13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

by Jane Smiley


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400033188
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/12/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 496,168
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.99(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Golden Age, the concluding volume of The Last Hundred Years trilogy. She is also the author of five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.


Northern California

Date of Birth:

September 26, 1949

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978

Read an Excerpt

The end of September is a great time to have a birthday if you want to be a writer. Jane Austen might be December 16 and Shakespeare April 23 and Charles Dickens February 9, but for a sheer run of greatness, I challenge anyone to match September 23 through September 30--F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Marina Tsvetayeva, William Blake, and Miguel Cervantes. And, I used to add (to myself, of course), moi. There is also a gratifying musical backup--George Gershwin on the twenty-sixth, my very own birthday. I never hesitated to bring anyone who cared (or did not care) to know up to date on late September (Ray Charles, Dmitri Shostakovich) and early October (John Lennon) birthdays. It was rather like listing your horse's pedigree or your illustrious ancestors--not exactly a point of pride, but more a reassurance that deep down, the stuff was there, if only astrologically.

But in 2001, the year I turned fifty-two, whether or not the stuff was there astrologically, it did not seem to be there artistically. All those years of guarding my stuff--no drinking, no drugs, personal modesty and charm, good behavior on as many fronts as I could manage, a public life of agreeability and professionalism, and still when I sat down at the computer to write my novel, titled Good Faith, my heart sank. I was into the 250s and 260s, there were about 125 pages to go, and I felt like Dante's narrator at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. I had wandered into a dark wood. I didn't know the way out. I was afraid.

I tried hard not to be afraid in certain ways. Two weeks before my birthday, terrorists had bombed the World Trade Center in New York. Fear was everywhere--fear of anthrax, fear of nuclear terrorism, fear of flying, fear of the future. I felt that, too, more than I was willing to admit. I tried to remind myself of the illusory nature of the world and my conviction that death is a transition, not an end, to discipline my fears to a certain degree. And my lover and partner was diagnosed at about that time with heart disease and required several procedures. I feared that he might also undergo a sudden transition and I would be bereft of his physical presence, but I also believed that we were eternally joined and that there was no transition that would separate us. This is how we agreed to view his health crisis. Physical fears were all too familiar for me--I had been wrestling with them my whole life, but in the late 1990s, divorce, independence, horses, Jack, and a book called A Course in Miracles had relieved most of them.

When I sat down at my computer, though, and read what I had written the day before, I felt something new--a recoiling, a cold surprise. Oh, this again. This insoluble, unjoyous, and unstimulating piece of work. What's the next sentence, even the next word? I didn't know, and if I tried something, I suspected it would just carry me farther down the wrong path, would be a waste of time or worse, prolong an already prolonged piece of fraudulence. I wondered if my case were analogous to that of a professional musician, a concert pianist perhaps, who does not feel every time he sits down to play the perfect joy of playing a piece he has played many times. I had always evoked this idea hopefully for students--however such a musician might begin his concert, surely he would be carried away by his own technique and mastery; after a few bars, the joy contained in the music itself would supply the inspiration that was lacking only moments before. But I didn't know that. Maybe that sort of thing didn't happen at all.

I came up with all sorts of diagnoses for my condition. The state of the zeitgeist was tempting but I refused to be convinced.* I reminded myself that I had lived through lots of zeitgeists over the years, and the geist wasn't all that bad in California. The overwhelming pall of grief and fear and odor and loss reached us more or less abstractly. Unlike New Yorkers, we could turn it off and get back to work, or so it seemed. But perhaps I was sensitive to something other than events--to a collective unconscious reaction to those events that I sensed in the world around me? I felt scattered. Even after I lost my fascination with the images and the events, my mind felt dissipated and shallow. It didn't help that I was annoyed with everything other writers wrote about the tragedy. There was no grappling with its enormity, and everything everyone said sounded wrong as soon as they said it. After this should come only silence, it seemed, and yet I didn't really believe that. I believed that the world was not now changed for the worse--that anyone who had not reckoned upon the world to deliver such a blow, after lo these many years of genocide, mass murder, war, famine, despair, betrayal, death, and chaos, was naive. I believed at the time that if the world was a little changed, then perhaps it was changed for the better. The images had gone global, moving many individuals to look within and find mercy and compassion rather than hatred and anger. Hatred and anger were the oldest old hat, but mercy and compassion were something new. If there was more of those, and there seemed to be, then the turning point had actually been a turning point. Only time would tell. At any rate, surely talking was good, writing was good. Communicating was good, the antidote to the secrecy and silence the terrorists had attempted to foist upon us. Perhaps, I thought, I would stay scattered until the collective unconscious pulled itself together and raised itself up and put fear aside.

