13 Ways of Looking at the Novel: What to Read and How to Write
Pulitzer prize-winning Smiley is clearly passionate about the novel and
keenly discusses the history, psychology and morality of the novel while
offering personal suggestions about her own reading and writing journey.
The book does not give insights into advanced writing techniques but
is an eclectic distillation of her personal writing and reading experiences.
It may offer an interesting read for lovers of memoir and literature review.
However, it offers little practical guidance or assistance on the actual
process of writing.
The title suggests that the guide will provide some clear discussion
of writing practise. It also references Wallace Stevens' poem '13 ways
of looking at a blackbird'. Smiley was clearly looking for an external
form as a medium for her to explore a vast array of novels in order to
understand what makes a novel 'great', or 'striking' (in the absence of
greatness) (p.200). More about greatness later. Thirteen is the eccentric
number. There are clearly many ways of looking at a novel. Structuring
the book around this referential number, however, contributes to a less
than cohesive view of novel writing.
What are the thirteen ways of looking at a novel, you ask? The headings
of the thirteen chapters to this book are as follows: Introduction; What
Is a Novel?; Who Is a Novelist?; The Origins of the Novel; The Psychology
of the Novel; Morality and the Novel; The Art of the Novel; The Novel
and History; The Circle of the Novel; A Novel of Your Own (I); A Novel
of Your Own (II); Good Faith: A Case History; Reading a Hundred
The subtitle is particularly provocative: What to Read and How to
Write. This is such a big claim.
Essentially, Smiley brings together some interesting trivia and points
of view on the novel in itself, the novelist's life, a case history of
her own work, and a précis of the hundred novels she read during
a September 11-induced case of writer's block. This work took her three
years to complete.
Only twenty-five pages (204-229), are dedicated directly to answering the second part of the subtitle, namely 'how to write'. Here is the opening paragraph to Chapter 10, 'A novel of your own' (I):
It would have been helpful to have had this clearly stated at the beginning
(or indeed, indicated in the title). This is a book for people who haven't
even begun writing. Instead, one had to wait until page 204 to find out.
Based upon her reading of Middlemarch, The Trial, Vanity Fair and Wuthering Heights, with reference to 'The Clock' (or the 'circle of the novel') at page 179, Smiley makes some conclusions about 'greatness' at pages 200-203. Some of her thoughts are as follows:
Smiley's book does not contain writing exercises, nor does it methodically
deal with every commonly accepted element of the novel (see chapter 10,
which touches upon a writing 'pyramid' and chapter 9 for 'The Clock',
with the twelve different types of discourse that can be incorporated
into a novel). It is an idiosyncratic representation of the author's own
conceptions of the novel. It is too broad-ranging to be of direct service
to beginner writers (other than as a source of 'yes you can do it' motivation
or general friendly wisdoms) and not detailed enough for advanced writers.
However, having said that, had the title and purpose been different, one
could have said that this was a book that could have contributed towards
making better readers. This would include average reading enthusiasts
and novice writers. Smiley speaks passionately about the form. Perhaps,
for some readers of this work, that will be enough.
At the end of 'A novel of your own' (II) Smiley states:
While this book is interesting, it ultimately fails to deliver. Unfortunately, the title promises the moon whereas the book itself delivers only its reflection in a bucket of water. This is a well-intentioned (but inaccurately named) book of hearty advice to would-be writers and reading enthusiasts.
Theresa Lauf is a Master of Philosophy student in Creative Writing at Griffith University, Gold Coast campus researching women in the Australian legal profession, and novelistic research and writing practice.
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Vol 11 No 1 April 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb