Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

From the Novel Readings Archive

One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was to experiment with writing about books in a non-academic way. One of the first blogging projects I took up, therefore (because research is an academic habit that is hard to give up), was reviewing examples of non-academic writing about books–books about books, but written for actual readers. I read Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, for instance, which was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, among others. Unlike OLM’s Sam Sacks, who thought Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was a “low point” in the genre of “books about the culture of reading” (to Sacks, Smiley comes across as “a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup”–ouch!), I thought Smiley’s was one of the best of the bunch.* It seems apt, then, to continue my series of posts resurrected from the Novel Readings archives with my own review of this particular book about books.

*Continuing in a nostalgic vein, my comment politely disagreeing with him about Smiley (which seems to have been lost in the move to the new OLM layout)  was one of my earliest interactions with Open Letters. And I also read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, the main subject of his review, for my ‘books about books’ project but didn’t write it up because I thought Sam was completely right (and completely articulate, of course) about that one.


Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism.

I was interested in the ethical aspects of Smiley’s readings for my own reasons, but her larger goal is to argue in favour of the novel as perhaps the ultimate expression of freedom, not just artistic but also personal and political. At several points, she makes claims about the benevolent effects of the combination of analysis and empathy demanded of novel readers:

Pride, arrogance, moral blindness, and narcissism are endemic among humans, especially humans who occupy positions of power, either in society or in the family. But when I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, the author’s or a character’s, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end I will be a degree less self-centered than I was at the beginning, that I will be a degree more able to see the world as another sees it. And there is the possibility that I will be able to reason about my own emotions. . . . When I’ve read lots of long novels, I will be trained in thinking about the world in many sometimes conflicting ways. . . . Perched on the cusp between the particular and the general, between expertise and common sense, the novel promotes compromise, and especially promotes the idea that lessons can be learned, if not by the characters, then by the author and the reader. (175-6)

These are familiar arguments but important and eloquently made. Perhaps the finest quality of the book, though, is that Smiley not only makes such a case but enacts it through her rigorous, intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic engagement with the novels she writes about. Probably the main reason a reader turns to criticism at all, instead of resting content with having read the novel itself, is to carry on the conversations the book begins. Smiley’s manifest love of fiction and its possibilities (aesthetic, social, and political), together with her expertise as both novelist and student of the novel, make her someone I’d like to talk to, even about our disagreements. Though very different in approach, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is as good a book as David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction as a guide and introduction for avid readers looking to broaden and improve their reading experiences with some expert help.

I do think Smiley is disingenuous, though, when she justifies her own decision to avoid “theorists of the novel . . . even though there is an entire academic industry based on theorizing about the novel”–”I preferred,” she says, “to glean my ideas about the novel from the books themselves. My justification for this . . . is that novels were invented to be accessible”:

Specialized knowledge about the novel is something the reader may engage in for added pleasure, but doesn’t need to engage in merely to understand what she has read. (278-9)

That Smiley is as good at gleaning ideas from novels as she is, is the result, surely, of her exposure to a wide range of specialized knowledge about the form, including (as displayed continually in her introductory chapters) historical and contextual knowledge, awareness of different genres and forms, attention to ideological implications, and so on. One of the reasons her book strikes me as valuable is precisely that it mobilizes this kind of specialized knowledge in an accessible way and shows that having it makes reading novels a richer, more rewarding experience. Though she’s right that “the authors and books on [her] list constitute a treasure available to all” (279) in the sense that anyone who is motivated to do so can read them, for many, without some kind of preparation or education (of the sort, for instance, supplied by Smiley’s book) the experience might yield little pleasure or insight. (There are lots of books I don’t feel prepared enough to read–or at least to read and enjoy–and I study novels for a living!) Smiley is an expert, but she wears her erudition stylishly, and we, her readers, are its beneficiaries.

(originally posted July 20, 2007)

3 Comments to Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

  1. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    April 22, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Well, the fact that Smiley has walked right into your bailiwick and emerged with your admiration speaks volumes to me. But still! My attempt at reassessment will be severely taxed by the stuff that originally tee’d me off. Look at the passages about Moby-Dick, for instance, or The Great Gatsby. It would be one thing if Smiley criticized these books, but instead she talks down to them, in a manner so thickly condescending it made me want to hurl her book across the room. (Of the former, she claims that people like it because they like exotic tales.) That’s what reminded me of that peremptory book club matron who rules over every discussion. Those books are all right, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing (i.e., if you’re a little dim and easily amused).

    But maybe I’m overreacting a touch….

  2. April 22, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    It’s funny how variable responses can be to whatever it is that creates tone in writing: I just don’t “hear” the condescension! Maybe it’s because I spend so much time listening to academics that I tune it out. My assessment really was based primarily on the introductory section to the book, though, rather than the “read a 100 random novels” section. I skimmed through some of those again today and thought they were OK, but not of great substance, whatever the tone. In that respect, her book is not much better than Dirda’s, and in both cases you have to feel that if they weren’t already “names” nobody would have any interest in their superficial commentaries. There are a lot of us out here who can say as much or more (and as well, or better)–but would never get the book contract to do so!

  3. March 24, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    “The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism.”

    These unsatisfying treatments of marriage in 19th-century novels are one of the reasons I have a wee bit of a soft spot for the (German) naturalist novel. Stylistically they leave MUCH to be desired but their exposure of the hypocrisy of marriage and their tendency to follow that vein all the way to its logical conclusion of murder and madness are a bit refreshing after reading through tonnes of books on self-denying womanhood, etc etc.

  1. By on December 11, 2012 at 10:59 am

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
In progress: Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
In progress: Dessen, Dreamland

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