- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005


By Jane Smiley

Knopf, $26.95, 608 pages


What happens to the creative impulse when our country is devastated by an act of terrorism? For novelist Jane Smiley, September 11 had a smothering effect on her sense of freedom and openness, on her concentration and on the almost Zen-like meditative state that writers often fashion in order to feel open to the flow of ideas and vision.

The Pulitzer-prize-winning author of “A Thousand Acres,” “Good Faith” and “Moo” set aside the novel she had been struggling to write during the summer of 2001 and took, instead, a year or so to read novels. This, in a sense, was restorative reading, and she chose 100 books that fit a somewhat random list of her needs. She sought a mixture of the greatest novels of all time, books that she’d been meaning to get to and novels that attempted some interesting aspect of fiction, from the use of the unreliable narrator to a “chick lit” beach book that her daughter happened to have.

She says, “My list is not and was never intended to be a ‘Hundred Greatest,’ only a list of individual novels that would illuminate the whole concept of the novel — and almost any list of a hundred serious novels would illuminate that concept.”

The result was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.” Why 13? In part, the title pays homage to the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem that simply and elegantly explores layers of consciousness from different angles. It could also be that she chose 13 because she ended up with 13 chapters, which range from “Who is a Novelist” to “The Novel and History.”

But that’s part of the problem here: While there are great insights and comments scattered throughout this book, too much of the book feels tedious and encumbered. It’s hard to figure out who is supposed to pick up this book. Could it be used for a college text, perhaps an introductory fiction course? But even on this level, it falls short. Other novelists have done this before, and done it better. For instance, the great John Gardner wrote “On Moral Fiction” in 1978. He makes a case for novels and stories with meaning, fiction that intends to elevate us and make us feel the great joy of being human. He writes, “The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.”

Another part of Ms. Smiley’s book is clearly a how-to section, aimed at aspiring writers. Those chapters are packed with good, if sometimes contradictory, advice about writing discipline and inspiration. But is the author imagining that her readers all want to become novelists, too? It’s never really made clear.

Finally, the last large portion of this large book is the exploration of 100 novels.

Unfortunately, these entries, if they are read back to back, start to sound like book reports that conscientiously work through each novel’s plot, characters, style, tone and historical context. And to make matters even more difficult, Jane Smiley doesn’t tell us until page 278 that we are not supposed to read “Thirteen Ways” sequentially cover to cover. It would have been nice to hear that a little earlier.

At the same time, it’s hard to be too furious with this well-intentioned author. The book has a gentle, ego-free tone that makes it read as if we’re in the company of a beloved English teacher. The dear lady does chatter on and on as the tea grows cold, but she is so eager to explain and so catholic and open-minded in her tastes that it’s hard not to try to be a good sport about it all.

And there are lovely moments here. For instance, in her chapter “A Novel of Your Own 1,” she offers up a thought-provoking definition of a novel’s value: “The special appeal of the novel is the alternation of action and reflection — something happens, it is given meaning by either the narrator or the characters, then something else happens that grows out of the meaning given to the first event, which is then given meaning, and so on, until the climax — the largest action, the denouement, the final meaning.”

She also makes a passionate argument for novel-reading as essential in keeping us open-minded and awake to the possibilities of life. She writes that “when I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, the author’s or the 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.”

In her section on the 100 books, she takes on Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” in a careful dissection that shows just how intricate and self-conscious his structure is. She doesn’t much like its contrived setup, and she can help us better understand why readers leave the novel with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and unease. Her talk about Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters reminds us why we’ve loved “Jane Eye” and “Persuasion.”

This is an ambitious undertaking: to explore the general concept of storytelling, to trace its history from the earliest recorded novels and to read the reader through novels from the earliest to the most recent. But why, oh why, must we have two Icelandic sagas and two different books from Sir Walter Scott? And why does she pick Garrison Keillor’s “WLT: A Radio Romance or John Updike’s Bech series? — good and interesting books, but the randomness of the selection can be puzzling.

The author reveals in “A Conversation With Jane Smiley,” the publisher’s insert that accompanies a review copy of this book, that she had considered this alternative title: “Everything You Wanted to Know about the Novel but Didn’t Bother to Ask.” That, of course, raises the obvious question: If the reader isn’t going to “bother to ask” in the first place, will “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel” make us want to bother now? Sadly, probably not.

Debra Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington.

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