A Review of Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

13 Ways is three books in one. The first nine chapters offer a unique discussion of the the novel form referencing novels from “The Tale of Genji” (written in 11th century Japan) to the end of the 20th century. Part two contains three chapters targeted to would-be novelists and the third part of the book consists of short reviews of 101 novels.

I highly recommend parts 1 and 3 to students of the novel and to novelists of the would-be and already-are mold. As someone who took lit courses as electives at Oberlin and the University at Albany during my student days and who has read relatively widely ever since, I still found chapters as “What is a Novel?” “The Origins of the Novel” and “The Novel and History” enlightening and stimulating. Especially for any writer who seeks to appeal to an educated audience, it is essential to know what has come before you, how the novel evolved and in many ways shaped the world we live in, and to understand where you stand in relation to other writers.

That said, the chapters “A Novel of Your Own” I & II and “Good Faith: A Case History” were not as edifying, which on the one hand is surprising given that Smiley is an experienced writing instructor, but makes sense on the other hand when one considers how the Internet and technology are changing many aspects of the writer’s life, and not just due to self-publishing. Nevertheless there is good advice in those chapters concerning how to approach the task of producing a novel, which is like starting college over as a freshman the day you get your B.A. degree.

In sum, Smiley, who wrote the book after deciding to read one hundred novels as a way to combat writer’s block, has produced a volume that offers writers at all positions on the ladder a wonderful opportunity to stop and smell the pages as it were of their craft.

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