On September 11, 2001, Jane Smiley was roughly 280 pages into a first draft of what would eventually become her 11th novel, Good Faith. In the aftermath of that day’s horrific events, the book she was working on "suddenly came to seem trivial," Smiley says during a call to her home outside of Monterey, California, where she has lived since moving from the Midwest in 1996 with her then husband and her children. My response was to take some time off and read novels that had come before. She started with The Tale of Genji, a novel written in 11th-century Japan by a woman of the Heian court, Murasaki Shikibu.
"I did it as a form of escape," Smiley says. "But serious novels don’t allow you to escape; instead they ask you to reconsider what you were thinking about in a new way. I found it incredibly efficacious to read The Tale of Genji within a few weeks of the World Trade Center attacks." Indeed, Smiley found the exercise so helpful that she decided to keep going. "By the time I had read a couple more novels, I thought, boy, I should keep track of this and start thinking about this as a project."
Smiley’s project became to read 100 novels that more or less spanned the history of novel writing. "I immediately realized that I was not qualified and also didn’t care to compile a One Hundred Best Novels list. What I really wanted to see was what a given 100 novels some of them famous, some of them obscure, some of them congenial, some of them uncongenial would teach me about the nature of the novel, so I let the list be constructed in a serendipitous way."
The result of Smiley’s reading and thinking is the astonishing Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, a book that is 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.
"Certain books on the list really were revelations to me," Smiley says. "I loved them in every way and they were books that I hadn’t known of before. One of them was The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett, which was a great favorite of Charles Dickens. Another was Justine by the Marquis de Sade. It’s so much more interesting than you think it’s going to be. Yes, it’s pornographic but it’s also a political treatise. It’s fascinating politically; it’s fascinating artistically. I really enjoyed it, though I was shocked by it. And I thought The Once and Future King by T.H. White was a wonderful, wonderful book that ought to be revived."
In the other chapters of the book, Smiley explores with compelling energy what a novel is (answer, in brief: a lengthy, written, prose narrative with a protagonist) and who a novelist is (to begin with, a reader). She examines the history, psychology, morality and art of the novel; its blend of narrative forms and its relationship to human history. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel also includes two brilliant chapters of advice for novel writers, three if you include her case history of the composition, publication and public reception of Good Faith, which she began working on again as her novel-reading project progressed.
Smiley, who is best-known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres and for Moo, her send-up of life at a large Midwestern university, is remarkably perceptive and generous in her views of other writers’ work. She doesn’t, for example, write about good and bad writers, but instead about congenial and uncongenial writers.
"All relationships that you have with authors are essentially instinctive," Smiley says in conversation. "They are forms of friendship or kinship that are based on something not quite conscious, some instinctive response to some quality of that person’s sensibility. Since reading a novel is essentially a private experience, who am I to say that while I love The Once and Future King and you love Ulysses, you’re wrong and I’m right?"
Which is not to say that Smiley avoids offering opinions on who she finds congenial (surprisingly, Daniel Defoe) and why (to oversimplify, because he was so adept at going from the practical to the spiritual and entering the consciousness of so many different types of characters) and who she finds less than congenial (Henry James, because "he thought he was the boss of his characters and his job was to control and dominate them.").
And while the book is in no way autobiographical, Smiley infuses it 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, for example – the core values, so to speak, of who she is as a writer.
Ultimately the views that Smiley expresses in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel offer readers and writers alike a path to liberation, primarily because Smiley believes there is no such thing as the perfect novel. "Every artistic form tends in one direction or another," Smiley says, "and the novel tends toward excess, toward compendiousness, toward being about everything. And excess and perfection don’t mix." Which of course means there’s room in the world for all kinds of novels.
More importantly, Smiley thinks that the novel remains central to democratic Western society. "You cannot read a novel and have an opinion about it without feeling yourself free and also as having a right to your own opinion," she says. "So I feel that the novel has radically democratized Western consciousness simply by giving us the opportunity in our own 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.
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.