The 'best living American novelist' on her mid-life crisis

By Greg Bruce

Prolific American writer Jane Smiley has been described as ‘the best living American novelist’. She talks to Greg Bruce about Donald Trump, perfectionism and her mid-life crisis.
Jane Smiley.
Jane Smiley.

What sensible person has not fantasised about spending three years of her life reading 100 novels? It's an imagining of almost unbearable beauty, that sinking, waking dream of leaving this world and entering it again and again through other minds, re-emerging at the end of it all as a better person, or at least a person with a broader view of the world.

It's also a project of almost incomprehensible self-indulgence for anybody with a serious job, to which they are enslaved by that most modern of masters, productivity. Few proper novelists alive today are more serious and more productive than Jane Smiley, who has written nearly 30 books and who won the Pulitzer Prize for her astonishing King Lear-inspired 1991 novel A Thousand Acres, and who has been described variously as "America's Tolstoy" and as having "started to look like the best living American novelist".

Nevertheless, she did it, and then she wrote a book chronicling it, 13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel. It began one day not long after 9/11, she writes in the introduction to the book, when she sat down to work on the novel she was already most of the way through writing and she thought, "Oh, this again.

This insoluble, unjoyous, and unstimulating piece of work. What's the next sentence, even the next word?" That is to say, she had a bit of a crisis.

"I didn't know what in the world I was doing," she went on, "and it was way too late in the game for that. My heart sank. No, my flesh turned to ice. No, my eyes popped out of my head. No, my stomach churned. No, all I did was close the file on my computer and walk away. But that was very bad."

As a novelist, and particularly as a novelist having a crisis, there's not really much need to make an argument for taking the time to read 100 novels, but for the rest of us there probably is, and Smiley makes it in 13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel. She makes it again, on the phone from her home in Northern California, in advance of her visit to the Auckland Writers Festival next month, where she will both discuss her life's work and provide a writing workshop called "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel".

Reading 100 novels is not just an indulgence, it's a self-improvement project, a course in empathy, in the ability to understand another person's point of view.

There is no other art form that provides empathy practice like the novel, Smiley says. People in plays and movies express themselves, but they're still outside you, just figures on a stage. Poetry expresses other people's thoughts and feelings but does it quickly. Only the lengthy prose narrative of the novel allows you to spend the time in somebody else's mind that is required to truly understand them.

This is not a trivial thought. In 13 Ways, Smiley writes, "If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies. If the novel has died for men... then the inner lives of their friends and family members are a degree more closed to them than before."

It's no surprise that Donald Trump has never been a novel-reader, because stuff just blows out of his mouth.
Jane Smiley

She wrote those words at a time when her country was deep in the Iraq war and the president who had ordered that war, George W. Bush, had said that his favourite book growing up was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, although that book was not published until he was a 23-year-old Ivy League college graduate. Today, the leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, says that he wants to kill not just terrorists but terrorists' families and wants to shut America to all Muslims, and he cites as his favourite two books The Bible - albeit unconvincingly - and his own book, The Art of the Deal.

"It's no surprise that Donald Trump has never been a novel-reader," Smiley says, "because stuff just blows out of his mouth and he seems not to give a shit what other people think about it. It's as if he doesn't know that other people might think about it."

Smiley argues for the importance and exceptionalism of the novel proudly but also humbly. It is, she argues, an imperfect form, too long and necessarily complex, too much the property of the reader as much as the writer, to ever be perfected.

Once, while she was at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, talking on the phone to a friend, he asked her how many people were standing weeping before the paintings. Those people, he said, are the aspiring artists and they're looking at those paintings and thinking they'll never do anything that perfect.

"Novelists never think that way," Smiley told him. "They always think, 'Oh, if only I could have told Leo Tolstoy how to fix War And Peace, it would be way better.'"

Paintings can be perfected, short stories and poems can be perfected but novels cannot be perfected, she says. They are by nature imperfect. She says she has never met a successful novelist who was a perfectionist. Dickens wasn't a perfectionist. Flaubert was, she says, but he was an exception and she thinks it tortured him.

"He wanted every word to be perfect and so he couldn't send it off until every word was perfect in his mind and yet, as soon as it gets to any individual reader, the reader is going to say, 'No, this isn't perfect. This should be that.'"

Once it crosses the threshold from the author's to the reader's mind, the novel is affected by an entirely different set of experiences and feelings. For something like this reason, Smiley refuses to say whether she reads her old books. She says that Anthony Trollope did that, and then denigrated some of them in his autobiography, including a book called, He Knew He Was Right - which she thinks he was wrong about.

"I just think it's a wonderful, amazing book. It's my favourite Trollope book and one of my favourite books of all time, but he didn't like it, so why should I go and re-analyse my old books and tell readers what they should and shouldn't do? It's not going to serve anybody."

Far more effective, far more useful, probably, is to go and read an enormous quantity of other people's books. In the 10 years since publishing 13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel, Smiley has published 11 books, including the epic and excellent Last Hundred Years trilogy, the final book of which, Golden Age, was published late last year. Smiley has always been prolific so it's a pointless exercise to speculate that reading 100 books led to rapidly writing 11, but it seems relevant to point out that both those things have happened and one followed the other.

In an interview with the Paris Review last year, Smiley said: "I read an article about how to learn to play a musical instrument. You practise, practise, practise on Friday, then you walk away. And then when you sit down on Saturday, you're better. Not only because of all the practice, but also because of the walking away. I'm a firm believer in walking away."

Jane Smiley appears at the Auckland Writers Festival at the Aotea Centre on Friday, May 13 at 11.30am and on Sunday, May 15 at 3pm.

- Canvas

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