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Jane Smiley: The Novel and History

Planted deep in the heart of Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf, 2005) is the most important essay written by anyone, anywhere, in the year 2005. It is an indispensable item of nonfiction. Entitled "The Novel and History," it makes the case that our liberal, tolerant, and progressive society is inconceivable without the novel. The claim is audacious, but Ms Smiley is persuasive. She will at any rate persuade anyone who has loved a novel that reading novels, far from being a pastime, is the engine of our social development.

Let's be clear right away what this does not mean. It is not that novelists propose social change. Sometimes they do, but the best novelists accept the status quo well enough to study the parts that interest them thoroughly and to compose fictional reflections, stories that illuminate the problems that some people have in the world. It is really the readers who mulch the social bedding with their reactions to novels.

Sometimes, of course, the solution proposed by the novel is a passive one, such as acceptance of the idea that evil exists or fate exists and nothing can be done about it. We often react to such novels with special admiration and respect, as I react to The Good Soldier. The Good Soldier is told entirely in retrospect by a narrator who has no hope of changing the outcome and not much hope of understanding it - his premise is that certain events have taken place right in front of him, but out of obtuseness and complacency, he was never able to see what was going on until it was too late for anyone to be saved. I read this with enjoyment and appreciation for the author's perspicacity, but even as I am understanding what has happened for Ford's narrator, John Dowell, I am vowing to learn from his mistakes - I will never be so unobservant. The very process of accompanying him while he disentangles his experiences reassures me that they can be disentangled.

Ms Smiley focuses on two institutions that have been overhauled by fiction: marriage and the sense of self. "Sense of self" is no less an institution than marriage, for it, too, has been institutionalized by all the major religions in such a way that, ideally, everybody's sense of self is the same - just as all marriages are the same, governed by a handful of simple if severe rules. The novel has blasted such complacencies to bits, and it is no wonder that orthodoxies rail against the resulting "individualism." The very idea of orthodoxy...

Continue reading about Jane Smiley on the novel at Portico.


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Jane Smiley's book is sitting as yet unread in my stack, not far from novels she has written that I have read. Your essay on her chapter neatly synopsizes views you've expressed over the years about imagination and reading and has about it the declarative force of a manifesto. I couldn't agree more passionately about Smiley's -- and RJ's -- thoughts here. Makes me want to write one. Instead, I'll continue to read novels, with deepened appreciation for the resulting enrichment.

Thanks. I enjoyed this one immensely.

Never have I so whole-heartedly agreed with a point of view that I felt it would be superfluous to add to it; and for those who know me, that is saying quite a bit.

I have taken the liberty of copying Ms. Smiley's/RJ's point from Portico and sending it to many I know via e-mail.
To most it will be (fortunately) preaching to the choir, but for those few among my acquaintance who have not realized the full value of the novel and it's place in our culture's social development, it will act as revelation, or at least the sound of music never before heard, yet instantly and inwardly understood.

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