Jane Smiley, Narrative, and a Healthy Dose of Self-Doubt

For a few months now, I’ve been picking up and putting down Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. Yesterday, after ruminating on this list of what I read in 2018, and after filling many, many journal pages about this week’s revision goals, I returned again to Thirteen Ways and clicked with something Smiley says in the second chapter, in response to E. M. Forster’s disdain for readers who read for suspense, for “what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art”—i.e., “what happened then?”

Narratives are as common as prose; they are the way humans have chosen to pack together events and emotions, happenings in the world and how they make us feel…. 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…. and because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It…is, therefore, depending on one’s political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.

It’s that last line that got me. I texted it to a handful of friends who, like me and with me, have been struggling with and debating the merits of so-called “experimental” fiction. A few of us had been lured to the University of Utah’s Ph.D. program by the idea that, finally, we could write how we write and our peers would know how to read our work on its own terms, analyze it, and workshop it productively. A consequence, for instance, of being a verse novelist in a poetry M.F.A. program—which I loved, to be clear—was that I only ever got to workshop up to a few pages/poems at a time. Imagine being in a fiction workshop and needing to pick 1-3 pages from your story or novel to bring in. This is not to say, though, that my lines didn’t get sharper as a result of those same poetry workshops. So anyway, when I was accepted and came to Utah to visit and sat in on a workshop, I knew I’d finally be able to feel like a writer at home in the world among like-beaked friends. A weirdo among weirdos. But then I got here and dove into a comprehensive education on literary history that helped me to bigger-picture contextualize all those seemingly one-off topical literature courses I’d taken in my B.A. and M.A., and by the time my comprehensive exams were behind me I confirmed for myself my long-building suspicion that my definition of “experimental” had been limited, that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the Classics taught earned the honorific for being, in their own historical moments, wonderfully experimental in their own ways, breaking from traditions and conventions of their day. And some of us, I won’t name names, fell in love with some of those so-called “conventional” novels. Questioned our own writing and began to think less of our own “experiments,” realizing how derivative and egotistical we could seem in a single swoop. As I said above, we are struggling—all still committed to being weirdos, but far less assuredly. And so I texted:

I’m reading Jane Smiley and she argues that popular novels don’t insist on a hierarchy of readership, don’t exclude any kinds of readers (people who just want a good story, etc) and depending on who you are, you either view such novels as “perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.” I like that.

And the responses I got were: “Same!” and “Me too!” and “I like it a lot,” etc.

As someone with six-figure student-loan debt, who is just a few months shy of holding four college degrees (which feel as if they are the minimum qualifications to be eligible for employment), I am at this moment living on a fellowship that I’m grateful for even though it’s not enough to cover basic living expenses and daily it seems I’m watching my credit card debt rise while my credit score falls. This fellowship relieves me from teaching, which really means it just frees me up to take on more side hustles (one of which is teaching), all of which are necessary for future employment and over half of which are non-paying—coaching veterans, reading scholarship applications and serving on other campus committees, reading for and judging literary contests, blurbing books, reviewing books, selecting and editing and publishing others’ books while trying to write my own, traveling to other cities for readings and talks and conferences, assistant editing for a peer-reviewed academic journal, tutoring in the community, teaching in the community, and even flipping clothes online (which is the most lucrative of the above but can be the most time-consuming). It’s not the service I mind. I want to do it. But I’m also not rolling my eyes when I read about “millennial burnout” or nonwhite burnout or “dead black batteries,” or another young writer out there who says she just wanted to try to write the kind of novel that could lead to a living writing books—the kind of novel that sells. Which, now that I’ve found Smiley’s language for it, seems slightly less shameful. The kind of novel that sells because it does not willfully exclude.