Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)

[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism.

I was interested in the ethical aspects of Smiley’s readings for my own reasons, but her larger goal is to argue in favour of the novel as perhaps the ultimate expression of freedom, not just artistic but also personal and political. At several points, she makes claims about the benevolent effects of the combination of analysis and empathy demanded of novel readers:

Pride, arrogance, moral blindness, and narcissism are endemic among humans, especially humans who occupy positions of power, either in society or in the family. But when I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, the author’s or a character’s, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end I will be a degree less self-centered than I was at the beginning, that I will be a degree more able to see the world as another sees it. And there is the possibility that I will be able to reason about my own emotions. . . . When I’ve read lots of long novels, I will be trained in thinking about the world in many sometimes conflicting ways. . . . Perched on the cusp between the particular and the general, between expertise and common sense, the novel promotes compromise, and especially promotes the idea that lessons can be learned, if not by the characters, then by the author and the reader. (175-6)

These are familiar arguments but important and eloquently made. Perhaps the finest quality of the book, though, is that Smiley not only makes such a case but enacts it through her rigorous, intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic engagement with the novels she writes about. Probably the main reason a reader turns to criticism at all, instead of resting content with having read the novel itself, is to carry on the conversations the book begins. Smiley’s manifest love of fiction and its possibilities (aesthetic, social, and political), together with her expertise as both novelist and student of the novel, make her someone I’d like to talk to, even about our disagreements. Though very different in approach, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is as good a book as David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction as a guide and introduction for avid readers looking to broaden and improve their reading experiences with some expert help.

I do think Smiley is disingenuous, though, when she justifies her own decision to avoid “theorists of the novel . . . even though there is an entire academic industry based on theorizing about the novel”–“I preferred,” she says, “to glean my ideas about the novel from the books themselves. My justification for this . . . is that novels were invented to be accessible”:

Specialized knowledge about the novel is something the reader may engage in for added pleasure, but doesn’t need to engage in merely to understand what she has read. (278-9)

That Smiley is as good at gleaning ideas from novels as she is, is the result, surely, of her exposure to a wide range of specialized knowledge about the form, including (as displayed continually in her introductory chapters) historical and contextual knowledge, awareness of different genres and forms, attention to ideological implications, and so on. One of the reasons her book strikes me as valuable is precisely that it mobilizes this kind of specialized knowledge in an accessible way and shows that having it makes reading novels a richer, more rewarding experience. Though she’s right that “the authors and books on [her] list constitute a treasure available to all” (279) in the sense that anyone who is motivated to do so can read them, for many, without some kind of preparation or education (of the sort, for instance, supplied by Smiley’s book) the experience might yield little pleasure or insight. (There are lots of books I don’t feel prepared enough to read–or at least to read and enjoy–and I study novels for a living!) Smiley is an expert, but she wears her erudition stylishly, and we, her readers, are its beneficiaries.

The Company We Keep as Readers

Following through on the thread I outlined in my last post, I have been reading Jonathan Franzen’s very interesting and thought-provoking 1996 Harper’s essay. I actually feel that in some ways this piece (and the Marcus and Ozick that follow) are having a conversation that’s not really for me, mostly because they are novelists, for one thing, and focusing on very contemporary texts and contexts about which, except as an ordinary citizen, I have no expertise and no vantage point from which I am comfortable making pronouncements. What I’m getting a better sense of, though, is how literature matters and how it is discussed outside the academic contexts these writers are so uniformly dismissive of. (Taking his turn at bat, Franzen, recalling his experience teaching creative writing, reports that some of his best students, “repelled by the violence done to their personal experience of reading, had vowed never to take a literature class again”–as far as I can tell, he is depressed, not by their solipsistic retreat in defense of their “personal experience,” but by their having had to suffer such “violence.” “Come to my classes,” I am tempted to protest, and yet how can I be sure that my own efforts will not also offend against this amorphous personal standard? Other students make fun of the “patently awful utopian-feminist novel they were being forced to read for an honors seminar in Women and Fiction,” but isn’t there value in testing your ideas of what counts as “patently awful,” even if in the end you don’t change your mind? Isn’t one reason to go to literature classes that you will read and learn about books beyond those that conform to your personal prejudices, including aesthetic ones? If they were being forced, not only to read it, but also to applaud it, that’s a somewhat different problem, of course.)

