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.

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A QUESTION OF PERCEPTION?

I can be impatient especially when I’m reading and little or nothing is coming out. Criticism in some of my blogs on specific books might reveal this weakness. But I like when I learn that I should trust myself.

In A Moveable Feast Hemingway reports a conversation he had with a poet, Evan Shipman who called the younger writer, Hem.

“‘I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky,’ I said. ‘How can a man write write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?’

‘It can’t be the translation,’ Evan said…”(p. 137, NY, Scribners, 1964) 

Hem’s was was my impression: Why is this guy writing about mentally ill people staying in Germany? I could not feel deeply for anything Dostoy wrote because I couldn’t get by the writing. I feel good that my reaction is affirmed by someone else in this business.

I also should not be influenced by critics and toady scholars with a vested stake in Russian literature. It is likely they know nothing. Elsewhere in A Moveable Feast Hem gives advice to another writer after a whining conversation: “Look, if you can’t write why don’t you learn to write criticism?” (p. 95)

A Moveable Feast is not directly about Hemingway’s writing career in Paris, circa 1920-1925, but there are many solid points that he makes in passing. He also has an enlightening and funny chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald and a sour chapter describing the rich discovering a ski resort.