13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL

JANE SMILEY

I read this book because the title suggests the text tells about writing novels. I read the introduction and learned that the author was writing a novel, Good Faith. About 270 pages were finished; another 125 needed writing. The print size in that novel is small. The author was going to put down loads of words. From what I gather Good Faith is a novel describing business transactions.

I go to many library book sales, and on the last day, the sellers offer books for a dollar a bag: 3 or 4 cents a piece. Many of those books were best sellers two (2) years ago. Some of this author’s books were on the tables. I asked a seller at one of the sales and she said, “We sell what remains to a recycler who pulps them. We get four cents a pound.”

I question the author’s assertion on page 22 of 13 Ways:

“Don’t like the author? Throw the book away. Think this obscure book is better
than that famous one? State you opinion. Disagree with the very respected
author? You may, because the book is in your hands, in your power, which
make you the author’s equal. But the book itself you cannot destroy.”

I believe that authors who are novelists want to write and publish, because they want the text and the product (the book) to survive longer than a few years. Admittedly, there are authors who generate piles of pages of no distinction, destined for a library book sale table. But those authors have a paycheck. Pay no more than five cents for their books.

It should also be noted that non-fiction authors, writing on the same subjects as novelists, write in clearer language about complicated situations. With efficient writing they are understandable. Those books (e.g. Michael Lewis) are rarely found at library sales, and never do they lie around for the bag sale.

Books by those authors are the competition novelists must fact today. The only reasons to avoid non-fiction and entertain fiction are (1) to avoid a libel suit; and (2) if the author knows the setting and events but needs characters to bring the story alive, make up the characters and it’s a novel.

Smiley of 13 Ways asks whether the novel is art. Supposedly, it was once considered not art, but the medium makes it art: Communication by one person of people, events and dialogue. The finished product is a representation of its contents and the relationships made therein. It is the like representations found in paintings, sculpture and music.

No particular use of language is required. A major point of Huckleberry Finn was Mark Twain purportedly write the dialogue in dialect. The grammar is of the frontier. The words are simple as Twain said himself: “At a dime a word I never use metropolis when I can use city.” Obscenities come from anywhere: Royal Nonesuch.

The author of 13 Ways prefers other writers who sanitize their stories and settings: Edith Wharton, Henry James. Certainly there are dilemmas and crises in those works, but no one can classify any of those situations existential. Certainly, Virginia Woolf, a favorite of the author of 13 Ways. is out there. Her brain activity was an active mix of motion and communication, the wandering around in a common demented state after she writes a topic sentence. In the end that unsteady, unstable mood became the goal of her life.

The Novels and History chapter glides over obvious, salient and important points and books. Novels represent their times: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Melville was writing about the United States of America in Moby Dick, the consummate power of hate. He was writing about the American Civil War, coming a decade later. There are a few clues. At the end the ship is broken up, the “wood was American.” Hemingway is not mentioned in 13 Ways, but I’ve never heard anyone say x, y or z in For Whom the Bells Toll is phony. Willa Cather also is not mentioned in 13 Ways, but when the local boy dies in the World War, Cather grabs the reader’s emotion for all eternity. The author of 13 Ways includes F.Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby in her list of 100 novels. She says it is not a masterpiece; she generously notes only a few flaws. She should tell the truth. The Great Gatsby was submitted as a draft and never finished (including many sentences) by a drunk. It is not worth reading.

Also not discussed in the History chapter is Sir Walter Scott, an author referred to in the text and the 100 novels. Mark Twain said that Sir Walter was the cause of the American Civil War. Twain was referring to the feudal society Southerners had constructed which included jousts, armor and sword competitions. American historians (Clement Eaton) have looked at Twain’s observations. They understand the influence of Sir Walter on the South, but they are not willing to put all the blame on the English author.

Finally, I infer that 13 Ways raises a point but the author does not want to discuss it. Compare and contrast Virginia Woolf to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Did Virginia do drugs? Illness and disability beset both writers. But today we celebrate neither writer as disabled or handicapped.

Oversights in 13 Ways include a passage beginning on page 235. Contrary advice is better: A writer who has completed a first draft should go through the manuscript and correct spelling, run-on sentences, grammar and everything else that distracts the eye or interferes with ingesting the content. Once those corrections are made, it may be easier to determine how to fix or fill the text for an improved second draft.

Also, Mark Twain had a story about marriage (contra, 164), The Diary of Adam, The Diary of Eve. Adam notices the creature with the long hair; she names everything; contrary to his advice she talks to the snake. Also, it is a grave oversight to overlook Josef Conrad.

Any writer, new or young, who believes he must develop a style is writing wrong. The job of the young or new writer is to communicate clearly and completely. Style is variable. Set a story in Los Angeles today. Set a story in New York City. If the words in both stories are the same, the writer has failed. Style will also change with time: Tell events in three days; tell events in a week. Style differs when actions occur over a year. AND SOMETIMES, a writer cannot make determinations amounting to style until the second or third drafts.

