Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Worrying about Jane Smiley

Well, Ten Days in the Hills is out, meaning I need to run and fetch it. I've been on this Barbara Pym kick lately, restricting my reading, which in turn has made me worry about blogging. My readers (all nine zilllion of you) will surely be bored by yet another happy post about people with names like Prudence and Candida taking high tea in the shire. So I'll read Claire Messud, beind the times as always, then get on over to Jane.

But I'm worried.

Like many readers, I came to Smiley via A Thousand Acres. Also like many readers, I did not realize the King Lear association until grad school. By then I had read all her previously published work, save for Catskill Crafts, which is incredibly difficult to find in the real world. (Powell's Online has ONE copy).

Smiley loves to try different authorial hats: Lear in a A Thousand Acres, Nordic Saga in The Greenlanders, mystery in Duplicate Keys. Moo is academic satire; Ordinary Love and Goodwill novellas. Ten Days is a mere riff on Boccacio's Decameron, surely on every serious reader's bookshelf. In short, the lady can do it all.

I couldn't get through Lidie Newton, and though I read Horse Heaven and A Year At the Races, nothing will make me a horse person. In fact, for a long time I worried Jane Smiley would become the next Maxine Kumin, a really fantastic writer completely consumed by horse weirdness. When I heard Ten Days in the Hills was NOT about horses, I was happy the way only book geeks can be happy.

Then I read Updike's review in the New Yorker. Now, this guy totally dissed Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, a review we may all agree defined plain jealousy. But we may all also agree Updike is far from the village idiot (that's the guy from Crawford, Texas ...). And his complaints about Ten Days were, to me, legit. He quotes liberally from the many, many graphic sex scenes in the novel, something I will spare your delicate selves (haven't you all had enough yuck from me lately?) . This might lead to a lively discussion about the boundaries of sex in literature, but not tonight. I have a headache. Suffice to say I was dismayed. Even what Updike quoted made me wince.

But I was still game ... even tho the book is partly about Iraq, and if I read one more thing about Iraq I may jump off Sather Tower (not really, Mom) ... but it's Jane Smiley.

Now we have Michiko Kakutani weighing in, and oy vey, she has the very same criticisms as Updike.

Not that I am a Michi-lover. But when two well-read critics have the same criticisms--and I don't think John and Michi took tea in the shire together before writing their respective reveiws ... well, that's cause for worry in my narrow little world.

A bad Jane Smiley book. Let's hope the big important critics are wrong. Let us hope for the best while expecting the worst ... rather like our views of the Iraq war, no?


Anonymous Hockeyman said...

For the record, I no longer hope for anything that might plausibly be termed 'the best' from that clusterfuck known as Iraq. Gave that up long ago, in fact.

February 13, 2007 8:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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February 14, 2007 12:39 AM  
Anonymous BDR said...

Updike's book about terrorism didn't exactly send most critics into raptures either.

How does one confront what's happening in this country, in one's fiction (or in my case poetry) w/o what one's writing being (de)formed by the immediacy of one's anger/fear/foreboding/prophesy?

Head-on, of course, but aware - speaking only for me - that something in the negotiation between message and art has been violently compromised and boundaries have been erased.

And then the reader or critic, with their own anger/fear/foreboding, comes to your fiction....

February 14, 2007 8:09 AM  

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