Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Many Pleasures of the Novel

I've been devouring 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, and marking it up like a Bible for its densely packed gems of clear critical insights and unapologetic opinions. The book is the fruit of a process Smiley underwent of reading 100 novels, ranging across centuries, cultures, and styles. She's got me salivating. I want to do the same thing -- make a very deliberate selection of acclaimed, significant, diverse, groundbreaking titles and read them in both a curricular and a personal fashion. 100. Why not? Once I finish poring over this book. And get my life in order. And deadlines met. Sigh.

Jane Smiley is the first author I ever met. Ever laid eyes on. I was a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (or was I a junior?), and I'd won an essay contest at school. Smiley was invited in as the author who gave an address at the awards ceremony, then handed each of us our award certificates and envelopes containing checks with the award money. (I totally entered for laundry quarters.) I thought her reading (from Moo) and remarks were interesting, but I remember a twinge of disappointment that when I met her, she was a normal human, like me. Both of us had to choose, reluctantly, what to wear that day. Both of us felt vaguely awkward at the ceremonial requirement that we shake hands on a stage and she hand me a paper. I think I wanted her to have a visible, glowing authorial aura. Perhaps the discovery that she didn't was a step on my path toward thinking, heck, maybe I could write a book, too.

Reading 13 Ways unveiled the aura in all its luminosity. I'm mesmerized by the flow of her insights into the novel, at the precision of her thinking, and by both the profundity and the obvious validity of her multifaceted perspectives on this thing I've always loved and now devoted my career to. Am I gushing?  I don't care.

On page 86, Smiley catalogs a long list of the "many pleasures a novelist has to offer" (slight paraphrase).  I reached for my notebook to write them down and mull upon them. I don't presume she meant her list to be exhaustive. In any case I found myself listing a few additional pleasures, meaningful to me, that weren't listed. I hope they're distinct from those that are already there. And I wondered, gentle readers, what have I missed? What other pleasures do you take in books that don't appear on the Smiley-Berry list? (Egads.)

Jane Smiley's List of Pleasures to be Found in the the Novel:

  1. the unusual pleasure of the exotic 
  2. the intellectual pleasure of historical understanding
  3. the humane pleasure of psychological insight into one or more characters
  4. the simple pleasure of entertainment and suspense
  5. the exuberant pleasure of laughter and trickery
  6. the guilty pleasure of gossip
  7. the tempting pleasure of secrecy and intimacy
  8. the confessional pleasure of acknowledged sin and attempted redemption
  9. the polemical pleasure of indignation
  10. the rigorous pleasure of intellectual analysis
  11. the reassuring pleasure of identifying with one's nation or people
  12. the vicarious pleasure of romance

Her use of descriptive adjectives is strategic here; we'd have a much weaker grasp on what she's trying to say the novel actually does in our human brains if we merely listed the pleasures without hinting at what they do to us.

Here are few more that occurred to me as I took my diligent school-girl notes.

Julie Berry's Addenda to Jane Smiley's List of Pleasures

  1. the sensual pleasure of place and atmosphere
  2. the emotion-coloring pleasures of mood
  3. the romantic pleasures of bucolic nature, heroism, idealism, and social simplicity
  4. the nostalgic pleasure of a remembered past 
  5. the subversive pleasure of lunacy and nonsense
  6. the deductive pleasure of puzzle-solving, code-breaking, and mystery-unraveling
  7. the existential pleasure of nothingness, the vertigo of eroded ego in a vast, unfeeling cosmos
  8. the cynical pleasure of irony
  9. the erotic pleasure of horror
  10. the spectator pleasures of vicariously but safely experiencing violence and combat
  11. the aesthetic pleasure of savoring any literary excellence found therein
  12. the therapeutic pleasure or catharsis of release, identification, and/or empathy
  13. the obsessive pleasure of infatuation with a character or a group of them 

It's not a bad gig, really, being in the business of offering a platter of pleasures to readers the world over. I can think of worse jobs.

I'm neither judging nor sneering at any of these pleasures. All are valid and available. Have I overlapped? Have I strayed off the rails? What pleasures have I missed?


  1. Oh lovely. I may not be a novelist, but I am a fan of novelists everywhere, of their works, and books in general. I think you are right when you say "the nostalgic pleasure of remembered past." That is my favorite...when a book helps me remember parts of myself.

    Hey, btw, I am still rooting for THE PASSION OF DOLSSA and hope it wins the PRINTZ award this year. It seems I am not alone. Head over to SOMEDAY MY PRINTZ WILL COME and chack out the voting!

    1. Oh wow! Thanks for letting me know. And thank you!