Saturday, July 22, 2006

There's more to life than books, you know

Writers hate getting stuck. Most drink tea. Some take to the bottle. Others go for long walks. A few give up altogether.
Those left write blogs.

Sophie Ratcliffe continues her review of Jane Smiley's study 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel with the background to the author's stuckness. It began after 9/11: "Fear was everywhere. Fear of anthrax, fear of nuclear terrorism, fear of flying, fear of the future." And fear of writing novels? Well, despair perhaps. To mitigate the condition, Smiley decided to read 100 novels and try to distil their essence. "Her broadest claim" Ratcliffe reports "is for the novel’s commonness". Commoness "enables a reader to relax with a novel as with another person, and also to feel as though the novelist might have something to say of relevance to the reader’s common life."

Overall, Ratcliffe finds Smiley's ideas grandiose and programmatic. Not only that but the book as a whole is "symptomatic of the worst aspects of the criticism of our climate: it sees novel-reading as a sort of salvation."

It is indeed odd to imagine salvation coming through relaxation and hearing something of relevance to one's life. Unless that something is the distance between oneself and another, and between oneself and salvation (distances which are equally common as Smiley's commonness). Perhaps that wouldn't be relaxing to the majority of readers though, because then reading would be vital rather than sedative. It is easier to turn to tea, the bottle or a long walk. Some people don't read at all. In each of these, however, not reading is no different to reading (just as graphomania is no different to writer's block); salvation comes through ignorance of the question itself.

Ratcliffe contrasts Smiley's grandiosity with Michael Dirda's "brilliant" Book by Book: Notes on reading and life:
He makes suggestions for what to put in a guest bedroom bookshelf, shares the quotations that he keeps around his desk, and reminds us that flossing our teeth is just as important as reading. 'There’s more to life than reading', he points out.
Yes. But not much more.


  1. Books about books... What I found interesting about Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree was not his defiantly middlebrow views about the books themselves (his loathing for critics is amusing to start with, but we tire rapidly) but his ideas about reading itself. Each chapter begins with a list of books read and books bought. The Quixotic task of reconciling the two (art vs commerce?) is something I understand only too well.

  2. Yes, just imagine. In tomorrow's world perhaps we can eliminate life altogether, and just have the books - electronic, of course. But wait a minute - we've already got...

  3. Anonymous9:00 am

    Stephen, I just started in on the 13 Ways book and got a bit annoyed with it, so decided to search here and see what you had to say about it. I'm relieved to hear other people had problems as well...I read the intro, found Chapter 1 to be full of generalisations, then hit bumps here and there whilst skipping around it quickly. However her summary of her reading of The Great Gatsby made me throw it down in disgust. 100 pages longer???Underdeveloped? Who IS this person? She lost me with that.



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