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Jane Smiley in Person


Last night, I had an odd and discomfiting experience. You will have to read this all the way to the end to find out what it was; I hope that the experience will not be tedious. I went to my first Barnes & Noble reading-cum-book signing. The book in question was Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. The Barnes & Noble branch was a new one to me, the one at the corner of West 82nd Street and Broadway. I arrived early enough to get a fairly good seat in the back of the little "events" area on the second floor. I brought two Smiley books of my own, At Paradise Gate, the author's second novel, which I was about to finish reading for the first time, and Le paradis des chevaux, a translation of Horse Heaven that I hope to read at some point. Bringing a translation was pure showing-off, of course, and perhaps a little off-putting. But I have the feeling that there are not many copies of this book that bear the author's signature. Ms Smiley must have thought the array rather odd, if she thought about it at all. Book tours are said to be mighty fatiguing.

Although tall, Jane Smiley is slight. The word was "willowy" was I was young; I have a feeling that that term is no longer entirely unoffensive. The big surprise was in the timbre of her voice. Because she bears a resemblance to someone I knew when I was a boy, I expected her to have a deep, hearty voice, with a big laugh. In fact, her voice is rather high and reedy. (It also turns out that she bears the resemblance only when she stops to smile.) I speak only of the sound of her voice. Her manner of speaking is exactly what I was led to expect by her writing, which, while articulate, is essentially conversational.

She read from two parts of the book. The first was about her having been shaped as a novelist by the reading of novels as a pre-teen. The second was about the vital importance of novel-reading to liberal society. It's particularly urgent for leaders to read novels, Ms Smiley rightly claims, because the novel remains the only device that human beings have invented for enlarging the sympathetic imagination. Ms Smiley sees that the novel has wrought many changes in society during its thousand-year run, largely by conferring dignity and autonomy on subordinate persons, from outsiders to women. I will have more to say about this anon.

The writer had announced that she likes to do a couple of short readings and then proceed to a question-and-answer period. This was what I had hoped for, but I hadn't formulated any questions. I thought about it all through the reading. I wanted to come up with a question that was intelligent, focused on Jane Smiley's books, a little out-of-the-way but easily grasped, and interesting to everyone else. This last point was crucial. I have tended to dream up questions that underline my eccentricity while displaying the fact that I know a lot of minor, recherché details about the askee. I wasn't going to do that tonight. I caught Ms Smiley's eye on the third or fourth time that I raised my hand, and was sure to speak up. I referred to the theory of ambition that she developed in A Year at the Races, and asked if she applied this to would-be novelists as well. In response, she began, "Horse ambition," which surprised me, since I was already applying it to people. In the end, she agreed that the same principle was at work: going back to her first reading, she repeated that, as a child she learned about novels and what novels were about, and - she didn't say anything about ambition, because I suspect that for her "ambition" as applied to human beings is the old worst-man-wins affair - that, having discovered the possibility of novels, she gave writing novels a try herself. Just as that horse of hers had taken all those jumps, without being prodded to do so - and had learned to jump better in the process. (I've written more about "horse ambition" here.)

All of Ms Smiley's responses demonstrated a real gift for framing answers in the terms of her book. That's of course what the author is supposed to do - plug the book, "sell" it. But Ms Smiley did it very artfully. She fell back on the formula, "As I say in the book," very rarely.

I do have to note that the first questioner was a rogue, a nutty guy who mumbled something about having a theory of his own, a theory that disagreed with her theory, about the novel, and that he had self-published a book about this theory, and what did she think about that? To everyone's amazement, Ms Smiley said, "Well, why don't you come up here and tell us about your book?" The gasping was major. The wiry, highly-strung Asian man rattled off his theory in a completely unintelligible fashion, and when he came to a pause, the audience applauded desultorily, and Ms Smiley took that as a cue to poll the audience - did we want to listen to him, or to her. It didn't take long to settle that, but we all wondered what the nut would do. He simply strode away purposefully. I have a feeling that Ms Smiley's adroitness came from dealing with obstreperous equines. She certainly exhibited no fear of him.

One questioner asked the writer if she felt that her writing had been changed by the move from Ames, Iowa, where Ms Smiley taught in the famed writers' workshop for years, and Northern California, where she lives now. The answer - that it was giving up teaching and taking up horses that had had a transforming effect - I was with her completely. The novels that Jane Smiley has produced since the early Nineties have all been far more playful than the ones written before; there is a real caesura between A Thousand Acres and Moo, so much so that I owe Moo a re-reading; I wanted another Thousand Acres. (It was Horse Heaven that showed me where Ms Smiley was going.) She remains a very serious writer, but her range now extends to the absurd and the ridiculous and to the just plain funny. It didn't when she was starting out.

I muffed the signing part. For a change, I wanted the inscriptions to be "personalized," and with this in mind I had tucked one of my cards into Le paradis des chevaux. But the French thing caught Ms Smiley's attention (as intended, non?), and the card was swept aside. We chatted about the cheeseburgers in Good Faith. (Ms Smiley writes extraordinarily well about the pleasures of good old-fashioned American cuisine.) She flashed her smile and thanked me for coming. I tried to reply in kind but I felt bitterly disappointed. Why? Why had I wanted her to write "To R J Keefe," and why was I feeling like a stalker?

It could be that I had just read another one of Ruth Rendell's stalker novels. Stalker novels are something of a Rendell specialty. Thirteen Steps Down (hey! "13" again!), an ordinary-looking guy who's beginning to age and who has a tortured past and a very limited education - this ordinary guy stalks a rising model. He is convinced that, given the chance, he will win her heart. He thinks he's in love, but we're shown that he's longing for the celebrity life that the model leads. He wants the world to recognize an importance to which he has no claim whatever. In his pursuit, he is tripped up by surprises that an balanced person would have foreseen, and his attempts to clean up after himself invariably make things worse. There is nothing funny about any of this. Repellent as Mix Cellini is, you're as desperate as he is to work his way out of sticky fixes.

Now, I didn't want to capture Jane Smiley's heart. I'm doing fine in the heart department. What I wanted, as I very soon saw neon-lighted shame, was recognition as a writer. That is undoubtedly why I had relied on my Portico card, instead of letting the handler write my name on a Post-It, as she did for everybody else.

When I get round to writing about 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which will be sooner than you think, I hope to remember to hammer home the fact that I was able to dissect my own shady motives a lot more quickly than I might have done because I had just read a novel that, as lawyers say, was completely on point.

By the time I got off the crosstown bus, I was fine.


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This is a finely observed instance of self-knowing that we can all learn from. The marriage of your interior experience to the external circumstances and the world of ideas from books is tapestorial.

I am going to look up 'tapestorial' right now.

I think you can still get away with 'willowy'. I'm pretty sure. At least, I would sure love to be referred to as 'willowy.'

P.S. Beautiful post, as usual.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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