Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

From the Novel Readings Archive

One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was to experiment with writing about books in a non-academic way. One of the first blogging projects I took up, therefore (because research is an academic habit that is hard to give up), was reviewing examples of non-academic writing about books–books about books, but written for actual readers. I read Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, for instance, which was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, among others. Unlike OLM’s Sam Sacks, who thought Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was a “low point” in the genre of “books about the culture of reading” (to Sacks, Smiley comes across as “a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup”–ouch!), I thought Smiley’s was one of the best of the bunch.* It seems apt, then, to continue my series of posts resurrected from the Novel Readings archives with my own review of this particular book about books.

*Continuing in a nostalgic vein, my comment politely disagreeing with him about Smiley (which seems to have been lost in the move to the new OLM layout)  was one of my earliest interactions with Open Letters. And I also read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, the main subject of his review, for my ‘books about books’ project but didn’t write it up because I thought Sam was completely right (and completely articulate, of course) about that one.

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. Continue reading

Posner on the “Decline of Literary Criticism”

In the most recent issue of Philosophy and Literature, Richard Posner reviews Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic (discussed previously here):

The problem with “criticism conceived as magistrate”—the problem that McDonald not only does not solve, but does not acknowledge—is that there are no objective criteria of aesthetic distinction. The reason is that there is nothing that all great works of literature have in common but lesser works of literature do not. When critics propose criteria that they think will distinguish the great from the non-great, they end up narrowing the canon of great literature in arbitrary ways, as T. S. Eliot attempted to do with Milton and Shelley. There is no need to develop a litmus test for great literature. Critics can point to the features of literary works that they like or dislike without assuming the authority to tell people what they should read. And Croce was right: you don’t need evaluative critics in order to have a “canon” of great literature. The canon evolves in Darwinian fashion; writers compete, and the works that are best adapted to the cultural environment flourish.

I fear that McDonald has succumbed to the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend: the cultural studies crowd is against evaluative criticism, so McDonald is for it, provided it is objective—but he does not show how literary criticism can be objective. But the problem is not that modern-day literary criticism is not evaluative; it is that literary criticism aimed at increasing the readership of great literature has been displaced by literary theory, on the one hand, and by literary scholarship for literary scholars only . . . on the other hand.

Though I might take issue with some of Posner’s specific points, I agree with him that “the dearth of evaluative criticism” is not what accounts for the diminished significance of literary criticism. He concludes that “If there were less pretentious literary theory and no evaluative criticism, but more readable literary criticism in the style of Cleanth Brooks or F. R. Leavis, the literary culture would be in a lot better shape than it is.” I’ve been reading a fair number of books that attempt to offer “readable literary criticism“; it’s not that such books aren’t out there, but perhaps that often they aren’t often as intellectually challenging or rhetorically exhilirating as the examples Posner gives–often they seem to me to underestimate their intendend audience. The two books I’m reviewing on the 19th-century novel (Case & Shaw and Levine) are actually pretty good options of this kind, but they are overtly aimed at a student audience and so unlikely, I’m guessing, to reach very far out into the world. I admit, “readable literary criticism” with the effects Posner describes (work that “quickens” the reader’s interest in reading literary works) is pretty much the kind I would like to write one day… “literary criticism that helps people understand and enjoy serious literature,” which is why the kinds of debates he and McDonald are engaged in are of such interest to me.