Andromeda: The Right Book at the Right Time — 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley

I picked up “13 Ways” maybe two years ago, read parts of it (it’s organized in a way that invites skipping around), liked it well enough, and put it back on the shelf. I must have been involved in a tricky revision then and reading in search of easy-to-apply fiction solutions, which I did not find in Smiley’s book. I was in a different place last month when I picked the book up again, realized there were parts I’d skipped and parts I’d underappreciated, and started all over.

This time, I couldn’t put it down. I savored; I marked; I circled and starred; I felt even more inspired to dedicate myself to writing and to aspire to become a reader like Jane Smiley, who can not only enjoy a novel, but see its web of connections to other novels over centuries, and to novels from other cultures. (Why do the French have such a history of writing about sex and the problems of marriage? How do Russian and German and Scandinavian writers see the world differently? How has the novel evolved and what does it say about our society?)

I felt intense gratitude that this smart writer took three years out of her own writing life to read a hundred novels (some of them re-reads), to share her personal responses to each one in encylopedic fashion, and to add even more depth with twelve wonderful stand-alone essays including “The Origins of the Novel,” “The Novel and History,” and “Morality and the Novel.”

Can you tell I’m smitten with this book? But this isn’t a book review. It’s just my personal eye-opener on a day when I need to remember the joys — and the work — of creativity. A few Jane Smiley quotes to get me started, and maybe to get you started as well…

“Even if the novel is based entirely on what the novelist himself has experienced, he will rework the experiences to make them more vivid and evocative, and indeed, more logical and comprehensible. In reworking them, he will betray, or transcend the experience.

“The author’s job, according to (Virginia) Woolf, is to preserve exceptional moments, not to award them to exceptional people.”

“In a society that promotes conformity, novel-reading — one person experiencing both the mind of another person and her own mind experiencing — is a subversive force.”

“A novelist is someone who has volunteered to be a representative of literature and to move it forward a generation. That is all.”

“(The novelist’s) job is to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive. … The preeminence of a novel as a literary form suggests that the average reader enjoys having the nature of being, especially the nature of being ordinarily human, mirrored back at her.”

“All novels, because they move repeatedly between action and reflection, are simultaneously about private experience and public events.”

“The novel is always about freedom, and readers of novels have an instinctive understanding of whether the novelist is exercising his freedom or whether he isn’t.”

Ahhh. I feel a little better. On with the day.

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: The Right Book at the Right Time — 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley”

  1. Thanks for this, Andromeda. Your enthusiasm is contagious. I'll have to read the book, it's that simple. I'm also curious what she means by "The preeminence of a novel as a literary form" … Pre-eminent in what way? And does she consider film, maybe even the epic poem, as a sub-genre of the novel? I.e., novel as comprehensive narrative of a particular time & place. … More reasons to read it. Thank you.

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