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When I saw this book’s subtitle, ‘What to Read and How to Write’, I felt a hot and cold prickle — but then I do tend to respond badly to direct orders. Hoping my fears were unfounded, I turned to Smiley’s summary of The Great Gatsby. ‘I have to admit that I don’t care as much for The Great Gatsby as many people do,’ she writes. My prickle turned into a frown, and with feelings of panic and hostility I turned next to her comment on Tom Jones. Thank heaven, she admires it: ‘Tom Jones exhibits complexity and generosity of character portrayal … it justly became a great English classic.’ Phew, my panic subsided. I was able to turn to Chapter 1 — her introduction — and begin in earnest.
Author of 11 novels and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for one (A Thousand Acres), Jane Smiley is a writer to whom novel- writing has come easily. She feels a kinship with Dickens: he ‘loved to write and wrote with the ease and conviction of breathing. Me, too.’ She boasts of having written ‘12 finished works and had 14 ideas’. But after 11 September Smiley choked on her novel-in-progress. ‘I felt scattered … my mind felt dissipated and shallow.’ She lost impetus, changed direction, and then stopped altogether, feeling that for the first time she ‘didn’t know what in the world [she] was doing’. The ability to suspend her disbelief had deserted her; she no longer saw the point of her writing. Being a sensible person, she was not too confounded to set herself a task: to read 100 novels. ‘This book is the fruit of that course.’
So the first half of Smiley’s book is divided into 13 chapters — the ‘13 Ways’ of the title, each of which examines an aspect of the novel, or of novel-writing. The second half consists of a plot outline and brief review of each of the 100 (in fact 101) novels she read. The list
is not and was never intended to be a ‘Hundred Greatest’, only a list of individual novels that would illuminate the whole concept of the novel — and almost any list of 100 serious novels would illuminate that concept.
Smiley adopts a conversational tone and the book reads more like a transcription of the spoken word than a series of essays, particularly in its instructive sections. One chapter, ‘A Novel of Your Own (1)’, opens with, ‘Now that you have decided to begin your novel…’, which reminded me so much of a recipe book that I nearly switched on the oven. She pontificates on what we require from a novel, why we can read novels again when we know what happens, what novelists aim for and whether they succeed. Her opinions are forthright and quite firm (encouraging firm and forthright opinions from this reader), and her advice is practical.
As a near 600-page solution to Jane Smiley’s confidence crisis, her book seems to have worked a treat: the nervous voice of the introduction does not recur. For all her chumminess, she is the Author and we are here to learn; she is striding about on the dais and we are cross-legged on the floor in front of her.