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October 2016

Why isn't Jane Smiley more famous?

GoldenAge-JaneSmileyThis is the question LitHub contributor Rumaan Alam asks, in a slightly more convoluted way: "Why wasn't Great American Novelist on the Cover of a Magazine?" (and if you care about literature you absolutely have to read LitHub.) The subtitle is: "Rumaan Alam on how we still judge women writers by a different standard." I don't know if it's true, but having recently finished the third part of Smiley's trilogy The Last Hundred Years (A Family Sage): Golden Age, there is no doubt in my mind that she is an infinitely better writer than, say, Garth Risk Hallberg, who received a two million dollar advance for his 900-page debut novel City on Fire, which I reviewed here. And I liked Hallberg's novel enough, except that his characters never had a clear want that would've compelled me to turn the page so that I read it for his wonderful sense of detail but with no interest in what happened to his cast.

By comparison, Smiley's trilogy has a total of 1,200 pages, and while it is maddeningly difficult to keep track of who is who among her clan members at times, they come to life on the page as real individuals who like some of their relatives, dislike others, backstab, lie, face grief, lend an ear, and go through so much in the space of a century - with each year being devoted one chapter - that one can only be in awe by Smiley's tour-de-force. To put things in perspective, Margaret Mitchell only wrote Gone with the Wind. Smiley has written 14 novels, including Pulitzer-Prize winning A Thousand Acres (and also short story collections, nonfiction books and young adult novels). 

Her trilogy is anchored in the times her characters live in, displaying a remarkable level of knowledge on recent history (and specialized topics such as Iowa farming, where Smiley is helped by the time she spent on the faculty at the University of Iowa). This makes her book better than another book recently praised to the skies by the publisher gods, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Again, like Hallberg's, Yanagihara's book is quite a good book, but although it is set in New York City it is not grounded in the times where the protagonists live, maybe in a misguided attempt to be timeless, and so it falls short of being the Great American Novels marketers said it was when it first came out.   

When it comes to craftmanship, plot, subplots, arc development, character growth, sensory details - when it comes to anything of relevance to writing good fiction, in fact, Smiley beats all those younger writers hands down. I was simply stunned by her ambition and her mastery. It is a rare writer who sets herself such a high goal and is able to pull it off. So why are the younger writers the ones everyone talks about? 

Alam argues it has something to do with being a woman writer, but Yanagihara is a woman writer too. So I'll venture another reason: the books that gather the most publicity, whether warranted or otherwise, are the ones about New York City. For the publishing world, most of which is based in NYC, it seems that the Great American Novel has to be about NYC. And then when they find something that fits the bill, they scream their head off (through outsized marketing budgets) that they have found it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least in terms of attention and sales. (Hallberg's sales are said to have been disappointing but that is only relative when you have to make up a multi-million-dollar advance - as of December 2015, this New York Times article mentions 30,000 copies sold in hardcover, which a lot of writers would find a very honorable number.)

Apparently, farmers in Iowa (and their progeny, who scatters across the US) don't fit the bill for the publishers-approved Great American Novel label, which is curious, since farming has played such a key role in the U.S. history and of the 320 million of people living in the U.S. as of 2014, only 20 million live in metro NYC. Of course, there is an element of calculation involved in publishers' labels: Jane Smiley is, after all, Jane Smiley: Pulitzer-Prize winner, highly established, very well respected, an icon of literature. The newcomers who write a novel about NYC as their first or second book, like Hallberg or Yanagihara, need more help to get their names out. Still, it annoys me that Smiley's masterpiece isn't the one creating all the buzz this year, and I keep going back to Alam's article, asking myself: would a male writer of Smiley's age and reputation have received more attention, more reviews in the press, greater word-of-mouth? Yet, it is only a side issue. The fact of the matter is, Smiley is a writer who dares tackle big issues rather than chick lit, writes about war, death, politics, betrayal, ambition, grief, and she is an inspiration to those of us who want novels to be about more than beach reads - who want novels to be as important in understanding our world than the best-researched nonfiction. What a great writer she is.