But really, events were events. I had known events and written through them, written about them, written in spite of them. I had grown up during the cold war, when obliteration seemed imminent every time the Russians twitched. I had an engagement photo of my parents from a newspaper; the headline of the article on the reverse side was "Russians Develop H-Bomb." Fear of terrorism, I thought, was nothing compared with the raw dread I had felt as a child. The problem with the novel was not outside myself, or even in my link to human consciousness. Perhaps, I thought, it was my own professional history. I had experienced every form of literary creation I had ever heard of--patient construction (A Thousand Acres), joyous composition (Moo, Horse Heaven), the grip of inspiration that seems to come from elsewhere (The Greenlanders), steady accumulation (Duplicate Keys), systematic putting together (Barn Blind), word-intoxicated buzz (The Age of Grief), even disinterested professional dedication (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton). I could list my books in my order of favorites, but my order of favorites didn't match anyone else's that I knew of, and so didn't reveal anything about the books' inherent value or even about their ease of composition. I didn't put too much stock in my preferences, or even in my memories of how it had felt to write them.

But I had penned a concise biography of Charles Dickens, and maybe I had learned from Dickens's life an unwanted lesson. I wrote the Dickens book because I loved Dickens, not because I felt a kinship with him, but after writing the book, it seemed to me that there was at least one similarity between us, and that was that Dickens loved to write and wrote with the ease and conviction of breathing. Me, too. When he took up each novel or novella, there might be some hemming and hawing and a few complaints along the way, but his facility of invention was utterly reliable and he was usually his own best audience. In the heat of composition, he declared almost every novel he wrote his best and his favorite, even if his preferences didn't stand. Toward the end of his life, though, his energy began to fail. When he was fifty, planning a new publication, he plunged rapidly into Great Expectations and wrote in weekly parts, modifying an earlier plan for the novel and producing a masterpiece largely because his journal needed it. When he began Our Mutual Friend a few years later, he was taxed almost beyond his powers. Several numbers were short, he complained of his lack of invention, and he didn't really like the novel much, though a case can be made (I have made it) that it is one of his most perfect. And he died in the middle of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, having not quite mastered the whodunit form. Even Dickens, I thought, even Dickens faltered in the end, though you might say that he was careful and nurturing of his talents--abstemious and hardworking. He always deflected his fame a bit, wore it lightly. Was the lesson I had learned from Charles Dickens that a novelist's career lasts only a decade or two, can't be sustained much longer even by the greatest novelist (or most prolific great novelist) of all time?

Look at them all--Virginia Woolf, twenty-three or twenty-four years. George Eliot, twenty years. Jane Austen, twenty years, Dickens, twenty-four years, Thomas Hardy, fifty years of writing, but less than half of that novels. James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Miguel Cervantes. Short short short. I had meant to write my whole life. Surely modern life and modern medicine and modern day care and modern technology and modern publishing would make Henry James the paradigmatic novelist, not Jane Austen. I wondered if novel-writing had its own natural life span and without knowing it, I had outlived the life span of my novel-writing career.

Another thing I learned about Dickens was that after 1862, he began to live a much more active life than he had before. In 1856, he left his wife in a scandalous divorce and took up with a much younger woman. Sometime in the very early 1860s, the younger woman disappeared. Some authorities think that she and her mother moved to France and that Dickens visited her there, in a small city or town, and that possibly she produced a child. Dickens's work was based in London, his family was near Chatham in Kent, and his beloved was in France. Dickens traveled back and forth incessantly, sometimes spending only a few days in each place. He also embarked on several arduous dramatic reading tours. It may be that such a schedule dissipated his energy or his concentration. I found myself in that, too. Once, when I lived in Ames, Iowa, where errands were easy and day care was exceptional, I had hours on end in which to marinate my day's work. After I moved to California, gave in to my obsession with horses, and became a single mother, to fritter away an hour meant to fritter away most of the day's allotted writing time. Distractions abounded, and they all seemed important. But then, I had always had children, I had always had something else to do during the day--not riding and horse care, but teaching and professorial responsibilities.

If to live is to progress, if you are lucky, from foolishness to wisdom, then to write novels is to broadcast the various stages of your foolishness. This was true of me. I took up each of my novels with unwavering commitment. I did not begin them by thinking I had a good subject for a novel. I began them by thinking that I had discovered important truths about the world that required communication. When I was writing Duplicate Keys, for example, a murder mystery, I was convinced of the idea that every novel is really some sort of mystery or whodunit because every novel is a retrospective uncovering of the real story behind the apparent story. I thought I might write mysteries for the rest of my life. When I was writing The Greenlanders, it was obvious to me that all novels were historical novels, patiently reconstructing some time period or another, recent or distant. Horse racing, medieval Greenland, farming, dentistry. I would get letters and reviews from all sorts of people who found themselves reading with interest about subjects they had never thought of before. But at the end of each novel, I would more or less throw down that lens along with that subject. My curiosity was always about how the world worked, what the patterns were, and what they meant. I was secular to the core, and I investigated moral issues with the dedication only someone who is literally and entirely agnostic would do--my philosophical stance was one of not knowing any answers and not believing that there were any answers.

While I was writing Horse Heaven, though, I embarked on a spiritual discipline that was satisfying and comforting. I came to believe in God and to accept a defined picture of Reality that took elements of Christianity and combined them with elements of Eastern religions. It was not an institutionalized religion, but it was a defined faith and had a scripture. It was called A Course in Miracles, and it completely changed the way I looked at the world.