I’m still thinking and learning about the larger issues at stake in all of these pieces. For now, I ll note that I found his report of the findings of linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath on “serious readers” fascinating. In particular, she talks (by his report) about the way in which books provide a community for their readers, especially for those who being their lives as “social isolates”–willing but not entirely able to share your perceptions and experiences and interests with those around you. What do the readers she studied find in, or feel they gain from, their books? Substance, she says: “Reading enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive–my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity… Reading that book gives me substance.” And their reading provides “a sense of having company in this great human enterprise, in the continuity, in the persistence, of the great conflicts.” This is something like what moral philosophers like Martha Nussbaum theorize reading complex fiction does for us, so it is interesting to find readers recognizing it for themselves.

I’m not sure how any of this material helps me see why anyone would read literary criticism, academic or otherwise, or how the kind of expertise someone like me possesses might be put in the service of these serious readers. To hear these non-academic writers talk, you’d think nobody wants academics at all…

Denis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading

The Practice of Reading lies somewhere in between standard academic literary criticism and the more populist ‘books about books’ that I’ve been reading for my ‘writing for readers’ project. I suppose its main audience is an academic one, but its project and contents are quite miscellaneous and so it contributes more by modelling Donoghue’s idea of good reading across varied examples than by intervening incisively or extensively into any particular critical or theoretical debate. That said, Donoghue does present his ideas about reading and criticism in some detail in the first few chapters, and his broad aim is to make a case for aesthetic criticism (according to his careful definitions) against the various ideological versions he tags as the “New Thematics.” He advocates an aesthetic criticism that restores due emphasis to the ‘lived experience’ of reading texts, or to the element of ‘performance’ (qualities or properties that can’t be sustained in a paraphrase or plot summary). He calls for a “recovered disinterestedness,” a putting aside of our immediate selves and prejudices in order to release the imagination: “the purpose of reading literature,” he says at one point, “is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different”–an ability inhibited, he argues, by the pressures of identity politics, among other forces. While I am in sympathy with much of this strain of his argument, I have questions (answered, perhaps, in his other writings) about what knowledge, experience, or education he thinks is required to achieve a “lived experience” of a text that deserves being written up or shared with others. He points out himself that, for some texts, our selves are insufficient for good readings–“information is required.” Some knowledge of literary history and genre is certainly necessary for the kinds of readings he offers, and yet at some points he seems to take sides against those who insist on the relevance of historical context. How well does his version of aestheticism work on texts that, themselves, look out to their historical world, novels such as Bleak House, for instance? (How far is his a “poetics” for poetry only, or literature of a certain kind only, that is not itself overtly social or political?)

I liked his breakdown of critical modes into Arnold, Pater, and Wilde (interesting that his prototypes are all from the 19th century), and he is convincing about the way much criticism driven by “High Theory” follows the ‘Wilde’ approach in which the work of art ostensibly under examination becomes a “suggestion for a new work of [the critic’s] own” (here he is quoting Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist”). He goes on to suggest that such criticism (including much of Derrida’s, for example) is best understand as a separate literary genre–perhaps autobiography. In a slightly different context, he argues that recent critics of Macbeth “reveal what is happening in criticism more clearly than what happens in Macbeth.” I think he is right, but both conclusions might prompt the student of literature to wonder why she would bother with this kind of criticism, the lives of critics or the history of criticism being rather separate inquiries.

Most interesting and potentially useful for me are the ways he distinguishes between criticism that (taking an Arnoldian approach) attempts to talk about what the text is overtly about (“the object itself as it really is”–admitting all kinds of complications, of course) and those whose critical goal is to “rebuke” the text for not being something else, or at any rate to evaluate it based on an external standard. His discussion of Marjorie Levinson on Wordsworth reminds me of the discussion of Spivak in Freadman and Miller’s Re-Thinking Theory (also on Wordsworth), and his line on recent critics of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is my favourite in the book for the way it captures a particular (today, almost ubiquitous) approach to a literary text: “Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else.” So too is Charlotte Bronte often not allowed her themes in Jane Eyre, or Jane Austen, lately, in Mansfield Park, or George Eliot in Middlemarch in some recent readings (Elizabeth Langland’s, for instance).

I wonder if Donoghue offers the kind of aesthetic criticism Daniel Green (of “The Reading Experience”) would like to see more of.

