Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
Way back in August, when I had hours on end to read and think and write in the sunshine, I started this blog. It’s also when I bought Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. A huge, heavy, hardcover book, it probably cost well more than the $9.50 I paid for it when originally published, though I suspect it was never a bestseller, since the audience interested in reading about novels rather than actually reading novels is probably as large as the group that would recognize the reference in the title (to the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens). For better or worse, I fit comfortably into both.
Smiley is a prolific novelist, and she does a fine job of writing about writing, too. Perhaps it will surprise you, but some great writers are not very good at talking about writing, while others who are not brilliant writers themselves can come up with incredible insights (a fact which is proven to me again and again in the peer review groups I make my students have). Each chapter explores some aspect of the novel, ranging from “What is a Novel?” to “Morality and the Novel” to “A Novel of Your Own.” I have been reading this book slowly, bit by bit and here and there, ever since August, which might suggest that I haven’t enjoyed it, though quite the opposite is true. Smiley’s analysis is full of insightful tidbits, which, in my opinion, are best savored slowly, preferably with beer.
My favorite chapter was #9, “The Circle of the Novel,” which I expected would be about the novel’s “friends,” and it kind of is, in a way. In this section Smiley plots different types of genres around the face of a clock – romance, travel, history, biography, tale, joke, gossip, diary/letter, confession, polemic, essay, and epic – in order to make the claim that the novel is a particularly unique form in that it samples from all, or at least several, of these different genres at once. Smiley concludes that the novels that strike us as “great” and enduring tend to sample liberally from all of them. I had never thought about it like that before, but now that I do, I have to agree.
What I could have done without in this and most of the other chapters is Smiley’s tendency to provide what seems to me more evidence than is really necessary to support her arguments. Given that the last section of the book offers thoughts and reviews (much like my project here) on the 100 novels she read in one year, I understand her desire to talk at length about them. But since her book is presented as more of a popular text than a scholarly one (to quote Smiley herself in Ch. 9, “Much of a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief grows out of whether she and the author agree on what category or categories of discourse a text falls into”) it’s my opinion that keeping some of these discussions more theoretical by offering only a modicum of evidence might have been more appropriate. (It certainly would have made for a quicker reading experience).
All in all, though, I seriously appreciated this book. And even though I’m about to dress it back up in its dust jacket and set it on my brand-new, handmade bookshelf, I plan to open it up again and again as I, too, read the books Smiley’s read, and find myself wanting to hear someone else’s smart, thoughtful observations and thoughts about them.