I'm pretty sure I would find much with which to disagree in Jane Smiley's new book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I found her argument a few years ago about the superiority of Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, to be wholly unconvincing. However, Ellen Heltzel's review of the book is a little hard to take.
Athough she allows that Thirteen Ways "is hardly without merits," Heltzel's ultimate judgment is that "in its long and discursive form, [it] lacks pep and the intellectual rigor that could have made it exceptional."
Huh? It lacks both "pep" and "intellectual rigor"? Isn't the presence of the former usually at the expense of the other? Is this just a careless way of dismissing a book the reviewer didn't like, or is she arguing that a book with "intellectual rigor" might also be peppy? It's hard to conclude that Heltzel really thinks the book lacks rigor, since elsewhere she calls it "dry," "a book that contains lots of information," and one that reflects "a highly refined taste, not a welcome to all comers." That it is "long and discursive" itself suggests that Heltzel's problem with the book is that it has too much "intellectual rigor" rather than otherwise.
A little later Heltzel paraphrases Smiley's argument that "novels themselves don't send readers to the ramparts. . .but they create the psychological conditions that do," and then comments that "her reasoning seems less convincing than insular. What of Beethoven and Wagner, not to mention Edward Albee and Arthur Miller? Has Smiley spent too much time at the English department water cooler?"
Once more: Huh? When did Beethoven or Edward Albee ever send people "to the ramparts"? How did I miss that? How is it insular to suggest that it is the role of serious fiction first to be art rather than rabble-rousing? And even though the work of Wagner has been used for (unforeseen) political purposes and Miller's plays are often politically engaged, how much real political change ensues from a performance of a Wagner opera or of The Crucible?
Heltzel voices what seems to be her true objection to Smiley's book at the very end of the review:
. . .Thoughtful and informed, her responses are studied, not impassioned.
Here again, the teacher in Smiley trumps the advocate. "Thirteen Ways" is definitely a book that appeals to the mind, not the heart.
One would think that Heltzel might have concluded simply from the book's title that this is precisely a book resulting from "study" rather than "passion." I can't really see that it is a flaw in the book she has actually written that "the teaher in Smiley trumps the advocate." There are times when a "teacherly" book--that is a work of serious literary criticism--is preferable to a polemic. (And vice-versa: Why can't we have both?) And what can it mean to admit that Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is "thoughtful and informed," but to then condemn it because it "appeals to the mind, not the heart"? Is reading fiction only an exercise in emotional outpouring? Is there no room for contemplative literary criticism? Is there any other kind?