For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 17, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley
What is a novel? According to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, a novel is – simply – a “lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist.” In this book, which itself is a bit lengthy, she uses thirteen approaches to deconstruct novels. In the first 12 chapters, she explains how novels were created; shows its place in history; examines its creators; picks apart its psyche; and so on. She also offers two chapters of writerly advice and encouragement for the inspired fools (my term) who choose to write a novel of their own. This may sound like dry chapters from a ponderous tome, but they are not. As with her many novels, Smiley writes here with warmth and insight. She loves novels. She sees their warts and weaknesses, but she is keen to point out what works and to share the delight of storytelling. I read the first 12 chapters one at a time, like lessons, and made notes to myself on the pages. It was the first time since school that I felt compelled to take a highlighter to a book on my personal bookshelf. The points Smiley makes on theme, authenticity, and memorable characters are worth bright yellow markings.
All of the above is only half of the book. The #13 in the ways to look at a novel is a report on reading 100 novels. She selected from classics to modern works, “dead white men” to authors of more varied cultures, and wrote a critical essay. For each novel, she explained why it was unique and worth reading. She discussed themes, subtext, structure, and flaws. Her discussions are longer and much deeper than the snippets I have written here, but as with the first twelve chapters, I read an essay a day—admittedly, skipping a few reviews that did not interest me– and thought about Smiley’s thoughts for a while. I came away with a richer understanding of, and appreciation for, the work many of my friends do every day.
Why is 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel a good read for women? Jane Smiley’s body of work is not focused toward either gender, and her 100 books include books by male and female authors. Reading this will make you a better writer, and a more informed reader. Its length may be daunting, but it was enjoyable to read in bits and pieces. It took me a year to read the entire book, because I wanted to think about each essay before reading the next one. That makes this a book to savor over time, and appreciate the work put into it by an insightful modern author–who happens to be a woman.