Why Wasn’t Great American Novelist Jane Smiley on the Cover of a Magazine?
Rumaan Alam on How We Still Judge Women Writers By a Different Standard
There are times a cultural product is so aligned with prevailing attitudes that its success is inevitable. Artistic and commercial success are impossible to game of course, but this moment—when we hear that big sprawling novels are back, when we hear about the genius of Elena Ferrante’s multicourse epic—seems rather tailor made for Jane Smiley, who last year published a text of more than a thousand pages that takes in the sweep of American life over the course of an entire century.
That work—rather unsexily named The Last Hundred Years Trilogy—has been a bestseller. But then, Jane Smiley’s books often are; she’s a name brand, an elder statesman (though she’s only 66). She’s won a Pulitzer Prize; she’s a known entity in Hollywood. But from all the voices within my particular echo chamber (bookish folks on Twitter, the usual handful of blogs) I’ve heard surprisingly little about this work.
Smiley published Some Luck in October of 2014, Early Warning in April of 2015, and Golden Age in October of 2015. If you read them back-to-back (as you ought to; as the swift publication cycle makes clear was the intent) you can’t help but feel it’s a single novel. Trilogy, to me, implies discrete works that happen to form a greater whole. Smiley’s work feels more to me like a single effort that was published in volumes as a practical matter (even so, each volume is hard to balance on the subway). You could read the individual books as standalone novels, but as none delivers much in the way of narrative closure, you’re better off grappling with all thousand-plus pages. The work does coalesce, even if closure remains elusive. How like life, in that regard.
Some Luck begins in 1919; Golden Age concludes in 2019. Every year between gets a chapter, every chapter offers a look at various members of what ends up being a pretty sprawling family, the Langdons. We begin with Walter and Rosanna Langdon, on a farm in Iowa; we end in the America we’re in the process of becoming (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty). In the intervening pages Smiley, via the Langdons, goes everywhere: the African theater of the Second World War, the first American suburbs, Revolutionary Iran, Vietnam, Silicon Valley. It made me think of Bert Cooper’s mournful tribute to Ida Blankenship, three of the best lines delivered on Mad Men: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.” That’s what Smiley is up to: showing us the incredible leap America made in the last hundred years, showing us the terrible fall that is to come.
The work is more than a collage of historical set pieces; indeed, the books are at their worst when the strain of shoehorning history into narrative shows (as when one of the clan happens to be at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy is shot). Smiley is far better when history creeps in, when she’s satisfied merely by the juxtaposition of the political with the personal. But the sheer gall of bending the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Reverend Billy Sunday to your own novelistic aims should be applauded. In Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life, one of the aforementioned long novels over which much ink has been spilled, the author dispenses altogether with historical context, so what seems like a social novel turns out to be something nearer a fable. Smiley’s gambit is almost the opposite of Yanigahara’s, and these two very different works turn out to have a lot to say to one another: about how to write big, how to depict the arc of a life, how to depict in one work the arc of multiple lives, how to be unafraid of demanding the reader’s time and patience.
The Last Hundred Years is a family epic, rich terrain for any writer and something Smiley happens to be especially good at. Its luxurious breadth allows us to see how small slights and personality conflicts can play out over a lifetime (indeed, beyond a lifetime: Frank Langdon, son of Walter and Rosanna and the nearest thing the work has to a protagonist, has so toxic a relationship with his eldest daughter that we see her reeling from it well after he’s dead and gone). It’s maddeningly difficult to read at times; the Langdons are quite fertile, and the family tree in the frontispiece comes in handy. There are narrative choices I found irksome (the book enters the consciousness of a child, which I think is incredibly difficult to do artfully; Smiley somewhat abruptly introduces a character whose identity needs to remain a mystery in order to sustain a certain a-ha payoff) but there’s no such thing as a perfect book, and the paucity of obvious imperfections in a book of this length says something.
That she won the Pulitzer Prize will surely be the lead line in Smiley’s obituary (forgive me for thinking of death; reading this work has that effect on you). Jane Smiley hardly needs defending, and it’s not in her defense that I write; it’s in awe that she was able to pull off the preposterously ambitious task she set for herself and in consternation that more people aren’t talking about what a feat that is. It could be because the sheer length of the thing means reviews are slower to trickle in; it could be that because the work’s final installment was released in the fall, publishing’s prestige season, when there is less critical attention go around. Personally, I suspect there’s a relationship to another of the hot topics inside my particular echo chamber: the literary business is a different thing for men than it is for women.
I admire the work of the organization VIDA, which uses data and statistics to demonstrate what most of us already know: that the culture is deeply sexist. VIDA counts bylines by gender and tallies them up, a useful way of proving their case, if one I find unmoving because statistics are so cold. A case study is something I’m better able to understand, and Jane Smiley makes a good case study.
It was a friend who pointed out that Smiley is often discussed as a regional writer; adding that historically, great women writers have often been heralded as such—think of Sarah Orne Jewett: damnation by way of praise. Smiley lived in Iowa for years, though now lives in California, the state of her birth (about which she writes quite beautifully in 2010’s Private Life, a book that shares much in common with this trilogy). She writes about the American heartland very well—Smiley’s great on the industrialization of American agriculture, something I never expected to say about a work of fiction I found enjoyable—but the scope of The Last Hundred Years is so massive that she has to be (and is) as at home writing about Long Island, Brooklyn, Chicago, and elsewhere. It makes me think of Willa Cather, who was great on Nebraska, great on New Mexico, and dead brilliant on Colonial Quebec, which is as far from the American Midwest as Mars. It’s wonderful to be thought of as an exemplary regional writer, but maybe more wonderful to be thought of as simply a great writer. Bellow was also closely associated with the American Midwest; his work is understood to speak for the entire world.
