Recursions, Part 4: Jane Smiley’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel”

Bookshelves at a library

This is the fourth in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a week, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

Looking at “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel”

Smileys’ critique is clear and accessible, almost anecdotal, though she applies a consistent and, to my mind, accurate feminist perspective to most of the works she examines. Indeed, the question in many Western novels does seem to be, “What do we do about the women,” as I recall Smiley phrases it, and a preponderance of English novels (which are heavily represented in this work) do turn on money and marriage. The selection may have been a bit biased, perhaps; Tolstoy did indeed write “Anna Karenina”; but he also wrote “War and Peace,” a considerably longer and more phallocentric production.

Smiley is a working novelist, and so she analyses from within the form, and certainly understands more about the process of writing a novel and developing themes than your more dispassionate critics looking down into written storytellling from 30,000 feet. As I myself am a working novelist, though a singularly unsuccessful one, I found her chapter on “Your Own Novel” particularly heartening; apparently I am doing everything right except actually making sales.

In any case, my own two and a half novels themselves turn on romantic relationships, whether past, present, or future, despite having the outward form of mysteries. And after all, even in cultures where marriage is arranged according to clan politics (and for a long time I worked with a woman who lived in a very happy arranged marriage), domestic relationships shape daily life more than almost anything else.

I disregarded Smiley’s advice not to read straight through her synopses of the hundred novels she read in preparation for this book, and I’m glad I did. The synopses not only fleshed out her theses (which involved structural as well as thematic developments in the thousand-year history of the novel and the proto-novel), they tipped me off to a number of books I have put on my reading list.

Unlike many of the works it examines, Smiley’s study does not result in one of those life-changing experiences that a good book (or piece of music) can spark in your mind, but it definitely expanded my understanding of the novel as it has been practiced in various literate cultures.

…Though it would have been amusing to see what she thought of Haruki Murakami!

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg