This 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.