Reviews, page 264. Authors like reviews to rely on adjectives which are malleable and meaningless. Reviews which trash the book are filled with nouns and verbs.

The author of 13 Ways should change her opinion of Huckleberry Finn. She has read the novel before, but she should obtain the 2001 Critical Edition from the University of California for the most complete text. She twice mentions Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry; she claims the book is boring. She relies on her 1996 piece in Harper’s magazine.

When Jane Smiley becomes more broadly read and her reading comprehension improves, she will believe Huckleberry Finn is the best novel she has ever read.

HINT: Begin with the most widely read book in the English language.
HINT, HINT: Determine what “These spiritual gifts” from chapter Three of Finn refer to.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN

I finally finished reading 13 Ways of Looking At The Novel by Jane Smiley. In it she twice mentions Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn; she claims the book is boring  and she mentions her 1996 piece in Harper’s magazine.

When Jane Smiley becomes more broadly read and her reading comprehension improves, she will believe Huckleberry Finn is the best novel she has ever read.

HINT: Begin with the most widely read book in the English language.

HINT, HINT: Determine what “These spiritual gifts” from chapter Three of Finn refer to.

CONCEDE: Samuel Clemens has been laughing at you since you wrote your article for Harpers.

NOTHING BUT VICTORY

STEVEN E. WOODWORTH

This Civil War book has one deficit. A lack of maps. I also did not see reference to a useful book of maps of Civil War battlefields.

The text ably tells of success of the best army of the Civil War. Quotes come frequently from soldiers themselves, next their commanding officers.

In the middle of this military history is a quote describing the Blair family of Missouri engaging in political feuds: They don’t do in for a fight; they go in for a funeral.

RIVER OF DOUBT

Candice Millard

This involved tale of exploration succeeds remotely. When reading J.H. Parry’s two books about Renaissance exploration of the oceans, I was amused when Parry would correct the location (navigation) of the place because the ocean currents did not conform to the records stated in the original sources. River of Doubt does not make such corrections. I do not have a sense that the author has traveled along the river.

This tale presents Theodore Roosevelt as someone who is a reckless adventurer and somewhat of a flake. No one knew the type and quantity of goods for the exhibition until three weeks along the trail. Someone looks. They are carrying Rhine Water, along with lots of other useless stuff. Much of it is abandoned. Neither Roosevelt nor Rondon (Brazilian) inspected or determined the anything was wrong until underway too far into the exhibition – lives have been damaged or lost, and will be. Note also, on this long trip into the jungle, Roosevelt has a bum leg; his son, Kermit, malaria.

It seems completely improbable Roosevelt would have gone off without reading anything about exploring rivers. During his life time books were written by such explorers: Richard Burton (Tanzania, Nile, 1860); Richard Speek (Nile, Lake Victoria, @1860); Henry Stanley (Nile, Congo River 1880); John Wesley Powell (Grand Canyon 1870) Certainly, Roosevelt knew that quinine inhibited the transmission of malaria. River of Doubt finally mentions quinine (p. 250) but the standard medical practice for prescribing quinine in 1914 is not given in the text. Roosevelt, himself, only had to ask his good friend, Leonard Wood, for advice. [About that page in the tale Roosevelt is hot with a malarial condition.] I might conclude that Roosevelt recklessly neglected quinine, or the author dropped quinine into the story as an afterthought.

The author has told a tale of the Central Amazon. Because journals, diaries, specie collections and exhibition records are incomplete or missing, she tells about the geography, flora and fauna very well. These environmental chapters, extending almost as far as the Amazon River is broad, carry the book and make it readable. She cannot tell of the full horrors of the place, except if half of any exhibition party returns, it has been a successful venture. The environmental chapters allow for the calendar to proceed. It replaces what might be available if all the sources were available: March 3, 1914, the party stopped her; disagreement between X and Y. This is the outcome. My only question is about vicinage: Are the flora and fauna described unique to the River of Doubt or are they found everywhere else in the Amazon basin?

An issue issue of biography arises from the text. It is not fully explored. Roosevelt was 53 years old. He suffered personal/psychological set backs when he lost the elections of 1912. Until that year Roosevelt had no defining potentially defeating events since his Rough Rider Days, when he was 40 years old. He takes up this exploration in an effort “to forge his own happiness.” (276) Yet at 54 he is injured, old, fat and out of shape. He knows a year of hardship and disease await him. He should not go within 500 miles of the River of Doubt. No one tells him not to go. Yet, was Roosevelt incapable of “forging his own happiness” in anyway, other than the means he devised in youth?

The answer to this question is obvious. Roosevelt physically and mentally failed. He also created conditions which led to his early death.