Wednesday, July 18, 2012


In her brief essay on "Lolita," in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," Jane Smiley tweaks Vladimir Nabokov for "working as hard as James or Tolstoy to promote a theory of art and of the novel that led straight to him and his sort of greatness." But of course this is what Smiley herself is doing in "Thirteen Ways." Probably any novelist writing about novels would be so inclined. Any painter writing about painting, any critic writing about criticism. The number of professional commentators who could resist the temptation to equate excellence with their own practice could be counted (as I believe Pogo Possum once said) on the fingers of one finger.

In "Aspects of the Novel," E.M. Forster writes of narrative--that is, "what happened next?"--almost with contempt. Even the lowliest bus driver, Forster says, could show an interest in suspense, in a sequence of events. He almost admits to wishing that novels could be written without narrative, without what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art. But they can't be. It is not only that the novel was invented to tell a lengthy and complicated story that could not be told in any other way, it is also that without the spine of narrative logic and suspense, it cannot be sufficiently organized to be understandable to the reader. Even more basically, a sequence of sentences, which is the only form sentences can occur in, must inevitably result in a narrative. The very before-and-after qualities of written sentences imply, mimic and require the passage of time.

Because narrative is so natural, efficient and ubiquitous, it, like prose, can be used in myriad ways. The time sequence can be abused however the writer wishes to abuse it, because the human tendency, at least in the West, to think in sequence is so strong that the reader will keep track of beginning, middle and end on her own. Nevertheless, the commonest bus driver can and often does take an interest in what happens next, and so because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It can never exclude bus drivers completely, and is, therefore, depending on one's political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.


Prose, in combination with the relationship between the protagonist and the group, makes a realistic narrative more likely (though there are plenty of novels that are not realistic). Since prose is the style average people use to talk about money, family relationships, work, survival, getting from here to there, trivia, and also the style of jokes and memos, newspapers and letters, it makes writing about common things easier. Prose makes it more likely that the protagonist will be ordinary, more subject to the effects of money, work, survival and trivia than to the effects of heroism or high destiny. Prose deflates the hero, as poetry and drama inflate him. As it adds up, prose moves on to the next event, and forces the characters and the reader to move on, too, giving novels life and hope, even when the story explicitly being told is dreary and hopeless. Prose implies that events can be organized, understood, endured and survived. When the curtain falls on a great tragedy, the audience is meant to feel shocked and bereft -- worked up to a high pitch of feeling by the climax, and then dropped over the cliff of the denouement. That's what catharsis is all about. In novels, though, prose plus the protagonist plus the group tend to block catharsis, reminding the reader that whatever emotions we suffer, life goes on.


The novel is inherently political, but the organizational demands of the novel mean that it doesn't fit easily into political ideas of class or group blame or virtue. Every important character in a novel is portrayed as having moral complexity. If a character is solely evil, or is solely good, than he or she is a figure or a symbol of something but not a protagonist, not possessed of agency, which in a novel is the only standard of real importance. ... Consequently, readers with an essentially political agenda, looking for models of proper thinking and behavior, are hardly ever going to find them in novels. The novel always promotes complexity, as both an organizational principle and a narrative principle.

Smiley's own critically excoriated novel Ten Days in the Hills (which I almost alone, it seems, thoroughly enjoyed), furnishes a good example of this phenomenon: Though written at the height of the novelist's outrage over the Iraq War, the book gives its only pro-war character a genuinely fair shake. It even allows him to win a couple of arguments. Smiley doesn't force the character to conform to a stereotype. He speaks for himself. This is enormously to Smiley's credit, in my opinion: It means that she is a novelist first.

In "Ten Days," the veteran movie director character, Max, explains what he does in a way that ties in pretty directly. His partner, Elena, asks him why he isn't more agitated by the war. He tells her about Klaus, a family friend in Nazi Germany, whose form of resistance was to become "an immovable object." He did not protest or flee or fight, but he also would not allow the regime to have any effect on his way of life or his outlook. His form of resistance was simply to remain unchanged, against enormous cultural pressure to adapt.

"Because my take on things [Max says] is that life is more powerful than death, way more powerful, and if we think about death over and over, look what happens, I can't get it up, and so my sense of being alive is diminished. I would rather be like Klaus. I would rather be an immovable object than an irresistible force. I think you would rather be an irresistible force. But the world is full of people who do harm in the name of doing good. If you are an immovable object, then you are less likely to do harm."

"But you make movies. You depict things. You put stories and images on the screen and try to have an effect. I think most people would laugh at the idea of a movie director thinking of himself as passive and undynamic."

"Well, I have several ideas about that. In the first place, movies that I make are stories. Even when I try to make it as compelling as possible, I know they are stories and the audience knows they are stories and the actors know they are stories. The thing about a story is that it affects you if you want it to, but you can take it or leave it. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous. Have you ever been to a meeting?"

She shook her head.

He was warming up now, he thought. "What they do at meetings is tell stories. You aren't allowed to give advice or tell people what to do. You're encouraged to tell your own story and leave it at that. The reason they do that is because alcoholics are volatile and sometimes take offense. Telling stories is the least offensive way to communicate, because it's the least coercive. So that's one of my defenses. Another is that most movies are bad and that most audiences are too sophisticated to buy most movies. I would like to have made a string of movies like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," that seem so real while you are watching them that they replace all your own feelings and opinions, but I haven't. ... But guess what? "One Flew Overthe Cuckoo's Nest" came and went. It is not life-changing for most people who watch it. It's a story. It may be the most perfect movie ever made, or one of them, but you can still take it or leave it. You can still get up, walk away, and make up your own mind ... So I don't see what I do as coercive. In fact I see it as objective. I offer something for the audience to contemplate, and even though we look like we are being madly active in making our offering, really our offering is as passive as a big stone lion on a pillar. Take it or leave it. And when a movie doesn't jell like that one does, it isn't at all hard to leave it."

Not sure how much longer I'll be able to keep this up. Quoting passages I agree with in the case of "Thirteen Ways" would require copying out so much of it that it could get ridiculous. Not available on Kindle, either, so the stuff actually has to be re-typed.


-- Jane Smiley, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel" (2005)

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