Book Review: "City on Fire" vs "Emperor's Children"

CityOnFireI'm reading City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a debut novel about New York City in the late 1970s, famous both for its 2-million-dollar advance and its 900-page length. It's been described as the "it" novel of the year and received a glowing review in the New York Times but also less enthusiastic reviews, especially because of its length, in other outlets such as NPR and the New York Review of Books. I'm only about a third in (that's 300 pages or a full book length) but so far I both actually like the book and understand why people find it flawed. Hallberg's love of language shines through with incredibly vivid prose and pitch-perfect choice of details. His setting is breathtakingly ambitious: he chose an ensemble cast, which he follows over several months leading to the Great Blackout of the summer of 1977 (changing POVs in different chapters). He is a knack for making characters come alive that writers like me find outright inspirational. But it is also very slow-moving with no compelling goal for the characters. We just follow them and admire the prose and learn about the late 1970s in New York City. It is a book I may pick up again if I want to brush up on 3rd person limited point-of-view or learn more vocabulary, but not to re-read a scene that particularly moved me. The book is technically dazzling but emotionally flat. 

I am reminded of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, which I find to suffer from the same flaws. And I am among the few people who actually liked that book, although the ending was wrong and emotionally tone-deaf (the events of September 11, 2001 bring to light a husband's affair since he was supposed to be out of town, although he was really meeting his mistress, but all the flights are cancelled after the attacks and so he walks back to his home, where his wife [if I remember correctly] opens the door). Messud was pilloried for the way she used September 11, and detractors had a point, although that part of the novel is very short - the novel is almost over by then. But I remember marveling at the texture of her descriptions, the use of sensory details, her ability to conjure a real world in front of our eyes. Her characters weren't particularly inspiring (they did have stronger goals than Hallberg's but they were also a bit self-centered) but they were interesting enough until close to the end. The Emperor's Children also had been touted as something akin to the Great American Novel when it appeared - until then Messud had published in indie presses, short books, small print runs. Then she tackled New York City at a critical point of its history and fame followed.

Messud's publisher went for a very large print run off the bat, if I remember correctly, generating a buzz. Similarly, Hallberg's advance was bound to raise eyebrows. Other books that have received a very large amount of media attention in recent years include The Flamethrowers (very good overall, and with a heroine with strong goals) and A Little Life (I haven't read it but it's on my bookshelves - it is supposed to be the best of the lot). They are all novels in and about New York City, although Flamethrowers also has chapters in Italy. I suppose the predominance of NYC in novels praised to the sky by book marketers is to be expected since so much of the publishing industry is located in NYC, but really, there is life and civilization outside New York. People outside NY even have goals and ambition, imagine that. There are plenty of really good stories to be told about the non-NY part of the United States, if anyone cares. Let me venture the possibility that there could be a Great American Novel set outside New York. (And my novels aren't set in the United States so I'm not competing in that race, for the record.) Yet, marketers seem to always praise highly novels about New York City (not just set in New York City, but novels that have the city as a key character), and readers invariably seem to want different things, such as plot and pace and character development. But neither marketers nor readers change their way, so I suppose there's an equilibrium in there, of hope and disappointment and never-ending wait for the Great American Novel of our times. In the meantime, you can re-read John Dos Passos's American Trilogy (1200 pages of the Great American Novel of the 1910s-20s in three books. Maybe if Hallberg had had to publish his book in three parts he would have given his characters more intermediary goals.)

This being said, City on Fire is not a bad book if you want to improve your craft, both for its many great positives and its few flaws, which serve as lessons to avoid. I'm not sure if the book will hold my interest for its entirety (I have other books I want to read and limited time), but the beauty of the prose makes it worth the purchase. is still selling the paperback at a deep discount (46% as of this writing, similar to the discount I got when I bought it about a month ago), which suggests the book still isn't selling as much as either or the publisher wants. It may not be one of the best books of the year, media buzz notwithstanding, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious and so deserves a look from anyone who cares about good writing. Hallberg is a writer to watch. And to read.