John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel

How to Read a Novel is an eccentric, miscellaneous, diverting, informative and annoying book. Its basic premise is that we can all use some help deciding which of the overwhelmingly many books around us we should read…but at the same time, Sutherland shies away from offering any specific guidance, rather providing readers with tools they can use themselves to make selections from the overabundant options that surround them. Hence his interest in the apparatus surrounding the novel ‘itself’ (titles, jacket blurbs, endorsements, copyright pages, etc.) and in the mechanisms of the book industry (bestseller lists and book prizes, for instance)–all things we can peer at and consider without too great an investment of our precious reading time. As you’d expect, though, Sutherland is also interested in distinguishing wheat from chaff once we actually get deep into a novel, and so throughout the book he includes information, judgments, comparisons, all modelling (rather than prescribing) ways we can understand an author’s project, avoid oversimplistic or alienated readings that miss (or misrepresent, or just misunderstand) the point (see his discussion of John Banville’s criticism of Ian McEwan’s Saturday), and otherwise do better jobs of appreciating and contextualizing what we have gotten ourselves into. There are a number of plot summaries and quoted passages to illustrate or animate his ideas about why it is important to know the kinds of things he talks about; his selections are eclectic, and sometimes chosen, I suspect, for their shock value, to prove he is not simply another stuffy professor preaching that we should read “the classics.” There are a lot of throw-away remarks on current political figures and events: it must be nice to reach the stage of your career in which you figure (and so, apparently, do your editors) that whatever you think on any subject is worth putting into print, however random or irrelevant to the work at hand. I’ll be re-reading this book more carefully as part of my “writing for readers” project, but my first impression is that this is an idly interesting book that doesn’t explore its ideas or examples deeply enough to be engaging or helpful to serious readers, while it deals lightly, even hastily, with too many erudite bits and pieces to be engaging or helpful to readers who aren’t used to taking an analytic approach to books at all.

I was intrigued that Sutherland identifies Vanity Fair as his ‘desert island’ book. I know he’s a Thackeray scholar and all, and I am a big Vanity Fair fan myself, but wouldn’t you get depressed after a while if that was the only thing you had to read? Would you get something new from it on each reading, which is surely essential in that situation? Even Pride and Prejudice (that book that recent studies show most Britons could not live without) would probably wear thin if it were the only book you had. (Of course, my desert island book is Middlemarch, though I’d want a really well annotated edition–maybe the Broadview one, which has copious notes–so I could apply myself to all the scientific, philosophical, and historical aspects that there never seems to be enough time to comprehend fully under ordinary circumstances. Anyone else have a better idea?)

Cynthia Lee Katona, Book Savvy

According to its jacket blurb, Book Savvy is “an effective guide for the burgeoning book-club community as well as a tool for literature teachers struggling to spark the interest of their students.” I certainly hope book clubs and teachers will choose better guides than this volume. For one thing, it is superficial, even shallow, in its approach to literature and to readers: do people literate enough to join book clubs really need icons indicating whether a book is one to be read “for information,” “for suspense,” or “to know oneself”? The author also rates each book for its “level of challenge”–at 5 we find “challenging masterworks of literature” (Madame Bovary or Hamlet, for instance, at 4 “works of literature with enduring qualities” (The Merchant of Venice, for example, or … The Robber Bride?), at 3 books that, while “thought provoking,” can be “read by almost anyone” (Sister Carrie or Bleak House…??), etc. Well, OK, the categories are idiosyncratic and the application of her standards sometimes suggests the author has not herself read the books in question very carefully, but I suppose for really insecure readers, it is helpful to be guided so as not to set your sights too high. And maybe, just maybe, it is odd but not unthinkable that The Picture of Dorian Grey should be brought up as an “example of a book to read primarily for thinking, writing, and conversational skills”; after all, as she goes on to say, Wilde “was a well-known wit and man-about-town” (p. 33), and wouldn’t we all like to be so quotable? Never mind what the novel is actually about! But when I came across this bit, I lost patience with amateur hour in the reading room: “One of the great innovations of twentieth-century literature was a movement away from telling the stories of kings and queens and other quite extraordinary people to the telling of stories of average people…” (p. 49). Innovations of twentieth-century literature? You see why I’m not sure she has read Bleak House, never mind, say, Moll Flanders? If Book Savvy does spark a student’s interest, then that’s all to the good, but it won’t take most savvy readers long to figure out that they need to look elsewhere for real insight and reliable information.

This book has set me back a bit in my enthusiastic quest for ways to write about literature that fall in between the dreary erudition of professional criticism and the free-for-all of Amazon.Com reviewing. On the other hand, I suppose I could view it as motivating–inquiring readers deserve better. I’ve started Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which looks much more promising. It interested me that early on she registers her own antipathy towards literary criticism academic style: “Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school….” (8).

