TEXT Review

Novel lesson fails to inspire

review by Theresa Lauf





13 Ways of Looking at the Novel: What to Read and How to Write
Jane Smiley
Faber and Faber, London, 2006
ISBN 0-571-23110-1
591 pp. Pb. UK£16.99

Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel: What to Read and How to Write may be of interest to readers and first-time writers.

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 Novels.

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):

Now that you have decided to begin your novel, you may congratulate yourself. You have not been asked or groomed to write a novel. You have not gone to novel-writing school, nor taken a standard curriculum of preparatory courses. Chances are, no one wants you to write your novel - if they say they do, they are just meaning that you should get it over with or get on with it. The people you know actually dread reading the novel you are about to write - they don't want to read about themselves, they don't want to be bored, and they fear embarrassment for everyone. You are therefore, free. (204)

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:

There is no single quality that the "great" novels share other than the biographical quality - the sense that the reader comes to understand a character completely, better than the character understands himself or herself. (200)

What seems to be happening is that the author's voice and his or her protagonist's potential fit one another and illuminate one another in a unique way. But in fact, capaciousness works for the novelist in several ways. When he includes many components in his novel, he stimulates his own thinking as he tries to get the parts to mesh - dilemmas of narrative as simple as time sequence and cause and effect require the author to think about the complex connections between his parts and to express these complexities in his style, which becomes more probing and more idiosyncratic. (201)

The Trial, though, shows that radical simplicity and focus, resulting in an intensity of intimacy that is thoroughly original, is another path to greatness. What Kafka understands better than anyone is the simple power of narration - a story is constructed one image and one incident at a time. Once the images and incidents are expressed clearly, they exist powerfully and in some sense ineradicably in the reader's mind. If they are sufficiently compelling, the reader cannot help contemplating them. To qualify them in any way, even by relating them to other ideas, is to muddy them. The Trial is an effective answer to E.M. Forster's lament that attention to 'What happens next?' inevitably renders a narrative too common or pedestrian to be truly profound. (202)

Greatness in a novel does not depend upon perfection of the object; perfection of the object is merely an added dimension to the greatness of certain novels. But every great novel offers incomprehensible abundance in some form - even The Trial, only a couple of hundred pages long, is abundantly meticulous, abundantly intimate, abundantly strange, and abundantly original. (203)

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:

The feeling you are looking for as you decide whether you are finished is exhaustion. I do not mean literal physical fatigue as much as the sense that you have used up your inventiveness, your intelligence, and your ideas with regard to this story and these characters. While you are still interested in them, you have thought every thought you are capable of about them. Chances are your novel is not perfect, and someone else will have a good idea of how it can be improved or at least be done differently the first time he reads it, but you have come to the end of your relationship with it. Print it out; go to a bookstore and buy a book about publishing, which is a whole subject in itself.

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