Saturday, October 4, 2008

Book Review: 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Title: 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
Author: Jane Smiley
Genre: Non-Fiction
Rating: A

Abbreviated Summary (From Book Flap): Over an extraordinary twenty-year career, Jane Smiley has written all kinds of novels... But in the wake of 9/11, Smiley faltered in her hiterto unflagging impulse to write and decided to approach novels from a different angle: she read one hundred of them, from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith, Nicholson Baker, and Alice Munro.

Smiley explores--as no novelist has before her--the unparalleled intimacy of reading, why a novel succeeds (or doesn't), and how the novel has changed over time...

In her inimitable style--exuberant, candid, opinionated--Smiley invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft. She walks us step-by-step through the publication of her most recent novel, Good Faith, and, in two vital chapters on how to write "a novel of your own," offers priceless advice to aspiring authors...

...In the exhilerating conclusion, Smiley considers individually the one hundred books she read... presenting her own insights and often controversial opinions.

Review: I originally picked this book up at the library because I had fallen in love with How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster; that book changed the way I read, and it made me want to read more on the artistry behind reading and writing. The text started off at a crawl, the reader has to want to read this and plug through the dense language to get at the important message and value of this book. This is not dissimiliar to Smiley's works of fiction, as they generally start off slow, use dense paragraphs, stretch the reader's vocabulary to its sheer limit, and end up a satisfying read once completed.

Smiley challenges the readers of this book, among whom she assumes are aspiring authors, to understand the novel as a piece of art, as a social document, and a work of fiction that should inspire, educate, and entertain readers. She details how the novel has evolved throughout history from its earliest beginnings as fables and story cycles to its current position as a (somewhat) esoteric element of the cultural elite. Smiley makes repeated references to the fact that true literary fiction (exluding all types of genre fiction in her analysis) is generally reserved for a small segment of society, the large majority of which are women; however, she doesn't find this to be a negative mark against our culture and doesn't urge authors to pander to the masses--there are plenty of authors already doing that with their series of light romances, mystery thrillers, and the other types of genre fiction.

As the book blurb from the jacket mentioned, Jane does do a wonderful job on sharing the secrets of her writing process--the process that has led her numerous times to best seller's lists and won her a Pulitzer Prize (A Thousand Acres). The best part about this is that Smiley provides these insights in the final chapters, before she begins her discussions of the 100+ books she read, after she has taken you on a journey to develop your love and admiration for the novel and the writing process. She inspires you to want to write and contribute to the greater body of literature, the "world's big library" as she calls it.

In regard to her review of the 100+ novels, therein lies the only mark against her which reduced her rating to an A, rather than an A+. Smiley read every book with a (seemingly) open mind, providing a summary of the plot, an analysis of the writing, and an assessment of the work's contribution to society (both the society contemporary to the author and our current culture). Her numerous glowing reviews open the reader to discover lots of literary gems they likely would have overlooked, and expands their "to be read" list exponentially. The draw back is that numerous times she references other books she reviewed in the list, and the reading got a bit tedious. It would have been preferable if she had (when finding works and/or authors that fit within a similar canon) to combine these entries and/or shortened her summary/analysis significantly. By around book review #76 the reading got repetitive and tedious, with many of the books running together in the reader's mind, and this could have been avoided if she had reduced or eliminated redundancies.

All in all, a good book--definitely should be read by anyone who loves reading, writing, or the idea of reading and writing.

This review is my submission into My Friend Amy's blog challenge.

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