That in this trilogy Smiley skips from the historical to the domestic feels like a deliberate tactic; a dare to the reader who sees domestic as antithetical to significant. Alice Munro rightly won the Nobel Prize after spending decades writing and rewriting essentially the same story about how the forces of history and society have affected the lives of women. There seems to persist this sense that such books are meant to be read curled up on a window seat, steaming cup of chamomile beside you; that such books are small, that they tell us only about the lives of the women who wrote them, and the lives of the women we imagine to be their ideal readers. Smiley isn’t as subtle as Munro. She doesn’t pussyfoot. She shouts. Here’s a divorce; here’s the Iraq War, and if you’re a smart reader you understand how they fit together.
Here’s what Meg Wolitzer wrote in the Times in 2012 (God, have we really been having this conversation for this long?):
Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.
Paul Elie, reviewing Some Luck for the same paper, actually found Smiley too disciplined: “…her ease with the material makes it feel less than original or necessary. Rarely does she pause to let a scene develop or allow a character to slip the harness of the trilogy with its carefully worked-out plan.” Wolitzer’s wonderful examination of what, precisely is meant by the phrase “women’s fiction” makes a persuasive argument that we celebrate women writers who we can proclaim miniaturists, as Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore. We admire their craft while lamenting that they may lack what she calls “the sprawling confidence of a novelist,” the very thing Smiley demonstrates in her new work, perhaps too well, her plan too “worked out.”
Here’s what I remember from high school English: that Lady Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ambition. This was impressed upon me by my teacher my sophomore year, the same woman who pressed (her own, favorite) copy of Lafcadio’s Adventures into my hands. That’s it. That’s all I remember, and it’s relevant only as a way of demonstrating how opinions—someone else’s, some well-meaning high school English teacher’s—become received ideas. If your only source on the subject is Macbeth, if you’re a high school level reader, then certainly ambition doesn’t seem a very admirable quality. Let’s face it, we hate ambition in women.
I like to imagine that Jane Smiley has reached her don’t give a fuck phase. This happens to artists, especially great women artists. After a lifetime of trying to explain yourself—and sometimes, in the process, having a day job and a husband and kids and doing the laundry—age liberates such women. I think of Georgia O’Keefe, playing the dotty old woman in the desert. I think of Joni Mitchell, busy composing jazz, making paintings, and being somewhat unpleasant, cigarettes destroying that crystalline voice of the sweet blonde girl she never actually was. I think of Willa Cather, freelancer extraordinaire, knocking around America with Edith Lewis, wringing copy from every adventure while also writing some of the best novels anyone in this country has produced. I think of Joyce Carol Oates, tweeting every passing thought because she’s Joyce Carol Oates for Christ’s sake.
Though she looks like a nice person in her author’s photos, when I look at Jane Smiley I see an artist who doesn’t give a fuck, and thank goodness for it. The Last Hundred Years is a work of staggering, unabashed ambition, and leaving aside the question of whether or not it succeeds as a work of art, I think the project’s sheer gall is something to celebrate. This ambition isn’t something she’s just come to, but I think the page count of her latest endeavor reflects a writer who is well aware of the fact that she can do anything, and is unafraid to try.
In 2004, Smiley published Ten Days in the Hills, which her publisher pitched as in the vein of A Thousand Acres—the book for which she won the Pulitzer, the one that recasts Shakespeare—only this time, the source material was the Decameron. This sounds horrifically boring to me and I’m probably not alone. Casting Smiley as a postmodernist tinkering with the canon is but another way of pigeonholing her. She is, to be sure; The Last Hundred Years is, essentially, Dickens. But thinking of her as a writer working in homage to Shakespeare/Boccaccio/Dickens does her a disservice. And for what it’s worth, Ten Days in the Hills is astonishing: a vibrant, deeply sensuous, charmingly sexy, funny and angry book about George W. Bush’s America, the best novel I know on that subject, better than Jonathan Franzen’s very good Freedom.
Dickens is a useful touchstone when thinking about Smiley; he was immensely popular, as she is. A Thousand Acres, predictably, became a terrible Hollywood film. There’s the rub: instead of being thought of as the great American novel, the book Smiley is most known for is easy to think of as an entertainment, with movie tie-in paperbacks featuring Michelle Pfeiffer’s placid visage. A writer as successful as Jane Smiley seems somehow middlebrow, never mind that Freedom ended up on the bestseller lists as well. God, a girl just can’t win, can she?
Whether The Last Hundred Years is good or bad doesn’t matter, and is impossible to say. I think it an achievement of a very high order, artistically, but also symbolically. Jane Smiley deserves better than to be pressed into service as an object lesson, so I hope she’ll forgive me for having done so. But the next time someone tells you that books by women aren’t big and ambitious, the next time someone tells you women writers don’t care about war and history, the next time someone tells you women writers can only manage domestic realism, the next time someone tells you women writers don’t engage with postmodernity, the next time someone tells you women write books that make great mother’s day gifts but not great literature, you should hit them in the head with all three volumes of The Last Hundred Years.