Time to face my real fear—that my book wasn't much good. I once heard Michael Chabon say that the idea for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay came to him suddenly and all at once; all he had to do was write it out. That had been my experience with several novels, and I had confidently stated more than a few times that the execution of a good novel was inherent in the idea from the first. But that was when I was certain all my ideas were good. It may come as a surprise to those who don't care for my work that I'd hardly ever doubted the significance of any idea I'd had, and I'd had very few ideas. I'd written twelve finished works. I'd had fourteen ideas. The two that did not make it into print were a novella about a woman who is married to a jazz musician (I wrote a rough draft, but when I reread it, it didn't seem to have a point), and a novella about a horse-riding Realtor (sixty pages that just kept expanding with no actual story). The structure of all of my completed novels was fairly apparent to me from the beginning, and I had written with an increasing energy and sense of direction as I went through the rough draft. My commitment, but also my sense of what I was doing, never really faltered—inventiveness was for elaborating or vivifying the original conception, not for conception itself. The different forms I used supplied what you might call craft interest. I would try a tragedy, or an epic, or a comedy. The rules for each were different, and so the technician inside me would have something to figure out. The inner citizen would take up social or cultural issues. The inner artist would focus upon more elusive elements of beauty, rightness, truthfulness, newness. Each novel was an experiment in a particular form, sometimes a conscious contrast to the form I had tried last. I suppose I would say that the inventiveness and variety of literature itself produced a strong response in me; each novel was my answer to a particular literary proposition, a particular method of telling a story.
I was not immune to criticism, but I saw many negative reviews as reader dissatisfaction with the parameters of a particular form. For example, comic novels often offend as many people as they please because each reader's capacity for tolerating irreverence is different; what seems tame to one reader seems right to another, what seems corrosive to one reader seems hilarious to another. Novels with a large canvas sometimes fail to provide an intense emotional experience; novels with a narrow focus can seem claustrophobic. Many reviewers and readers loved Horse Heaven, but others found it too confusing and were unable to get involved. And then, there were all the happy endings. I love happy endings and consider them a philosophical and aesthetic challenge, but they are disappointing and untrue to some people. Entropy or loss is more satisfying. That seemed to be the lesson of A Thousand Acres. Over the years, countless readers have come up to me and declared how much they love A Thousand Acres. I've always wanted to say, "Oh, you're kidding." I find that novel interesting, moving, and challenging, but I don't find it lovable, or even very relate-to-able. I sometimes suspected that to love it is to reveal something unfortunate about oneself. But that isn't actually true. What many readers are responding to, I think, are focus and intensity. The novel has an unrelenting quality to it that is inherently involving and comes from the form of tragedy itself. Though I loved Horse Heaven, not everyone else did, so I took some of the negative responses to it as permission to write Good Faith, a smaller and more single-minded novel that made use of a story I thought was both interesting and important. I wrote up my proposal, sent it in, got my advance, and began.
From the beginning, though, I was disappointed that it wasn't Horse Heaven. I made ethical artistic choices and proceeded in good conscience, but I didn't like it. And yet, the thing I wanted to do artistically intrigued me, and I felt it had to be done in a certain way to sustain the illusion of the novel. I considered my main character and narrator appealing. In his way, he was not unlike the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, who tells a story on himself that he doesn't quite understand. But the stylistic pyrotechnics of Horse Heaven that I had enjoyed as much as anything I had ever written were not appropriate, and I felt diminished inventiveness as well as diminished pleasure. It was like dating someone new who was nice enough but not nearly as exciting as the old boyfriend who had moved to Europe. I stuck with it. I had gotten a third of the advance. My horse was not winning at the track; no other sources of income (such as movie deals) were presenting themselves. I pegged along, inventive enough to keep writing but not inventive enough to surprise myself. At the halfway mark, I stopped and read through what I had written. It was more interesting than I had thought. The energy of that realization pushed me forward another sixty pages. By now, though, I was looking for terminal symptoms. One day I waited for inspiration, got some, went off in a completely new direction, then had second thoughts the next day and tried something new. This was a symptom, indeed, a symptom that I didn't know what in the world I was doing, and it was way too late in the game for that. My heart sank. No, my flesh turned to ice. No, my eyes popped out of my head. No, my stomach churned. No, all I did was close the file on my computer and walk away. But that was very bad.
I decided to read a hundred novels. This book is the fruit of that course.
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Excerpted from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.