three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Jane Smiley
user_rating: 
0

A-13WaysNovelWith a keen percipience, Smiley deconstructs the novel by offering an opinionated yet unpretentious treatise on the form. She presents its history and moral implications, and gives advice to the would-be novelist. She draws upon a whopping 100 novels she read in 2001—from such luminaries as Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Ian McEwen. She admittedly did not choose her favorites, just those which allowed her to reflect on the art and form of the novel. Sometimes utterly simplistic (for example, she calls a novel "a box-like object a few inches long" and "written prose, with a protagonist"), this lengthy offering may be candy for those captivated by academia but too didactic for the mainstream.
Knopf. 608 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1400040590

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"With its helpful tips and heartfelt encouragement for potential novelists, Smiley’s gentle tutelage will no doubt spawn many manuscripts. … 13 Ways is an essential addition to any serious reader’s library." Geoffrey Campbell

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With great intellect, and no little enthusiasm, she peers into the origin, psychology, morality, art, and history of the novel. … 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel will elicit empathetic pangs of understanding while also instigating a broader view of the novel as a living, breathing entity." Terri Clark

LA Times 4 of 5 Stars
"She inspires wicked delight as she seasons her text with sardonic characterizations … and cogent deviations from received wisdom. … She’s not afraid to make big statements, but she always grounds them in specific detail." Wendy Smith

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps the greatest pleasure offered by this cross between a course syllabus and a love letter to the novel are the almost 300 pages at the end. They catalog the 100 novels Smiley read, her reasons for choosing them, and her reactions to them." Marjorie Kehe

Seattle Times 2 of 5 Stars
"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. … 13 Ways is definitely a book that appeals to the mind, not the heart." Ellen Emry Heltzel

St. Petersburg Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Much of Smiley’s book, in fact, reads like someone jotting down the casual thoughts, at once rambling and undercooked, that might have occurred to her during a tipsy soak. … Smiley will do nothing to deepen your understanding or enjoyment of Ulysses, Lolita, As I Lay Dying, Madame Bovary, or The Red and the Black, to take a few examples; nor does she convey enough passion to make it clear why they’re worth bothering with anyway." Christopher Goffard

Critical Summary

Critical opinion varies greatly on the discourse offered by this Pulitzer Prize winner on the biography and art of the novel. While some critics applaud her convictions on what makes a novel and a novelist, others feel she needs to exit the classroom and enter the minds of the mainstream reader. As the author of 11 novels who turned her attention to devouring books when she lost inspiration while writing Good Faith ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003) during 9/11, she has certainly done her homework. Perhaps the best way to bridge the disparity among reviewers is to say that at the very least, Smiley will enlighten, offer advice, and further the average reader’s novelistic sensibilities, but she may also alienate the uninitiated fiction lover who reads mainly for pleasure.