Thirteen ways of looking at the novel

by Jane Smiley

Hardcover, 2005

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Knopf, 2005.

Description

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.”… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mschaefer
Jane Smiley's tour of the novel, studying it from historical, psychological, sociological points of view. Followed by 100 short reviews of different novels. Insightful, even if one doesn't agree with her, novel selection thankfully eclectic. The only aspect Smiley does not investigate (on purpose, one assumes) is low-level analysis of text and form. For that David Lodge's Art of Fiction is hard to beat.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ibreak4books
This was interesting because Ms. Smiley is both a novelist and critic. the critic side could get a little tedious (as I am not an academic), but on the whole it was a worthwhile read.
LibraryThing member ZenPatrice
Jane Smiley wrote 13 essays about the novel and then summaries of 100 novels. This is a great resource.
LibraryThing member booklog
Excellent advice for writers. Biased toward mainstream, realistic novels. Summaries of 100 novels she read in 2 years, no system or list. Admits that "literature" is biased toward secular worldviews. Considers the "woman problem" and "bad marriages" to be central to novels. Believes novelists trained readers to move toward relaxed moral standards and to shun marriage as an "unfixable institution".… (more)
LibraryThing member nsenzee
This is a really great book. Smiley is a novelist, and so she's basically giving a literature class, through the eyes of someone who actually could or would want to write a novel themselves. Add to my reading list: Tristam Shandy, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (for epistolary form), Toni Morrison.
LibraryThing member mr._sammy
Interesting book, focuses much on the history and how the novel has been perceived throughout time from its birth through present. The author uses an expansive vocabulary and thick paragraphs which makes reading slow going. Though not an easy read, a worthwhile one for having a well rounded understanding of how the novel has been shaped.… (more)
LibraryThing member vikk
I bought Smiley's book when it first came out and now, four years later, I find I still return to the pages and reread the essays on writing whenever I'm in need of a little conversation on the writing process. Each time more pencil marks are added, particular passages are emphasized yet again. Smiley's essays are thoughtful and present views seldom discussed in other books on writing. I particularly enjoy the chapters titled Psychology and the Novel and Morality and the Novel. My copy sits on self reserved for my most frequented books on writing. Obviously, I highly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member libraryhermit
I have read this book by Jane Smiley about novels, but never any of her novels yet. But encouraged by the quality of the writing on this book, and how she talks about her novels and other novels in general, this encourages me to want to read her novels as soon as possible. Did the same order with Barbara Kingsolver; essays first, novels second. Probably not the best order, but oh well, nothing I can do about it now.
I love to hear an opinion from anybody about The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, no matter what.
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LibraryThing member MarieAlt
I think I may have to buy this book.

I didn't *love* it, but it's an academic book, and dense, and there's a lot I want to review.

However long it's been on my "currently reading" list, it didn't actually take me 7 months to read. But the library kept taking it back, and it wasn't something meant to read in one sitting.

Smiley is insightful and intelligently articulates what she thinks the novel is, which I must admit I don't fully agree with. Nevertheless, she argues well for her position, and though she seems to want to orient novels in more political landscape than I think is always necessary, she is consistent in discussing the novel in her terms, and it doesn't get confusing. I may not always agree, especailly when she discusses her political position, but it never overwhelms the thesis of the book.

However, because she talks politics, when she uses the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' as literary poles, I don't know what she meant. It unnecessarily confused the issue.

At the very least, I added some 90 books of her list of 101 to my TBR list (just what it needed). And I could use this book on my shelf...it's useful enough to come to again and again.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
This book is a must-read for anyone who loves reading novels as well as for new and experienced writers. Although it covers its subject in great depth and detail, analyzing the novel throughout its history by closely examining 100 (actually, slightly more) representatives of the form, it is such fascinating material and such food for thought that it doesn’t seem academic at all. In fact, a lot of witticisms are scattered throughout (such as, “the biographer is the author’s natural enemy”), as well as useful, practical and compassionate advice for those who aspire to write a novel themselves.

