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Originally published Friday, September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Didacticism undermines passion in Smiley's "Thirteen Ways"

Jane Smiley believes in the transformative power of fiction. This isn't surprising, given that Smiley is the well-known author of 11 novels and...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel"
by Jane Smiley
Knopf, 591 pp., $26.95

Jane Smiley believes in the transformative power of fiction. This isn't surprising, given that Smiley is the well-known author of 11 novels and a short biography of Charles Dickens. As a writer she is both inventive (her King Lear update, "A Thousand Acres," won the Pulitzer Prize) and funny ("Moo," her send-up of academia, tweaks a world she knows well from years of teaching at the noted Iowa Writers' Workshop).

But inventive and funny are not the words that apply to Smiley's latest work, a nonfiction treatise called "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel." In spite of its catchy title — an obvious allusion to the Wallace Stevens poem about blackbirds — this book is short on wit and, at times, surprisingly dry.

It seems apparent that Smiley decided to wear her teacher's hat this time around, and the result is a book that contains lots of information but, in its long and discursive form, lacks pep and the intellectual rigor that could have made it exceptional. In the course of almost 600 pages, the writer discusses the novel form (history, aesthetics, how-to) and then reacts to 100 novels she read or re-read after the events of 9/11 and some personal issues temporarily took the wind out of her fiction-writing sails.

Coming up

Jane Smiley


The author of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel" will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with Nancy Pearl at Seattle's Town Hall. Sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

"In a society that promotes conformity," Smiley starts out, as if to convince herself that what she does has some impact in the world, "novel-reading — one person experiencing both the mind of another person and her own mind experiencing — is a subversive force."

So we would hope. But at a time when reading serious fiction is on the decline in this country, this argument seems oddly disconnected from the fact that a mere handful of novels — "The Da Vinci Code," "The Kite Runner" and so on — dominate the sales charts. So where are the signs of the subversive force about which she writes?

In similar unexplored fashion, Smiley argues that the novel transcends "audience-based art" with its ability to depict human agency by showing private thoughts and motivations. Novels themselves don't send readers to the ramparts, she claims, but they create the psychological conditions that do.

Yet her reasoning seems less convincing than insular. What of Beethoven and Wagner, not to mention Edward Albee and Arthur Miller? Has Smiley spent too much time at the English department water cooler?

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel" is hardly without merits, of course. For example, describing Henry James and his efforts to identify certain aesthetic ideals that made a novel "right," Smiley notes a turning point in the history of the novel — the moment at which, for better or worse, novels became self-conscious. Subsequently, in the past century, the writing world exploded with efforts to create novels as art rather than to merely entertain or inform.

Smiley takes a nonelitist stance, declaring that "the form of the novel was in many ways too powerful or too intransigent to be subdued by a mere theory." Still, her own dissection — and the novels she writes about in her book — reflect a highly refined taste, not a welcome to all comers.

Her choices range from the 11th-century classic of the Japanese court, "The Tale of Genji," to Jennifer Egan's contemporary novel "Look at Me," about a model whose face is disfigured in a car accident, with few surprises in between. Thoughtful and informed, her responses are studied, not impassioned.

Here again, the teacher in Smiley trumps the advocate. "Thirteen Ways" is definitely a book that appeals to the mind, not the heart.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland-based book critic whose columns can be found at www.goodhousekeeping.com/bookbabes and www.thebookstandard.com.

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