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Why Fiction Matters

The Drip Drip Drip of Another Consciousness

Photo of Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley

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Last night, I dreamed about my novel Ten Days In the Hills, not one of my best received, but certainly one that I enjoyed writing. My inspiration was Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic The Decameron, in which ten young Florentines escape for a weekend in the country at the time of the Black Death, and its emotional sources ran deep. When I was a child I was obsessed with the end of the world (thank you, Cold War), and in 9th grade I discovered, and wrote my thesis, on the Black Death (Buboes! Alive at breakfast and dead by dinner! Piles of bodies rotting in the streets of Europe, where I had never been!). In college, I saw “The Seventh Seal” five nights in a row, and it is still one of my favorite movies. Boccaccio, though, focused not on death but on life, and I loved the humor and risqué language that he used even though I knew that his ten storytellers each had a one in three chance of dying when they went back to Florence after their vacation. I also knew that they had lived for centuries beyond themselves, in one edition after another.

When I awakened from my dream, I thought about my novel and remembered a few of the incidents, six that I stole from Boccaccio, some that I made up, others that I constructed out of old anecdotes I had overheard or gossiped about. My novel is set in Hollywood in the opening days of March, 2003, and I felt when I wrote it that it was daring—not as much for the vast quantities of graphic sex as for the archaic form, a story collection without much plot, and for the evident rage I was expressing about the Iraq War. And Hollywood! Whoever takes Hollywood seriously? After it came out, I remember sitting at a party in LA with an older woman who lived in Hollywood and was in the know. I said, “Oh, I wrote a book about Hollywood.” She said, “I read it.” That was all. Hmm.

So I cannot say that success is why I write. Or making friends and influencing people. When I am reminded of Ten Days in the Hills, what I think of is incidents and lines—my rewrite of a Boccaccio story with Henry Miller as the protagonist, my image of Zoe, the movie-star-getting-older, when she wakes up from an impromptu nap and wonders if the man sleeping beside her is the woodsman or the wolf, the view of the Getty Museum out the windows of the upper story of the house where I set the first part of the novel, the chill that ran over and through me when I picked up The New Yorker at LAX and saw that John Updike had reviewed it. And then there is the fact that I gave myself the opportunity to have my say about a war that I detested and still detest, that I left a record of what I remembered about that transition from one era (let’s say the modern era) to another (let’s say the decline and fall), just as The Decameron marks the change between the medieval era and the modern era.

I also knew that they had lived for centuries beyond themselves, in one edition after another.

A few months after I first read The Decameron, I discovered a book I had never even heard of, The Heptameron, Marguerite of Navarre’s 1540s update of Boccaccio, a book not as famous, but perhaps more influential, in its way, because through a novel that grew out of The Heptameron, Madame De Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, the modern novel was born, and with it the growing and developing portrayal of the inner lives of women. If women in the West are accorded some agency, some independence of thought, some selfness, then we owe this at least in part to these authors but also to Madame de Stael, Susanna Rowson, Jane Austen, Fanny Trollope, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and all the others who expressed themselves at length, who gave their readers a prolonged acquaintance with the female inner life.

Whether my project is going well or badly, I love writing a novel. I love the moment the idea first hits—for A Thousand Acres, it was somewhere on the I-35 just south of the Minnesota-Iowa border, sometime in March, 1989. The weather was wet and the clouds hung low. The landscape was level and sinister. I knew something about the landscape—flattened in the last ice age, swampy until immigrants from the eastern counties of England came in the 19th century and drained it by means of deep wells that ran into the aquifer. That project went well—King Lear was my model, and fitting my setting and characters to it fascinated me, even though I found the darkness of the plot uncongenial. More delightful was Moo, the comic companion to A Thousand Acres, also set in ag lands, but at a Land Grant university. I loved my characters, especially my hog and my students named Mary, Sherri, Keri, and Diane; I loved my Marxist horticulture professor and my jokes—no one laughed at them as much as I did. After that one, I aspired to the writing life of P.G. Wodehouse, but I didn’t have it in me. I even loved the project that didn’t go well, Private Life, my 2010 novel about a nice Midwestern girl married to a crackpot who thinks Einstein can’t possibly know what he is talking about. Rewriting it was torture, but compelling torture—I couldn’t make it work, but I had to make it work. I went way beyond the deadline (good students do not do this) but in the end, it did work, at least according to end-of-the-year best novel lists belonging to various respected news outlets. I love it the way some people love puzzles or solitaire or Sudoku. I love it because I cannot not solve the puzzle that is made of so many words, so many thoughts, so many ideas and scenes and feelings flowing together and carrying me along for hour after hour. To a novelist, 900 pages feels just about right for communicating a few ideas.

