I delivered these remarks to introduce the writer Jane Smiley at the Lone Mountain Reading Series, held at the University of San Francisco on March 2, 2011. I'm printing them here by request.
All writers need models, not just the ones we admire from history but the ones who walk among us, living the writing-life we aspire to. Tonight I’m very happy to be able to say a few words about a writer who has been such a model for me.
I first encountered Jane Smiley’s fiction as perhaps many of us did, with her breakout 1992 novel A Thousand Acres. I was at that time getting serious about writing, and I went to see Ms. Smiley read at Three Lives Bookstore in the West Village of Manhattan. Three Lives is one of those small wood-paneled stores with indirect lighting that smell like chamomile tea. It was crowded, I sat on the floor, and I listened as she read a series of passages describing the Iowa prairie, the thousand-acres upon which the story took place. She evoked the novel not with a chunk of the plot but with a string of images, opening my eyes to the symbiosis between landscape and story—an early lesson for me in how a place could operate like a character in fiction, alive with active verbs and insistent adjectives. Alive with language.
Language for Smiley is insistently precise, peppered with humor, always demanding your attention. No matter where or what she writes about, I find myself caring an awful lot.
If you only know A Thousand Acres, you’ve got some catching up to do. She’s written a dozen books since then. You need to read her novella, The Age of Grief, in which the marriage between a husband and wife, both dentists, falls apart over the course of six weeks and the husband, our narrator, only 35 years old, tells us:
"It seems to me I have arrived at the age of grief…[when]…the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down, after all—all that schooling, all that care…[and] we think, if they were feeling what we were feeling, how could they stand it?"
You need to read Moo, the very funny campus satire which observes of a fictional university:
"The collection of stone buildings had evolved into a web of offices where secretaries sat under bright lights, and near them, much more dimly, sat administrators whose grasp on things was tenuous at best. The secretaries were connected by computer. The only people who talked on the phone anymore were the administrators, whose whole lives, like those of chimps, were made up of nit-picking, stroking, and jockeying for dominance."
And you definitely need to read Horse Heaven, which is what Tolstoy might have written if he’d had a sense of humor and a passion for Thoroughbreds. This novel is expansive and humane and full of insight into the relationship-dynamics up and down the rungs of professional horse racing, which turns out to be an economic and social system so intricate and storied it might as well be the Russian aristocracy. You could call Horse Heaven the Great American Racetrack Novel. Or you could just call it great.
Many of you have read—if you've taken a class with me—13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. It’s a historical survey, an examination of the craft of novel writing and also a kind of moral boost for writers—not so much a how-to as a why-you-must. In it she offers a brief memoir of her attempt, in the wake of 9/11, to overcome writers block by sitting down to read 100 novels in a year.
(I only managed to read 55 books last year, and I was really, really trying.)
But that’s part of what has made Jane Smiley a model to me. She seems to push her intellectual inquiry further, and her curiosity deeper, than so many of contemporary writers bother to go.
I was reminded again of this when she appeared last week on Oprah talking about A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Smiley wrote a biography of Charles Dickens—among everything else—and she talked about Dickens as a writer of “extreme states of mind.” She compared Madame Defarge to an abused child—oppressed not necessarily by her family but by a corrupt culture—something that you could see opened up the book all over again for the Oprah audience.
One senses that Jane Smiley cares about her audience, which is certainly related to what makes her such an inspiration. I’m very pleased to be in the audience tonight, to hear her read and answer our questions.
After this Smiley read from her latest novel, Private Life, and then took questions from the audience.