I won’t say that I agree with every theory Smiley posits. She pretty much omits genre fiction, and she takes a highly feminized viewpoint, which I think betrays her reading tastes. Her outlook of the novel as a form that has primarily dealt with the question of what to do about women is likely a result of her bias toward books that focus on female characters and women’s issues; she pretty much dismisses masculine-themed books such as Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness (two personal favorites).

Smiley’s most valuable offering is a short and precise definition of what a novel is that can’t really be argued with: A novel is a lengthy, written, prose narrative with a protagonist. From that starting point, all of her subsequent ideas of what the novel is flow. This is a juicy book, one which I found inspirational both for my reading life and my writing aspirations.
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LibraryThing member breakerfallen
The first 7 or 8 chapters were good or great, so I was willing to continue reading through the strange mix of book report and diary that the final "ways of looking at a novel" encompassed. By the 13th, though, I really didn't care about and in some ways actively disliked the author's point of view. I didn't venture into the summaries of 100 novels that followed.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
I read the introduction and thoroughly skimmed the 101 snapshots. ?I have no idea why one would care about Smiley's musings on either novels in general, or on the 100 novels she read, unless one were a huge fan of the author and wanted to read everything she wrote. ?áOtherwise this seems like self-absorbed claptrap, as the saying goes. ?áI have not managed to read anything by Smiley, even though I have tried a couple of times. ?áI've also read, erm, maybe 4 of the books in that 101 list... and her notes did not encourage me to read any others. ?áMy one-word reaction: :gag:"

ymmv"
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LibraryThing member Atsa
It's not easy reading but is useful for English majors who want a refresher so they don't forget everything they learned. It was long and her review of essential novels starts at the half way mark of the book. The novels she chose are straight from my undergrad syllabus. It was nice to get another take on their significance and to hear her intelligent analysis.… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
A novel is “a long story bound enticingly between the closed covers of a book.” That, it turns out, is about as comprehensive a description of “the novel” as one is likely to get. At her best, Smiley humbly acknowledges the irreducibility of “the novel”. Unfortunately, the first half of 13 Ways does not always display Smiley at her best. Instead, through chapters exploring such matters as what a novel is, who is a novelist, morality and the novel, the art of the novel, and more, Smiley evinces a seeming compulsion to render. Thus the preponderance of universal claims beginning, “All novels…,” or, “Every novel…,” and so forth. None is convincing. At times they seem naïve, wilful, petulant. They culminate in a dubiously singular analytical theory that Smiley dubs “the circle of the novel”.

My advice is to set aside the first half of 13 Ways and start in around page 270. The following 300 pages consists in brief summaries and observations of two to three pages in length on each of 100 novels, a representative sampling from the history of novel writing (as opposed to a ‘best of’ selection). In these pages Jane Smiley earns our trust. Each novel is considered on its merits, unfiltered by cod theories. We see a sensitive and sensible reader, responsive to the texts, challenging but also willing to be challenged. Perhaps not surprisingly there is a complete absence of ponderous pronouncements on “the novel”. One gets the impression that in her heart Smiley knows that each novel of merit stands on its own creating its own universals from its own particularities. Thus Smiley notes that “really, in the end, all the reader can say is, ‘Read this. I bet you’ll like it.’”

And in the end, I did like 13 Ways, despite my increasing annoyance as I plodded through the first 270 pages. I’m so glad I continued on to read the whole of the remarks on her set of 100 novels (I only wish now that Smiley had been able to fulfil her original goal of a set of 275). On novels that I already knew well, I found Smiley’s observations invariably insightful. On novels that I knew of but have not yet read, I found new reasons to pick them up. And for those novels that were entirely new to me, I can only say that my potential reading world is now somewhat enlarged. You may, like me, finish by wishing that Jane Smiley (or some other sensitive and sensible reader) could provide comparable insights for every book you hope to read, or have already read and might now read again.
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Barcode

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