse--that anyone who had not reckoned upon the world to deliver such a blow, after lo these many years of genocide, mass murder, war, famine, despair, betrayal, death, and chaos, was naive. I believed at the time that if the world was a little changed, then perhaps it was changed for the better. The images had gone global, moving many individuals to look within and find mercy and compassion rather than hatred and anger. Hatred and anger were the oldest old hat, but mercy and compassion were something new. If there was more of those, and there seemed to be, then the turning point had actually been a turning point. Only time would tell. At any rate, surely talking was good, writing was good. Communicating was good, the antidote to the secrecy and silence the terrorists had attempted to foist upon us. Perhaps, I thought, I would stay scattered until the collective unconscious pulled itself together and raised itself up and put fear aside.

But really, events were events. I had known events and written through them, written about them, written in spite of them. I had grown up during the cold war, when obliteration seemed imminent every time the Russians twitched. I had an engagement photo of my parents from a newspaper; the headline of the article on the reverse side was "Russians Develop H-Bomb." Fear of terrorism, I thought, was nothing compared with the raw dread I had felt as a child. The problem with the novel was not outside myself, or even in my link to human consciousness. Perhaps, I thought, it was my own professional history. I had experienced every form of literary creation I had ever heard of--patient construction (A Thousand Acres), joyous composition (Moo, Horse Heaven), the grip of inspiration that seems to come from elsewhere (The Greenlanders), steady accumulation (Duplicate Keys), systematic putting together (Barn Blind), word-intoxicated buzz (The Age of Grief), even disinterested professional dedication (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton). I could list my books in my order of favorites, but my order of favorites didn't match anyone else's that I knew of, and so didn't reveal anything about the books' inherent value or even about their ease of composition. I didn't put too much stock in my preferences, or even in my memories of how it had felt to write them.

But I had penned a concise biography of Charles Dickens, and maybe I had learned from Dickens's life an unwanted lesson. I wrote the Dickens book because I loved Dickens, not because I felt a kinship with him, but after writing the book, it seemed to me that there was at least one similarity between us, and that was that Dickens loved to write and wrote with the ease and conviction of breathing. Me, too. When he took up each novel or novella, there might be some hemming and hawing and a few complaints along the way, but his facility of invention was utterly reliable and he was usually his own best audience. In the heat of composition, he declared almost every novel he wrote his best and his favorite, even if his preferences didn't stand. Toward the end of his life, though, his energy began to fail. When he was fifty, planning a new publication, he plunged rapidly into Great Expectations and wrote in weekly parts, modifying an earlier plan for the novel and producing a masterpiece largely because his journal needed it. When he began Our Mutual Friend a few years later, he was taxed almost beyond his powers. Several numbers were short, he complained of his lack of invention, and he didn't really like the novel much, though a case can be made (I have made it) that it is one of his most perfect. And he died in the middle of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, having not quite mastered the whodunit form. Even Dickens, I thought, even Dickens faltered in the end, though you might say that he was careful and nurturing of his talents--abstemious and hardworking. He always deflected his fame a bit, wore it lightly. Was the lesson I had learned from Charles Dickens that a novelist's career lasts only a decade or two, can't be sustained much longer even by the greatest novelist (or most prolific great novelist) of all time?

Look at them all--Virginia Woolf, twenty-three or twenty-four years. George Eliot, twenty years. Jane Austen, twenty years, Dickens, twenty-four years, Thomas Hardy, fifty years of writing, but less than half of that novels. James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Miguel Cervantes. Short short short. I had meant to write my whole life. Surely modern life and modern medicine and modern day care and modern technology and modern publishing would make Henry James the paradigmatic novelist, not Jane Austen. I wondered if novel-writing had its own natural life span and without knowing it, I had outlived the life span of my novel-writing career.

