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Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel [Paperback]

Jane Smiley
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 May 2006

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author's revelatory celebration of the novel - at once an anatomy of the art of fiction, a guide for readers and writers and a memoir of literary life.

Over her 20 year career, Jane Smiley has written many kinds of novels - mystery, comedy, historical fiction, epic. But when her impulse to write faltered after 9/11, she decided to approach novels from a different angle: she read 100 of them, from the 1000-year-old Tale of Genji to the recent bestseller White Teeth by Zadie Smith, from classics to little-known gems. With these books and her experience of reading them as her reference, Smiley discusses the pleasure of reading; why a novel succeeds - or doesn't; and how the form has changed over time. She delves into the character of the novelist and reveals how (and which) novels have affected her own life.

Smiley takes us deep into the process of novel-writing, sharing the secrets of her own habits and theories of creativity. She offers priceless practical advice to aspiring writers, and even walks us through the publication of her most recent novel, Good Faith. And in an appendix - one of the most compelling and intelligent reading lists ever compiled - Smiley considers individually the 100 novels she read, giving us a brief but cogent description of each, along with her own opinions and interpretations.

Engaging, wise, decidedly unacademic - and bound to be one of Smiley's most widely read and beloved books.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; First Edition edition (4 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571231101
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571231102
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.2 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 486,112 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of eleven novels as well as three works of non-fiction. She is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres. She lives in Northern California.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good advice 11 Sep 2009
By Eileen Shaw TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Hugely ambitious and not always equal to it, nevertheless Jane Smiley has done a real service to any reader interested in looking at theory and practice in novel writing. She comes to the subject from a North American angle, of course, but the warmth and generosity of her writing make up for any limits of exposition. She takes the `problem' of the novel and applies thirteen questions or propositions: What is a Novel?; Who is a Novelist?; Origins; Psychology; Morality; Art; History; Circle (based on structures, styles, types and themes); two chapters on how and what to write if you are contemplating a novel of your own; and a case history, using her novel, Good Faith. The thirteenth chapter comprises one to three pages each on one hundred novels, chosen not because they are necessarily the `greatest' examples, but because they exemplify a trait or aspect of novels or novel writing that Smiley feels to be important.

To get the carping over first, I have to say that towards the end the reviews became randomly idiosyncratic and a little patchy. She is condescending to David Lodge, insulting to Ian McEwan and from out of nowhere chooses a novel because her daughter gave it to her on holiday (Jennifer Egan's Look at Me). But Smiley is not an academic (though she does teach) and might be excused a lack of rigour. It must have been a hell of a commitment to read 100 novels (it took her three years) and to give her considerable intelligence to the task of writing about them.

I like her novels a lot, so I am happy to let her tell me what it is about novel reading and writing that she believes is important.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great advice 7 May 2007
By Nina
Format:Paperback
The best thing about this book is the practical, hands-on advice on a) how to finish the rough draft of your novel, and b) how to revise the rough draft of your novel. Smiley says that 'it's not your job to judge your first draft; it's your job to understand it', and this I found incredibly helpful.

Two chapters are devoted to this hands-on advice. The rest of the (rather bulky and unwieldy) book contains general musings on fiction writing, some interesting background on how she wrote her own novels, and plot synopses and musings on 100 novels, ranging from Jane Austen to Nancy Mitford. The last is quite interesting but doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smiley - simply the best 25 Mar 2007
Format:Paperback
If you like Smiley's wonderful novels, you will enjoy this insightful, passionate look at novels, their readers and writers. Every page contains a comment which illuminates and inspires. This is the best book on writing I've read. The book is huge, but Smiley's charm and erudition make it a page-turner.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
96 of 109 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Course in Mindful Escape 24 Sep 2005
By S. G. Allen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Today I had the privilege of hearing an author I greatly admire, Jane Smiley, read excerpts from her book as well as wonderful asides about her experiences teaching, being a scholar, and writing. She is such a hoot, and as entertaining to hear live as to read. She reminded us of how the novel has evolved through the ages and how well written novels can encourage us to suspend our disbelief to find out what happens next, even if we think what happens next is a total crock. In her Literature classes, The Metamorphoses is often on the syllabus. There is always one student who cannot accept the premise that the protagonist has become an insect, and therefore cannot enjoy or appreciate the book. This does not discourage our Jane. No. She feels better as a writer remembering that, "Nobody is that good. Not even Kafka." This was her step father's saying. And it is true, of course.

