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.”
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Jane Smiley is the author of eleven novels as well as three works of nonfiction. She is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. Smiley lives in Northern California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
What Is a Novel?
An inexpensive paperback book from a reputable publisher is a small, rectangular, boxlike object a few inches long, a few inches wide, and an inch or so thick. It is easy to stack and store, easy to buy, keep, give away, or throw away. As an object, it is user-friendly and routine, a mature technological form, hard to improve upon and easy to like. Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book. As I line up my summer reading of thirty-four novels written in the twentieth century, I realize that I have gained so much and such reliable pleasure from so many novels that my sense of physiological well-being (heart rate, oxygenation, brain chemical production) noticeably improves as I look at them. I smile. This row of books elevates my mood.
The often beautiful cover of a book opens like the lid of a box, but it reveals no objects, rather symbols inscribed on paper. This is simple and elegant, too. The leaves of paper pressed together are reserved and efficient as well as cool and dry. They protect each other from damage. They take up little space. Spread open, they offer some information, but they don't offer too much, and they don't force it upon me or anyone else. They invite perusal. Underneath the open leaves, on either side, are hidden ones that have been read or remain to be read. The reader may or may not experience them. The choice is always her own. The book continues to be an object. Only while the reader is reading does it become a novel.
But it turns out that a novel is simple, too. A novel is a (1) lengthy, (2) written, (3) prose, (4) narrative with a (5) protagonist. Everything that the novel is and does, every effect that the novel has had on, first, Western culture, and subsequently, world culture, grows out of these five small facts that apply to every novel.
The longest novels that stand alone in one volume are just under 1,000 pages--Henry Fielding's Tom Jones* would be a good example. The shortest run under 100 pages--Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness would define that end of the continuum. Most novels run 300 to 400 pages, or 100,000 to 175,000 words. If a competent reader can read 30 or 40 pages in an hour--that is, 12,000 to 20,000 words--then most novels take ten hours to read. Length is a bland and reassuring quality, but it is no blander or more reassuring than any of the other qualities. Prose, for example, is usually simpler to read and more casual than poetry. We are accustomed to reading prose, and we talk in a sort of prose. Narrative, too, is a natural form. People tell stories from their earliest years and continue to narrate as long as they can remember and care about sequences of events. Almost always, their stories have themselves or their friends as protagonists. A story requires a protagonist--that is, a human or a humanlike consciousness who acts or is acted upon in the course of the story. Most people with the normal brain development and structure that results in a sense of self live with a protagonist every minute of every day, and that protagonist--"one who feels (agon) for (pro)"--is himself or herself. A protagonist is the most natural thing in the world.
Every novel has all of these elements. If any of them is missing, the literary form in question is not a novel. All additional characteristics--characters, plot, themes, setting, style, point of view, tone, historical accuracy, philosophical profundity, revolutionary or revelatory effect, pleasure, enlightenment, transcendence, and truth--grow out of the ironclad relationships among these five elements. A novel is an experience, but the experience takes place within the boundaries of writing, prose, length, narrative, and protagonist.
The most necessary of the five qualities of the novel is writing. The paradox of writing is that it is permanent, and so it may be forgotten. Author and reader agree that images and ideas set down in writing may come and go because they do not have to be stored in memory. Hazy notions and vague pictures that have to do with the writing certainly remain in the memories of both author and reader, as do strong emotional impressions that author and reader alike feel upon reading certain sections of the novel, but exact wordings can be largely forgotten. The same is not true of poetry. A poem must be remembered word for word or it loses its identity. In fact, poetry is often learned and remembered word for word, as when students memorize Hamlet's famous soliloquy ("Who would these fardels bear?") in spite of the fact that they have only the dimmest idea of what the words mean. The words may have the power of an incantation even in the absence of comprehension. The memory, though, sets limits upon what is to be remembered. The history of epic poetry, for example, shows that poets used set forms, rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech, and already familiar stories as mnemonic devices to aid in both the composition and the transmission of poetry from poet to poet and from poet to audience. Novelists have no need to do so. Particular stylistic tricks or turns of phrase are not necessary as mnemonic aids to the continued existence of the novel, and so the author is free to explore language and ideas that are hard to remember in detail. The novelist can go on and on, adding scenes, ideas, characters, complexities of every sort, knowing that they are safe from the effects of human memory--they will exist forever exactly as printed and will not evolve by passing through the faulty memories of others.
Writing allows the elaboration of prose. Since memorization is unlikely to begin with, it may be made all the more unlikely by the use of a style that is unmemorable. Prose slips by, common as water. Readers have no defense against it other than boredom. But because it is so common and often colorless, the writer can use it in many ways, from the blandest, most objective, reportlike purposes to the most vivid, evocative, lyrical purposes. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf famously exploited metaphorical and lyrical possibilities of English prose that Defoe and Trollope did not. Prose may slow down and quicken, invoke and state, flower into figures of speech, flatten into strings of facts, observations, assertions. It may pile detail upon detail or summarize years of action in a few pages (as in the middle section of To the Lighthouse). Prose usually privileges the sentence, using punctuation to define the beginnings, endings, and complications of thoughts, and sentences are easy. They are what we learn and, often, how we learn it. Even though we don't use them in speech as much as we think we do (in fact, people who talk in whole sentences are generally thought of as pedantic or "prosy"), when our thoughts assume formal shape, they organize themselves into sentences. Poetry, in its search for concentration and sharp effect, contracts. In prose, one thought leads to another--it expands. Although thoughtless expansion is a fault to be guarded against, inspired expansion gives us the novels of Proust and Tolstoy, or Laurence Sterne and Halldor Laxness. Prose is both sneaky and powerful, and is naturally narrative, since sequences of events have some inherent organization, and it is naturally expansive, since events can often be broken down into smaller events and extended backward and forward in time.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes of narrative--that is, of "what happened then?"--almost with contempt. Even the lowliest bus driver, Forster says, could show an interest in suspense, in a sequence of events. He almost admits to wishing that novels could be written without narrative, without what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art. But they can't be. It is not only that the novel was invented to tell a lengthy and complicated story that could not be told in any other way, it is also that without the spine of narrative logic and suspense, it cannot be sufficiently organized to be understandable to the reader. Even more basically, a sequence of sentences, which is the only form sentences can occur in, must inevitably result in a narrative. The very before-and-after qualities of written sentences imply, mimic, and require the passage of time. There are minimally narrative novels, but the more lyrical and less narrative a novel is, the shorter it is, until it becomes a short story, which may, indeed, dispense almost entirely with narrative and become a series of impressions or linguistic effects or rhetorical flourishes, as happened with American short stories in the 1960s and 1970s. Narratives are as common as prose; they are the way humans have chosen to pack together events and emotions, happenings in the world and how they make us feel. Even the most informal narratives alternate what happens and how it feels (or what it means) to some degree. Even the most formally objective narratives (such as police reports) imply the emotions that rise out of the events, when at the same time they are suspending conclusions as to the meanings of the events.
Because narrative is so natural, efficient, and ubiquitous, it, like prose, can be used in myriad ways. The time sequence can be abused however the writer wishes to abuse it, because the human tendency, at least in the West, to think in sequence is so strong that the reader will keep track of beginning, middle, and end on her own. Nevertheless, the commonest bus driver can and often does take an interest in what happens next, and so because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It can never exclude bus drivers completely, and is, therefore, depending on one's political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.
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