The common reader

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel: what to read and how to write

Jane Smiley <em>Faber & Faber

When at a loss, make a list. This was Jane Smiley's response to a crisis of faith in her own fiction, provoked by terrorism and 9/11, by reaching the age of 52, by her partner's illness and by an apparently successful "Course in Miracles" therapy. She felt herself obliged to take stock, to reconsider what it is to be a novelist, what a novel is or is not, and what shape a novelist's career and afterlife may most happily and profitably assume. Pausing in mid-construction of an unsatisfactory fictional narrative (later published as Good Faith), she set herself the project of reading 100 novels, and working out from them "the whole concept of the novel". Midway through this bulky new volume, in which instructive literary criticism and practical advice are interleaved with personal commentary and small displays of paranoia, she tells us that she originally intended to read 275 novels, but decided it would take too long. Her selection is arranged chronologically over nearly 300 pages, starting with The Tale of Genji and ending with Ian McEwan's Atonement, with a small postscript on an item of chick lit borrowed from her daughter. Some of these books she had read before, some she had always meant to read, and some she had not even wanted to read, although she knew they were "important". It is not, she stresses, her "Hundred Greatest".

Lists are fun, and most of us enjoy compiling them. Arnold Bennett, that self-taught and disciplined writer, liked lists, and in one of his excellent self-help books, Literary Taste: how to form it (1909), he compiled a recommended library ranging from Beowulf to Gissing's Odd Women. (In those days you could purchase all 337 of his volumes for the sum of £26 14s 7d.) Bennett's selection is personal but solid: you could read through it with profit today. Lists chosen by popular vote, on the other hand, throw up notoriously odd results: witness the millennium poll which declared that the greatest composers of all time were Beethoven, Robbie Williams and Mozart. And inclusion in lists is not necessarily a good thing: in Christopher Hampton's prophetic pre-fatwa play The Philanthropist (1970), an organisation called Fatal (the Fellowship of Allied Terrorists Against Literature) compiles an assassination list of 25 eminent English writers, which leaves one of the characters torn between fury, relief and terror when he finds he has been omitted.

Smiley's list is arbitrary, and those who find themselves on it may not always be best pleased by her comments. At one point she seems to chastise Emily Brontë for being unable to handle a confessional narrator properly, but hundreds of pages later she commends her technique. Vol-taire's Candide is dismissed as not being a proper novel, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness is similarly berated. (The first has no true protagonist; the second is too short.) Towards the end of her list, repetition (endemic throughout) gets completely out of hand as we read within the space of six pages that three of her choices have "held up quite well" (Toni Morrison's Beloved), "held up fairly well" (A S Byatt's Possession) and "held up very well" (Garrison Keillor's WLT: a radio romance). This phraseology was unfortunate in the first instance: repeated three times it is a disaster. Nor was it necessary to tell us three times over that Ford Madox Ford, rereading his own novel The Good Soldier after ten years, was amazed to find how good it was. Once would have been quite enough.

Smiley taught creative writing in Iowa for a decade and a half, and it shows. She claims to believe that novel-writing is essentially a learned and learnable activity, not based on genius or talent. She likes to refer to plots as circles or pyramids, and tells us that almost every novel "gathers itself at the 62 per cent mark" - but then she rethinks the strategy and advises you that you have to get a climax at about 85 per cent or 90 per cent of your way into your novel. She is fond of phrases such as "the Earth's Big Bookstore" and "the river of literary history". It's hard to know how seriously to take any of this, for Smiley is, when she chooses, a finely ironic novelist. Is she simply having fun at our expense? Some of her insights are illuminating: she is good on the techniques of Gothic horror, on the links between Wuthering Heights and the Viking settlement of Yorkshire, and on Zadie Smith's White Teeth. But much of her commentary is perfunctory, basic and banal.

The most interesting passages are personal. Her terror in the face of creative boredom, and her delight in writing and reading aloud from Horse Heaven, are vividly evoked. Unusually and boldly, she discusses the critical reception of her own work at some length and addresses the question of bad reviews. These, she claims, are "necessarily more subjective than positive and generous reviews". I'm not sure if I agree with her about that. This, I suppose, must be classified as a bad review, and I am going to end it by recommending that the reader unfamiliar with Smiley's work not bother with Thirteen Ways, but order at once what I think is her most enjoyable book, the incomparable campus classic Moo (1995). The most unforgettable character in this rich comic novel is a vast Landrace boar called Earl Butz. The inner thoughts and feelings of this endearing hog are rendered with tact and sympathy, and the reader roots for him all the way to his dramatic end. And this despite the creative writing teacher in Moo advising his students not to attempt to write fiction from the point of view of a pet. In Horse Heaven, the Jack Russell called Eileen is also a great success, because Smiley practises better than her alter ego preaches. She may be an excellent classroom teacher, but her novels are what will live.

Margaret Drabble's most recent novel is The Red Queen (Penguin)