She reminded us that early novels were often morality tales. As in the Norse sagas, which Smiley winningly argues have all the themes to later appear in actual novels, there is usually a man who does not fit into his society. This antagonizes the society and forces a confrontation which changes the world as that society knew it. Cool. Early novels are not about normal people with no anguish or passion or problems. The inner lives of humans didn't figure into the themes of novels until more recent times. Novels have done exactly what the Church and the Establishment once feared. They have caused women and men to think differently and outside the box of their little worlds or economic stratas. They encouraged people to marry for love. They encouraged people to think well of difference in others, or at the very least , give people credit for character and not caste. And novels have given many of us who treasure them comfort and consolation and perspective in life's difficult times, whether a personal crises or a global one of the proportions of September 11, 2001.

Smiley amused us all when she told us that well into Proust's Remembrance of Things Past told so matter of factly one can miss the connection he shares with De Sade, she put the book aside for a week and read a Sue Grafton thriller. This was enjoyable escapism and reminded her how good it would be to return to the joys of reading Proust. Proust was an early inspiration for Smiley to speak in the deceptively natural, non threatening conversational voice she uses in her novels.

Jane is not a snob. She told us that as a girl she loved the Bobbsy Twins and Nancy Drew. This was in answer to a teacher's question about how to encourage reading of "great" literature. Smiley told us. "Have books in your home. Read to your children or not, but have books in your home. And try a little reverse psychology. Forbid them to read in bed. And then when you know they are under the covers with a flash light, run to the room every half hour and insist that they stop that nonsense and go to sleep." Perhaps that's how her parents encouraged her to read. She also made it clear that with young people we just need to be glad they read. If your girls are reading Sweet Valley High, they are reading for crying out loud! If you are lucky they will soon be reading To Kill A Mocking Bird or Member of the Wedding. And then they will be unstoppable. Try not to judge the material. Readers usually seek a higher level when left to their own devices. It's like collecting. Your tastes become more refined with time and practice.

Smiley's book goes into all this in much more detail and with much clearer scope. She offers 100 great novels from several cultures and talks about them in new and refreshing ways. She gives the reader a reason to want to read or even read a novel again. She provides a bibliography that would be a good guide to any home book shelf, and she told us that she can't wait to select another 100 novels and to consider the process all over again.

Even if you have been reading forever, even if you think you know it all already, even if you are a self proclaimed brainiac, get over yourself. This book can open up new areas to consider as you read. Start with Tales of the Genji, a novel concerned with the ephemeral nature of being. It's so old it's modern, and everything that was to come 1000 years later is in it, and still worth pondering. Enjoy.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For Academics, Readers, and Writers 12 Nov 2005
By Debbie Lee Wesselmann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Acclaimed novelist Jane Smiley has written a loving, intelligent analysis of the form, function, and reading experience of the novel that will appeal to teachers, readers, and writers. She examines aspects of the novel from different perspectives and illustrates her points with examples, from Alcott's Little Women to Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, from Proust's In Search of Lost Time to Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, from Richardson's Pamela to Nabokov's Lolita, from Austen's Persuasion to McEwan's Atonement, from Thackeray's Vanity Fair to Egan's Look at Me-- a hundred novels in all.

Smiley begins her 568 page elegy begin with the basics: What is a Novel? Who is a Novelist? These seemingly simple questions receive intricate answers, as Smiley delves into theories put forth by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James, and into the works of fiction themselves. Academics and students of literature will find themselves engrossed in the author's meaty discussions of the history of the novel, its psychology, its use of morality, its role as a historical document, and the art of it. Perhaps the most accessible chapters, however, are also the most personal. Smiley addresses the reader as though a writing peer in her two chapters, "A Novel of Your Own I" and "A Novel of Your Own II," 45 pages of writing advice and conversation. Even more intimate is her revealing look into the writing of her novel Good Faith. In this chapter, she gives the reader a rare glimpse into the creative process.

