Jane Smiley reading tonight

She's touring for her new nonfic book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. She was writing page 280 of Good Faith, her latest novel, on September 11, 2001, when her book "suddenly came to seem trivial." So she set out to reexamine the art form in which she had already won a Pulitzer. She proceeded to read 100 novels, from classics to contemporaries (I'm naturally gratified by no. 79), and then write a book about the experience. The reading is at Buchanan Auditorium in the Pappajohn Bidnass Building at 7pm. I believe there is a party after. And poets, you gotta like that title!


Laura said...

I always wanted to write a book.

Great blog, take care :)

Grendel said...

She read about the history of the novel from a chapter in her book for about 15 minutes and then opened it up to questions, her "favorite part." One thing she pointed out in this part was that the novel didn't begin in respectability and academia. Many early novelists did it in secret, using pseudonyms, and had to learn from other novelists. So unlike in poetry and drama, there were few if any rules to go by -- a true bottom-up art form. Also, many early novelists were women, and women probably played a larger role (that we know of) in the development of the novel than in other literary forms.

One guy said his characters are starting to take on a life of their own, and she said you have to let that happen. She said "every first draft is perfect," and you have to go with the flow until the draft is complete. She said people like Dickens (she talked a lot about Dickens) never second-guessed themselves, and that's how you end up prolific.

Someone asked how she felt about "The Secret Lives of Dentists," and she said she liked the film even though she had every reason not to. "They were nasty to me." They never paid her, never contacted her, never sent her a ticket to the opening, and "acted as if I were dead." But she went to see the film and liked it on its own merits. Follow-up on 1000 Acres. "They made a dog of a movie."

Other question about how early novelists might have dealt with Hollywood. After saying Dickens could have been attracted to television, she pretty much ransacked the notion that film and fiction have much to do with each other. For example, she is not visual, does not see pictures in her head. Cameras and sentences are not the same tools. The novel has nothing to fear from film.

Other question about an article a guy read claiming Cormac McCarthy is the last great novelist -- when he is gone, so will the novel be. "Was it written by an older man?" She said such an attitude often means someone has lost interest in reading and is clinging to the last thing they like -- in this case, "violence, bloodshed, and gore. That's really a sad place to be in." She said new generations of novelists are sometimes hard for older readers to relate to. "I'm 55. Would I go to a 35-year-old for marital advice? No. But my 25-year-old daughter might."

The visiting Egyptian writer said that her generation in Egypt is criticized for being too fragmentary and short-sighted, navel-gaze-y, unwilling or unable to tackle the big picture and big issues. Was the younger generation of American writers the same way? "I don't know, because I spent the last few years reading all these old books." The she spoke a bit about Naguib Mahfouz. She didn't really address the question on this one.

Finally, someone asks why it is some people only write one novel and then fade away. She said it was probably because they were unable to shift their focus of enthusiasm and passion away from the original topic of interest. The key to writing many books is to continually be able to find new things to be interested in.

In general, I thought she was interesting and entertaining. It made me want to get her book, which has two chapters on writing your own novel -- and a page or two of comments on each of the 100 novels she read. One of the last things she said was: "Before I read those books, I could have ranked them, could have told you which were better than the others. But after I read them, there's no way. Because they are incomparable."