Monday, January 04, 2010

Writers on Reading

Jane Smiley

We all love to read writers on writing. When do they write? Do they write by hand or prefer a computer? Do they sip coffee or Diet Coke as they write?

When it comes to writers on reading, we’re more ambivalent. Nonetheless, it's fascinating. Two of my favorite leftist writers, Storm Jameson and Jane Smiley, have very different perspectives - the former from the early-to-mid-twentieth century, the latter late 20th-to-early 21st century - but their relationships with books are equally intense.

Storm Jameson’s enthusiasm for reading is startling and spectacular. Jameson, the author of None Turn Back (the second of a trilogy), one of my favorite leftist novels, writes in her autobiography, Journey from the North, Volume I (PFD publishing), about her difficulties growing up: a moody mother, no social skills, and intense ambition set her apart from other girls. She was a precocious student, taking one Cambridge exam a year from the time she was 13. She writes vividly of her quickness and photographic memory.

“I read extraordinarily fast, taking in three or four lines at a glance - as I still do. I learned the whole of The Lady of the Lake, Marmion, Henry V, the first book of Paradise Lost, pages of Macaulay, of Biblical commentary... On the long walk to and from school, I kept a book open, reading and muttering. For that matter, I read everything that came under my eye, from perniciously bad novels - pernicious to anyone, poison to a future writer - to the Encyclopedia I stole paragraphs from for my essays.”

Yes, she’s brilliant, as is Smiley.

Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel received much attention and praise when it was published in 2005. It was a good book of its kind: she expatiated on the origins, psychology, morality, and art of the novel. At the end of the book she includes two-and-a-half-page critiques of 100 novels she read in preparation for the book. Smiley introduced me to a novel I’d never heard of (recently reissued): Jetta Carleton’s only novel, The Moonflower Vine, set on a farm in Missouri in the first half of the 20th century, the story of a patriarch's effect on his wife and daughters.

Smiley is always a clear and elegant writer. She writes succinctly, “A novel is an experience, but the experience takes place within the boundaries of writing, prose, length, narrative, and protagonist.”

I admit I skipped around the book and sometimes marveled yea, sometimes said I don’t care, but I was fascinated by the introduction and the short essays about books. Oddly, one of the things that stuck with me was a misconception. I thought she had said she read 40 pages an hour. What she actually said was:

“Most novels run 300 to 400 pages, or 100,000 to 175,000 words. If a competent reader can read 30 or 40 pages in an hour - that is, 12,000 to 20,000 words - then most novels take ten hours to read.”

In Chapter 13, “Reading a Hundred Novels,” she writes,

“My first idea was to read 275 novels, but I am a slow reader. It took me almost a month to read Anna Karenina and almost another month to read Moby-Dick, and I decided that anyway, there was not much more to be learned about the nature of the novel from 275 novels than there was from 100 novels (and after all, what with novels I read on the side for fun and for work, the final tally for three years of novel-reading would be closer to 130 than 100).”

It comes as a relief to know she might spend a month reading Anna K. She understates her expertise a bit so we don't know she's a genius - she's an authority, but not an alien. Unlike Jameson, who boasts about her speed, Smiley talks it down a bit - maybe because her book on novels is not an autobiography but an attempt to talk about novels to a layman in a personal way.


Ellen said...

I never finished Jameson's book but did love it as far as I'd gone. I felt her idealism came from having been sheltered the way young English girls can be. I've learned over my life that little reform gets anywhere, but I never did believe any world change would happen, much less by me and any friends.

Smiley: I love some of her books. I dipped again and again into 13 ways. I loved her defense of good characters. And that photo is just marvelous.


Frisbee said...

I was VERY young when I believed the world would change, and too young to participate in anything but anti-war marches. But I still remember people who sat through meetings of the New University Conference, participated in women's consciousness raising groups, and formed collectives or communes. They believed they could make change of some kind, and so they did, even if temporarily.

There was, however, always a cynicism. They believed they could go so far and no farther - except for the fanatics.

I agree that Jameson's idealism seems very unworldly. She obviously didn't have as much experience in her 20s as her counterpart today did.

But looking back, she still seems to think her generation could have done it! And that's odd, or maybe a bit cranky.

I love the book, though