Avid readers will be especially delighted by Smiley's "mini-essay(s)" of the hundred novels she selected as a reading exercise, which she uses as her conclusion. She states that these novels are meant to be representative, not comprehensive, since it is impossible to construct a top 100 list without omitting fine literary works. Readers who, say, were put off by the academic nature of A.S. Byatt's Possession, or by the unlikable characters of Emily Brontė's Wuthering Heights, or by the comic distance created by Zadie Smith in White Teeth will find new reasons to appreciate those works, and all the others included here.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is not an easy read since Smiley approaches her topic not only as a writer but as an intellectual. Her analysis is both sensible and brilliant--a delight for serious readers and students. -- Debbie Lee Wesselmann
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Invaluable addition to understanding the novel 5 Dec 2005
By Glen Engel Cox - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
One of the ways to consider this unusual book by Pulitzer-prize winning author Smiley is as an instruction book. I purchased this because it came up as a featured selection of the Writer's Digest Book Club, and its as good a book regarding the process of writing a novel as any I've read, and better than most. Smiley points out that, unlike many other artistic endeavors, the novel is one that doesn't require much equipment (paper and a pen/pencil). What it takes, more than anything is motivatioon and perseverance, as it is simply the accrual of words into sentences into paragraphs into pages. She underscores that getting your novel published is a different matter entirely, but if you want to write one, you likely have the ability.

The writing of this book itself was not necessarily as a textbook for writing programs, although Smiley has taught creative writing, but as therapy for Jane Smiley's own writing. From the text, it seems that Ms. Smiley was having problems with a recent novel of her own, and decided to undergo a course of reading (originally 275 novels, shortened to 101 after she began) that helped break the mental block she had about her novel and also gave insight into the "question of the novel" itself. To get there, though, Smiley covers a number of topics including a history of the novel as an art form: one of her thirteen ways of looking at the novel is through the lens of history, tracing the growth of the novel from Don Quixote. Another interesting portion covers the philosophy of novels, making the case that novel-reading is something of a subversive activity, as it incubates an ability to see multiple points of view (each novel, for example, requires that you try to understand at least one protagonist whose point of view is unique and unlike your own), thus leading to a more liberal view of the world (as opposed to a conservative, one-view-fits-all view of the world).

My favorite part of this book, and what likely will live on with me long after it has become just another book on my writing shelf, is how Smiley sees the novel as a game for both the reader and the writer. The reader expects the writer to follow the rules of the novel game: once a character and a setting are created, that the characters will proceed along the pages according to cause-and-effect relations (i.e., the plot) until a resolution is obtained. This is most apparent in the mystery genre, where the reader even tries to determine from clues presented by the author early on what the likely cause-and-effect resolution will be. But the game metaphor is even stronger for the writer, who gets to "roll the dice" for the characters and make those determinations of cause-and-effect according to what they think the most likely occurance would be. Some writers even complicate this by playing additional games as they write, trying to incorporate themes (in a novel about birth, the writer tries to make sure all the images reflect eggs, for example) or allusions to other works, places or events. As a game-player, I am surprised I had never thought of writing as just another game, but now that I've read Smiley on the matter, I feel like I'm never going to see it any other way, as it has changed my entire view of the process.

Half of the book is given over to a reading diary of those 101 novels that Smiley read on her way to creating the other half of the book. As someone who's been writing such immediate impressions on books as he's just read them, I admire her descriptions and commentary, even while feeling somewhat abashed at how few of these books I've read, although Smiley makes pains to state that her list is not a "Best Novels" list. If anything, it goes to show you that there is an incredible wealth of great literature to be had, and I've already marked a number of books from her list that I want to now read.

I'd highly recommend this book for both aspiring writers as well as anyone who likes to think about what they read.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful examination on the aspects of a novel 28 Oct 2005
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley is in a unique position to offer her thoughts on the novel. She has written all sorts of novels from many different genres, and her experiences give her a certain authority when considering the novel in all its aspects. In 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL, she offers us her thoughts on this expansive topic by reading 100 novels and using them as prisms that emphasize different aspects of the novel, from social force to moral guide to chronicle of the ages.

For all its variety, a novel is a simple thing, requiring only five elements: length, being written (as opposed to oral accounts or performed works), prose (rather than poetry), narrative form, and the inclusion of a protagonist. Yet some novels change the world --- think of the impact Charles Dickens had on child labor laws or how Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and the Marquis de Sade (Justine) exposed the arrogance and cruelty of the upper class. 13 WAYS examines how novels gained such power and why, in the face of so many competing demands for our attention, they continue to be read and loved. The point of this book is not to convince you to read more books --- if you're interested in this book at all, you are probably a passionate reader already --- but it's hard to resist Smiley's recommendations.