Of course I also love reading novels—lately Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero, and Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy and a lost treasure, Mór Jókai’s A Hungarian Nabob. The world of the novel is full of lost treasures, and out of every single one of them pops a voice and a consciousness and a world narrowly observed that in most cases is gone forever. Novels are built for pleasure. I can stop reading whenever I want to, and the writer knows this and so draws me on and on with this twist and that twist (Vargas Llosa is especially adept at this), this insight and that insight, this landscape and that landscape (Bánffy’s great talent).

But so what?

Various writers have proclaimed the death of the novel many times—most recently that death has been tied to the death of publishing as we know it and the rise of Amazon, the ebook, and the nano-sized attention spans of the younger generation. Personally, I don’t quite believe it, even though my publisher once filled 26 floors of a building in New York, and now has shrunk down to 13 floors. Partly, I don’t believe it because for most of its history, novels have appealed to a relatively small audience—those who could read, those who could afford books, those who had the time to spend on books. Maybe Charles Dickens inaugurated the era of the bestseller and the celebrity author, but his best sales platform was not the lending library, as Jane Austen’s had been, but the magazine. He always published in either monthly or weekly installments, and he changed the shape of his narrative if sales fell. Long before I ever read my first Bobbsey Twins book, Dickens’ model had collapsed. In the 1930s and 1940s, formulaic hack novels whose authors wrote under pseudonyms were a healthy part of the fiction market—one of my favorite souvenirs from that period is a horseracing novel with a screaming woman and a gun on the cover entitled Win, Lose, or Die! According to author Chris Offutt, whose father made a good living writing hack porn, it was movies, video, and TV that destroyed that market.

The novel is not like any other form of art. It takes up a subject, makes use of a voice and exposes us to that subject and that voice for hours on end. If we want to, we can immerse ourselves in a subject and/or a voice endlessly, by reading one book over and over, by reading series of books, by reading all the books of a single author, by reading many books about a single subject. We can zip through Agatha Christie or we can toil through Ulysses, we can read through “100 Best” lists or rummage in the attic, keep up with bestsellers and Goodreads favorites. What we seek, I think, is the drip drip drip of another consciousness into our own, a set of images we could not imagine without those words, a gallery of worlds we may never have actually seen, but feel we have seen because an author has portrayed them.

This week, my undergraduate novel class has been working on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. There are about eighty students in the class, and maybe half of them swore that they had actually read it, but only a handful understood it. Was it the dialect? Was it the dramatic nature of the action? A hurricane, rabies—these are things none of my students has ever experienced (I asked them). Hurston’s novel did not go over well, even though I love it and tried to be enthusiastic enough to bring them along. But I believe that they got something out of it, just as I got something out of reading Oliver Twist when I was in seventh grade. I did not know at the time why Oliver could not have a second helping of porridge, but an image of him holding up his bowl and being denied and punished still exists in my mind along with a few other images from Dickens’ vivid world, partly figure and partly color, but mostly feeling—sadness, fear, a sense of strangeness like a flavor that has to be tried over and over because it is so complex.

There are lots of reasons why I love Hurston’s novel—I love Janie’s wish to be her own person, I love the imperfection of the true companion she does find, I love the constant gossip of the people who live in her world, I love Hurston’s voice, part magical and part realistic, I love the drama of the plot and the sense of danger that follows Janie from her earliest years. I love that Hurston was observant and independent, and I love that her novel was lost and then found. I want a few images to linger in the minds of my students, and I want them to maybe call those images back someday when they are better equipped to understand what Hurston was getting at. Novels are always present as you read them, always the center of the world. You are there. But what I especially value about Hurston’s novel is that my students were free to like it or not, to understand it or not, to be taken along on Janie’s journey or to be left behind. All week long, as they read the novel, they experienced freedom and choice, and so they experienced a version of what Janie herself strove for, of what Zora Neale Hurston considered to be the highest good. I cannot believe that humans, even engineers and computer nerds, can do without that experience.

