Sunday, June 11, 2006

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel"

I've happily followed the Guardian's excerpts from Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Jonathan Bate of the Telegraph has a less generous view of Smiley's book:

Much of Smiley's best fiction is about horses, whereas this non-fiction work is an equine of the pantomime variety. The front half is a series of chapters on the history and techniques of the novel; the back half consists of brief essays on the chosen 100 books.

The problem with the latter is that Smiley seems unable to decide whether they are for the benefit of people who have read the novels and want some critical analysis that brings deeper understanding of their mechanics or whether they are 'tasters' intended to inspire readers to tackle the masterpieces they have not dared venture upon.

He's a little more grateful for the forward-looking part of the book:

the two brief chapters of practical advice for budding novelists are the most valuable thing about the book.

Here is Smiley's advice bound in a nutshell. A command of spelling, punctuation and good grammar must be instinctive rather than struggled for--they are the equivalent of a composer knowing the scales. Solipsism and self-indulgence must be avoided at all costs: better to go out and do some research on the diction that is appropriate to the world-view of each of your characters. Work on the balance between plot and character, action and reflection. Find the right point of view for your story: first-person, third or that lovely technique of writing in a third-person voice but through the eyes of a particular character? Bang out a draft and then get down to some serious revision.

Marjorie Kehe has a more postitive view of the book at the Christian Science Monitor. Click here to read it.

--Marshal Zeringue