This is also not a best-of list. Smiley is refreshingly uninterested in telling readers what to buy. Her books are chosen by their ability to illuminate the concepts of a novel as a whole, and she admits that any list of 100 novels might serve that purpose. It's a subjective argument, as anything so personal as reading choices must be, and her candor in revealing her likes and dislikes is one of the charms of 13 WAYS. She likes Boccaccio and Dickens (in fact, one of her own nonfiction books was about Charles Dickens). She dislikes Henry James and Leo Tolstoy, and is not a big fan of Ulysses, but always treats their work with respect. It's an eccentric list in some ways, including obscure works like the Icelandic saga Egilssaga yet snubbing Ernest Hemingway. It ranges from THE TALE OF GENJI, written in Japan in the eleventh century, to novels being published today.

In addition to the chapters on the novel overall and the summaries of the 100 books she chose to read, Jane Smiley offers a chapter on her own experiences publishing a recent novel, GOOD FAITH, and two chapters of useful advice to those readers who are writing their own novel. It's rare to read a book that addresses both readers and writers, although writers usually start out as voracious readers. Acknowledging that appetite and addressing both readers and writers make this a unique book, interesting to all readers, whatever their ambitions.

--- Reviewed by Colleen Quinn (...)
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, idiosyncratic. 4 July 2007
By Peter P. Parisi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is excellent and will repay close reading, but I am of two minds. On one hand, Smiley has examined the development and significance of the novel as only a practicing novelist of depth and talent could. On the strength of her treatment I've resolved to try her novels. Any description I might give of her discussion would not do it justice.

On the other hand, she clearly has a political axe to grind and this comes out most one-sidedly in her descriptions of novels. First, her history of the novel begins with Murasaki Shikibu's "Tale of Genji," leaps to Bocaccio's "Decameron" as a precursor to the novel in its western form, and then holds a steady course through Cervantes, Defoe, Austen, Dickens, and James into the twentieth century. Perhaps because she has identified as a major concern of the novel the question of "what a woman is for" (her words), Smiley ignores Twain, Hemingway, and modern novelists whose work is not animated by that question. She does not claim completeness for her 100 novels and writes more than once that she is not trying to compile a `Best 100' list, but she does claim a certain disinterestedness that is belied by her choices. She (usually) likes European novelists (nothing wrong with that) and woman novelists (ditto) who pursue her favorite question. Novelists who have nothing to say on the question either leave her cold or don't make the list at all. Hence, she claims not to be able to remember her experience of "Moby Dick" and Joyce's "Ulysses" strikes her as a lot of art devoted to a not very interesting premise. About her contemporaries Pynchon, Delillo, and Wolfe she has nothing to say at all.

Second, the idea that failure to read novels caused the badness of our politicians is nonsense. Lincoln wasn't a great reader of novels, nor was Washington. I don't deny that people well-read in good novels might as a result develop empathy but Smiley seems not to believe there are other routes to the same destination. Furthermore, plenty of very good leaders, not to mention good people in general, claim that daily contact with the Bible helps them to love their neighbors as themselves. GWB's treatment of Iraq doesn't strike Smiley as loving enough (one might say "Christian enough"): fine, but this is not grounds for blaming the Bible and Bush's poor education. Where should we believe Mother Theresa or Dietrich Boenhoeffer learned their love of humanity?

Third, J.S.'s history of the novel, though accurate as far as it goes, doesn't make sense given her concerns. She includes "The Tale of Genji," which had zero influence on the novel's early development in the West, but excludes medieval saints' lives, which I expect influenced the "Decameron" and are sources for the reader's experience of interior truth she believes is a defining characteristic of the novel. She will claim she had to start somewhere but why not consider the source of the novel's interiority, since she places so much emphasis on that quality? The primary source of western interiority is the idea that the soul has to answer to God in conscience. This fearful relationship between self and deity was illustrated in hundreds of saints lives. A frequent element in the stories of female saints is the refusal to do the socially expected thing--marry a man--in favor of maintaining chastity. Tales like this dramatize the sense of self against other that grew as Christianity spread. This crisis deepened during the Protestant Reformation and it should not surprise us that the novel's development began as Luther and Calvin were claiming that the soul's isolation was even more absolute than Christians had previously believed.

Finally, had she looked she would have found several long, plotted, prose works that predate "The Tale of Genji" by several centuries: the novel has perfectly fine ancient roots in the Greek romance and other long prose works of antiquity, such as Apuleius' "Metamorphosis" and Petronius' "Satyricon."

So, brilliant and idiosyncratic, just as I believe Smiley wanted it. Buy the book.
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