Another thing I learned about Dickens was that after 1862, he began to live a much more active life than he had before. In 1856, he left his wife in a scandalous divorce and took up with a much younger woman. Sometime in the very early 1860s, the younger woman disappeared. Some authorities think that she and her mother moved to France and that Dickens visited her there, in a small city or town, and that possibly she produced a child. Dickens's work was based in London, his family was near Chatham in Kent, and his beloved was in France. Dickens traveled back and forth incessantly, sometimes spending only a few days in each place. He also embarked on several arduous dramatic reading tours. It may be that such a schedule dissipated his energy or his concentration. I found myself in that, too. Once, when I lived in Ames, Iowa, where errands were easy and day care was exceptional, I had hours on end in which to marinate my day's work. After I moved to California, gave in to my obsession with horses, and became a single mother, to fritter away an hour meant to fritter away most of the day's allotted writing time. Distractions abounded, and they all seemed important. But then, I had always had children, I had always had something else to do during the day--not riding and horse care, but teaching and professorial responsibilities.

If to live is to progress, if you are lucky, from foolishness to wisdom, then to write novels is to broadcast the various stages of your foolishness. This was true of me. I took up each of my novels with unwavering commitment. I did not begin them by thinking I had a good subject for a novel. I began them by thinking that I had discovered important truths about the world that required communication. When I was writing Duplicate Keys, for example, a murder mystery, I was convinced of the idea that every novel is really some sort of mystery or whodunit because every novel is a retrospective uncovering of the real story behind the apparent story. I thought I might write mysteries for the rest of my life. When I was writing The Greenlanders, it was obvious to me that all novels were historical novels, patiently reconstructing some time period or another, recent or distant. Horse racing, medieval Greenland, farming, dentistry. I would get letters and reviews from all sorts of people who found themselves reading with interest about subjects they had never thought of before. But at the end of each novel, I would more or less throw down that lens along with that subject. My curiosity was always about how the world worked, what the patterns were, and what they meant. I was secular to the core, and I investigated moral issues with the dedication only someone who is literally and entirely agnostic would do--my philosophical stance was one of not knowing any answers and not believing that there were any answers.

While I was writing Horse Heaven, though, I embarked on a spiritual discipline that was satisfying and comforting. I came to believe in God and to accept a defined picture of Reality that took elements of Christianity and combined them with elements of Eastern religions. It was not an institutionalized religion, but it was a defined faith and had a scripture. It was called A Course in Miracles, and it completely changed the way I looked at the world.

The essential premise of A Course in Miracles is that God did not create the world and that the apparent mixture in the world of good and evil is an illusion; God is not responsible for apparent evil. In fact, the world itself and all physical manifestations are illusory, an agreed-upon conceit that is useful for learning what is true and real, but otherwise a form of dreaming--bad dreaming. The essential falsehoods of the world are that beings are separate from one another, that bodies are real and of primary importance, and that the physical preexists the spiritual. A Course in Miracles, like many Eastern religions, maintains that the world, all physical things, all elements of the universe, and all dimensions, including time, are a mental construct, and that the Mind or the Source preexists matter and is connected to itself all the time and in every way. It took me about three years to turn my image of the world upside down and to become comfortable with this new way of thinking. It wasn't hard, though it was disconcerting at the beginning. The payoff, other than my conviction that these ideas were true, was that I grew less fearful, more patient, less greedy, and more accepting. I greeted events more calmly as a rule, and didn't feel that old sense of vertigo that I had once felt much of the time. I got analyzed, or therapized, or counseled. My counselor shared my beliefs. Together we fixed my relationships and my worldview.

Praise

“Engaging.... Down-to-earth.... Smiley’s unmediated voice—blunt, uncompromising and witty—rings from every page.... She inspires wicked delight.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A massive victory.... Awfully smart.... Always a pleasure.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Provocative.... Wise and humane.... It reminds readers of the novel why they love their avocation.... I most heartily recommend it.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“Thorough, insightful.... Sure to inspire delicious debate and excite interest in undiscovered works.... Her critiques are shrewd, artful and unflinching.... Thirteen Ways continues to whisper its profundities long after the last page is turned.” —Rocky Mountain News

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