Best of The Month â€“ 13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel
Editor | On 09, Jan 2019
A slightly tangential â€˜best-ofâ€™ this month. Albeit one that is very TRIZ-like in its desire to look across wide swathes of data in order to find patterns. Jane Smileyâ€™s search territory is literature. And, what she comes back with makes for a fine complement to Joseph Campbellâ€™s lifelong study of the same subject.
Bogged down in the midst of writing a novel she didnâ€™t much like, fearing at age 52 that she was running out of inspiration, Smiley (Horse Heaven, 2000, etc.) decided in 2001 to read 100 novelsâ€”not a â€œHundred Greatest,â€ she is quick to stipulate, â€œonly a list of individual novels that would illuminate the whole concept of the novel.â€ The resulting book offers 12 chapters on various aspects of the form (â€œThe Origins of the Novel,â€ â€œThe Novel and History,â€ etc.) and a 13th with 101 short essays on individual titles (Jennifer Eganâ€™s Look at Me got added after Smiley read it on a post-project vacation). Naturally, the authorâ€™s selections and judgments reflect her sensibility and artistic convictions. Sheâ€™s capable of appreciating a modernist classic like Ulysses, but she writes far more enthusiastically about other works, from The Princess of Cleves to Zadie Smithâ€™s White Teeth.
Whether praising or damning â€“ The Great Gatsby is among the books that get severe though never nasty appraisals â€“ Smiley approaches literature in a refreshingly direct, unpretentious way. She considers Lady Murasaki and Boccaccio her peers just as much as John Updike and Ian McEwan; you never forget in her down-to-earth assessments that novels are written by and about human beings. She likes Daniel Defoe for â€œhis habit of giving advice and yet forgiving his charactersâ€™ trespassesâ€; she dislikes Henry Jamesâ€™s â€œprissy, domineering manner.â€ There are funny, apt phrases on every page, and Smileyâ€™s analysis of the novelâ€™s evolution over a millennium is cogent and convincing. Her â€œcase historyâ€ of Good Faith (2003), the manuscript whose bumpy progress prompted her 100-novel intermission, offers a fascinating look at the working writerâ€™s life. What ties together the casually organized text is Smileyâ€™s profound love for her chosen genre, an art form she believes is accessible to everyone because â€œthe novel is based on the most primal human materials, emotion and language.â€
Read with a knowledge of TRIZ reveals a number of intriguing connection points. A novel, for example, is a â€˜systemâ€™:
Novels should be â€˜complicated and not complicatedâ€™:
And, of course, the novel must be built around a dilemma. Weâ€™ve been down this road several times before, but the big advantage of reading Smileyâ€™s book is that she is first and foremost a novelist and so we get the dilemma story from a novelistâ€™s perspective rather than someone theorizing about literary dilemmas. 13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel thus flows beautifully and every word is a pleasure to read. At 570 pages, that makes for a lot of pleasure, if youâ€™re willing to devote the time.
Like a lot of great innovations, I suspect this book exists thanks to an accident. An accident involving writerâ€™s block, and the need to head down a different road to try and find the way back to a career that, following the accident, is still producing sparkling creativity nearly 20 years later.