The essential premise of A Course in Miracles is that God did not create the world and that the apparent mixture in the world of good and evil is an illusion; God is not responsible for apparent evil. In fact, the world itself and all physical manifestations are illusory, an agreed-upon conceit that is useful for learning what is true and real, but otherwise a form of dreaming--bad dreaming. The essential falsehoods of the world are that beings are separate from one another, that bodies are real and of primary importance, and that the physical preexists the spiritual. A Course in Miracles, like many Eastern religions, maintains that the world, all physical things, all elements of the universe, and all dimensions, including time, are a mental construct, and that the Mind or the Source preexists matter and is connected to itself all the time and in every way. It took me about three years to turn my image of the world upside down and to become comfortable with this new way of thinking. It wasn't hard, though it was disconcerting at the beginning. The payoff, other than my conviction that these ideas were true, was that I grew less fearful, more patient, less greedy, and more accepting. I greeted events more calmly as a rule, and didn't feel that old sense of vertigo that I had once felt much of the time. I got analyzed, or therapized, or counseled. My counselor shared my beliefs. Together we fixed my relationships and my worldview.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. What Is a Novel?
3. Who Is a Novelist?
4. The Origins of the Novel
5. The Psychology of the Novel
6. Morality and the Novel
7. The Art of the Novel
8. The Novel and History
9. The Circle of the Novel
10. A Novel of Your Own (I)
11. A Novel of Your Own (II)
12. Good Faith: A Case History
13. Reading a Hundred Novels


1. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
2. Snorri Sturluson, Egilssaga
3. Author unknown, The Saga of the People of Laxardal
4. Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
5. Anonymous, Lazarillo de Tormes
6. Marguerite de Navarre, The Heptameron
7. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote, vols. 1 and 2
8. Madame de La Fayette, The Princess of Clèves
9. Aphra Behn, Oroonoko and “The Fair Jilt”
10. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Roxana
11. Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded
12. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
13. Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote
14. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
15. Voltaire, Candide
16. Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
17. Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses
18. The Marquis de Sade, Justine
19. Sir Walter Scott, The Tale of Old Mortality, The Bride of Lammermoor
20. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
21. Jane Austen, Persuasion
22. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
23. Stendhal, The Red and the Black
24. Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba
25. Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time
26. Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Pons and Cousin Bette
27. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
28. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
29. William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
30. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
31. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
32. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
33. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
34. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
35. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, The Moonstone
36. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
37. Émile Zola, Thérèse Raquin
38. Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset, The Eustace Diamonds
39. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
40. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
41. George Eliot, Middlemarch
42. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
43. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, The Awkward Age
44. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
45. Bram Stoker, Dracula
46. Kate Chopin, The Awakening
47. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
48. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
49. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
50. Max Beerbohm, The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson, or an Oxford Love Story
51. Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
52. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street
53. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, vol. 1, The Wreath
54. James Joyce, Ulysses
55. Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience
56. E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
57. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
58. Franz Kafka, The Trial
59. Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers
60. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
61. D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
62. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
63. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
64. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, vol. 1
65. Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don
66. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
67. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
68. P. G. Wodehouse, The Return of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, Spring Fever, The Butler Did It
69. T. H. White, The Once and Future King
70. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
71. Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters
72. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
73. Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows
74. Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred
75. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
76. Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine
77. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
78. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
79. John Gardner, Grendel
80. Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
81. Naguib Mahfouz, The Harafish
82. Iris Murdoch,The Sea, the Sea
83. David Lodge, How Far Can You Go?
84. Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent
85. Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
86. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
87. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
88. J. M. Coetzee, Foe
89. Toni Morrison, Beloved
90. A. S. Byatt, Possession
91. Nicholson Baker, Vox
92. Garrison Keillor, WLT: A Radio Romance
93. Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
94. Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
95. Francine Prose, Guided Tours of Hell
96. Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life
97. Arnosˇt Lustig, Lovely Green Eyes
98. Zadie Smith, White Teeth
99. John Updike, The Complete Henry Bech
100. Ian McEwan, Atonement
101. Jennifer Egan, Look at Me


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13 Ways of Looking at the Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel', Jane Smiley offers the reader her masterly insight into the construction of the novel. Through her fine scholarship and talent, this writer introduces lay readers to aspects of the novel that will change the way we read and enrich the experience of reading and literary appreciation. Along the way, Smiley shares her reading experience of 100 novels. Her enthusiasm is contagious and will make you want to return to old favorites, and find books passed over, to try out your new 'reading eye'. Personally, I am committed to revisit A.S. Byatt's 'Possession' again. The first time through, I felt I was not smart enough to master the story. Now, I feel inspired to give it the read it thoroughly deserves. As does this great gift to the reader from Ms. Smiley.
booklog on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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".
Ibreak4books on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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.
nsenzee on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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.
vikk on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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.
mr._sammy on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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.
ZenPatrice on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Jane Smiley wrote 13 essays about the novel and then summaries of 100 novels. This is a great resource.
mschaefer on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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.
RandyMetcalfe on LibraryThing 8 months ago
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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