Plagued by a sense of despair while writing her last novel, Good Faith,
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Smiley (A Thousand Acres
, etc.) decided to return to the enterprise that got her started as a writer: reading. The result is a book that sets out to investigate the novel itself. Smiley does not offer a radically new way of seeing the novel. Instead, her study is methodical and cumulative, producing a wonderful text, opinionated but not argumentative, instructive but not heavily theoretical text. The book is roughly divided into three sections: the first classifies the novel, beginning with the most simple of definitions (e.g., it's long, in prose, has a protagonist), and adds moral and aesthetic complexity as it moves along. The second section consists of a primer for fledgling novelists. Here Smiley's years as a writing instructor show; her attitude toward all potential novelists is open-minded and generous, acknowledging the difficulty of the project while providing encouragement to continue. Finally, the book turns to the hundred novels she chose to read, from The Tale of Genji
and Don Quixote
to White Teeth
, devoting a few pages to a consideration of each. The result is a thorough reflection on the art and craft of the novel from one of its best-known contemporary practitioners.50,000 first printing.