It is also true that the novel has a psychological effect and a political effect, both of which I think are positive. The psychological effect is empathy, which I define not as agreeing with a character or feeling his pain (that I define as sympathy), but rather as understanding a character’s point of view. Next week, my students will discuss A Tale of Two Cities, and one thing we will talk about is how we understand not only the sympathetic characters, but also the unsympathetic ones, like Madame Defarge and Mr. Stryver. Dickens excelled at getting into the heads of bad guys, showing us how their minds were working as they chose to do evil—one of my favorites is Mr. Carker the Manager, in Dombey and Son, a man who never stops smiling or scheming, and is eventually killed by a train. Other 19th century authors learned to do this, too, and the effect on readers is that we see that everyone has a point of view, including poor people, bad people, women, and animals (see Black Beauty). We cannot repeatedly experience seeing the world from another point of view and understanding what that feels like without expanding our own sense of who deserves respect and who deserves autonomy.

A book is a virus, passed from hand to hand, taken in and processed by the individual, who feels it altering his or her system, infecting his or her thoughts and memories, giving him or her a sense of something alien, asking him or her to accept that alien sense or reject it.

The political effect grows out of the psychological effect—readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin realized that slavery was wrong and painful, that slaves didn’t want to be slaves and would court great danger to escape. Readers of Black Beauty realized that horses should be fed, cared for, and not overworked. Readers of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening understood that she was upending the patriarchal social contract, and that the 20th century would be something completely new in the history of male-female relationships. A novel can be a powerful friend, ally, or enemy, as the history of banned books, and the readers who read them in secret, shows. And all readers read in secret. A book is a virus, passed from hand to hand, taken in and processed by the individual, who feels it altering his or her system, infecting his or her thoughts and memories, giving him or her a sense of something alien, asking him or her to accept that alien sense or reject it. In her essay about reading Dickens as a young child, Alice Munro characterizes this as “a private vision of what I was reading about—unexpected, incommunicable, painfully exciting.” But even if a book is rejected, the reader can never quite get rid of it, just as I still have memories of images from Treasure Island, a book I was assigned in seventh grade and read because I was a good student, but forever disliked.

Novels open up our inner life and make it more complex. With luck, they make us both passionate about what we believe in, and understanding of those we don’t agree with. What will my students think of A Tale of Two Cities? Will they shed a tear when they realize that Miss Pross’s run-in with Madame Defarge has deafened her (I have read this book five times and am not immune to this moment)? Will they be shocked at Dickens’ depiction of French life before the Revolution, at the authentic grievances of the peasants and the city-dwellers who see their children trampled by Monseigneur’s horses and get a gold coin but not the least apology? Will they note the similarities between Monseigneur and some of the One-Percenters we see in our world? The similarities between the excesses of the 18th century French revolutionaries and the 20th century Russians, Chinese, and others? Will they be struck by the echoes of violence portrayed and predicted? Will they be moved by Sydney Carton’s self-sacrifice, or perhaps given pause by his dissolute younger life and his resulting self-knowledge? Or will the elaborate language bewilder them, the melodramatic characters leave them cold? What I love about every novel is that it is imperfect and draws us in anyway, makes us feel and see and know, makes us want to read another, makes other art forms seem a little too quick, a little too self-contained. The novel molds itself to us, and in doing so, molds the world.

About the Author

Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley’s most recent novel, published in April 2015, is Early Warning, which is the second volume of a trilogy entitled The Last Hundred Years. The final volume, Golden Age, will be out on October 20, 2015.

Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992; her novel The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton won the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1987. Her novel Horse Heaven was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002, and her novel, Private Life, was chosen as one of the best books of 2010 by The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post.

She has written several works of nonfiction, including Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and The Man Who Invented the Computer. She has also published five volumes of a horse series for young adults, “The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch.”