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(CQuinn9368@yahoo.com) on December 22, 2010
13 Ways Of Looking at the Novel