Sara Nelson, So Many Books, So Little Time

Unlike Nick Hornby’s Pollysyllabic Spree (see previous post), Sara Nelson’s book is really a memoir. Because she is a book enthusiast, she talks a lot about what she reads (or, sometimes, does not read, or reads only part of), but she does not seem to know very much about books, or to be able to put her own reading experiences or tastes into any besides personal contexts. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, for instance, lead her to reflections on unreasoning passion, marriage and infidelity in her own life (no, she does not confess to having been unfaithful–except figuratively, as she concludes what I thought was a laboured conceit about her relationships with books, which are “the affairs I do not have”). The chronicle of her attempt to read and write about a book a week for a year is moderately entertaining, and Nelson’s style and personality are generally engaging, but for someone looking for literary insight, this book has little to offer.

Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

In addition to the reasons laid out in the introduction to this blog (see left), I wanted to try writing up informal notes on my reading because of my ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the kind of writing about books I am expected to do professionally, namely literary criticism. Although I believe that literary criticism has its own kind of interest and value, as an avid reader I often find it frustrating and bizarre when the conversation about a book becomes remote in both form and feeling from the conversation I think the book itself is supposed to be a part of. My own area of academic expertise, for example, is the Victorian novel, and if any one quality could be said to be typical of so many books so widely varying in subject and style, it would be a sense of engagement with the world–not that they aspire to represent it mimetically (any reader of Victorian fiction knows there is nothing naive about what often gets called its ‘realism’), but that these books challenge their readers to think and care about all aspects of social, political, economic, and romantic life. “Dear reader!” Dickens concludes his polemical anti-Utilitarian novel Hard Times. “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be!” And of course his “Let them be!” is a call to action, not to complacency or passivity: let the world be the way you and I can imagine it to be, better, more just, more loving, more humane. But current literary criticism communicates little of this urgency, and none of Dickens’s humour, or, as he would have it, fancy.

My concern is not so much that literary criticism is often written in difficult, obscure prose (after all, every specialization requires its own jargon)–although I have finally achieved the courage and professional security to adopt Nick Hornby’s poetry-reading philosophy for my own reading of criticism and theory (“If something doesn’t give you even a shot at comprehension in the first couple of readings, then my motto is “F–k it” [p. 91, my polite hyphens]). My objection is more that we have distanced ourselves so completely from ordinary conversation about books that we have become irrelevant to all readers but ourselves. Of course, there are some exceptions, academics who have produced the textual equivalents of cross-over albums. But most of us know that when we write and publish even our most supposedly ground-breaking article, it is destined straight for the dustbin of other scholars’ footnotes. Most of us are presumably OK with this result, or there would be a revolution. Or perhaps the necessity of publishing such material to secure and keep our jobs and our professional credibility drives doubts away. But Dickens, to stick with my example (not least because he is one of Hornby’s favourite examples as well), certainly hoped his words had more life in them than that.

All this is by way of saying that I wanted to experiment a little with writing in a different way about books, a way that would reflect my experience of reading them and thinking about them in a more immediate, personal way than academic writing allows without letting go altogether of the analytic habits built up by years of professional training. Surely there can be an informed, educated conversation about literature that allows, for one thing, for judgment, for values, for affect, for liking and disliking. And, of course, there is such a conversation–indeed, there are many such conversations today, just not in the pages of academic journals. One contribution that I have just finished re-reading is Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree.

I first read sections of this book last year, when a graduate student passed it on to me thinking (rightly) that I would enjoy Hornby’s infatuation with David Copperfield (thanks, El!). Since I began thinking about alternatives to academic criticism, partly through my work on 19th-century literary reviewing, I have begun looking for examples of contemporary writing about books that achieves something like the balance I am interested in between analysis and immediacy, and going back to Hornby’s collection this week, I think he gets fairly close. Unlike those in Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, for example, which I am reading now, Hornby’s commentaries, though engagingly personal and idiosyncratic, focus primarily on the books and not on himself. He attends to questions of craft, though my academic side wishes he would introduce some technical terms here and there for greater precision, and he thinks about the books in terms of the means they use to their ends while still considering also the value of those goals. For all his breezy style, he has a knack for summary judgments, as when, after recounting a particularly horrific detail from a rape scene in Pete Dexter’s Train, he objects that it seemed to have happened “through a worldview rather than through a narrative inevitability” (97). For me, the great charm of this collection is its combination of these moments of intense literary and moral scrutiny with irreverence and humour. Who says you can’t be both serious and funny? I loved his idea of the “Cultural Fantasy Boxing League” in which, he supposes, “books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. ‘The Magic Flute’ v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six…” (58). Of course!

But Hornby really won me over when he articulated what I think book lovers everywhere feel: the extent to which our own libraries are extensions or reflections of our identities. This is why we recoil from well-intentioned and practical advice to ‘clear some space’ on our existing bookshelves to make room for new purchases! “I suddenly had a little epiphany,” he says, as he files away some volumes: “all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . . with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not” (125).