How Jane Smiley Outfoxed Coherence

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote a 1,672-page novel about horse racing. Though I portrayed an array of upper-class characters and still remain more than a bit mystified by the thoughts and sentiments of the working class, it was easy for me — indeed, perhaps easier — to declare to all of my rich friends in Napa that I was a good liberal, and to always point to my work in defense of this claim. My fiction always informed my readers just how much I cared. I adored Latinos because I adored my Latino apprentice-jockey’s jaunty buttocks. And sometimes, I’d even drag out the Sybian just after pounding out a chapter. It was the only way for me to understand how not to be white, how not to be upper-class, how not to be a humorless twit.

To demonstrate my commitment to multiculturalism, I wrote a lengthy chapter describing how my character’s brown buttocks bounced atop a horse’s brown buttocks. Perhaps the ass-on-ass action here could help me to understand precisely how these people felt. After all, their skin was browner than mine. And although I had tried dying my skin like John Howard Griffin with catastrophic results, the Latinos had been so helpful to me over the years — cleaning my restaurant tables, working on my yard, toiling for very little cash. I figured that I could be helpful to them through the power of fiction.

I didn’t mind the charges that came later, because everyone in the novel was engaged in a single enterprise, and therefore I could become a distinguished critic and a legend in my own mind.

The last eight years blasted that all out of my head. Bush had been elected specifically to smite my fiction. While my friends (some of them no longer my friends) suggested that this clear evidence was something akin to that hack novelist Philip K. Dick’s paranoid delusions, they were wrong. (Lethem is crazier than that hack chick-lit novelist Jennifer Weiner if he wishes to afford Mr. Dick a few laurels, although I do like the sound of his surname.) I would read the newspapers and see that every policy maneuver contained some veiled horse reference. Indeed, the Bush Cabinet failed to appreciate the smooth and alluring curvature of a Latino man’s buttocks.

Horse Purgatory remains my favorite of all my novels. Wild Latino Stallions, A Million Acres, and Ordinary Lust & Good Will Hunting remain close seconds. But these novels were written before I discovered the salient connections between Bush and my writing. I wonder if my political awakening of the last eight years will prevent me from fully appreciating a Latino man’s character and prowess, much less anything outside the muddled cacophonies within my own head.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Although every novel is political and multicultural, and you’re just going to have to take my word on this without an example because I am, after all, Jane Smiley, good novels always feature long descriptions of a Latino apprentice-jockey’s buttocks. A Harlequin romance sells better than David Copperfield, and it’s because of those steamy descriptions. And now that Obama is about to be inaugurated, can we all go back to reading John Cleland’s Fanny Hill?

The key to whether Obama truly reforms the way our culture works is whether or not he can encourage more novelists to write lengthy novels about horse racing. There has been much talk of creating a new version of the Federal Writers Project, and I agree with this idea, but only if it involves more horse writing and only if it involves more buttocks.

I am, quite frankly, a bit clueless about what fiction has to do with politics. But having an uninformed opinion certainly hasn’t stopped me before. So I’ll just say this: Shakespeare progressed from tragedy to romance. Never mind that his most martial play, Coriolanus, came four mere years before The Tempest. The great thing about reframing literature in political terms is that one can conveniently skirt around common sense.

With this in mind, I hope to write more novels featuring descriptions of bouncing buttocks. I thank Obama for making this all possible.


Jane Smiley is Snobby Enough to Aim Low

Just so you know the heights of her hauteur, Jane Smiley’s latest review is about the snobbiest nonsense you can imagine from a book review section. The kind of afternoon balderdash “dictated but not read” by a humorless patent attorney and dutifully revered without quibble by fawning sycophants.

Unable to get her arrogant and elitist mind around the idea of a pink book, or rather what’s inside a pink book, Smiley spends four paragraphs devoting her Pulitzer Prize-winning “talents” to sentences that one would expect from a precocious tot who feels entitled to win first prize at the science fair without going to the trouble of setting up a booth. It’s the kind of Bart Simpson summary one expects from a surly shrew shirking her duties. I mean, I’m not much of a fan of the Ten Days in the Hills paperback cover of a woman in a black bikini top. It’s a gaudy orange color scheme that gave me a great desire to barf before I hurled the paperback across the room to secure my salubrity. But you won’t see me mentioning this eyesore of a cover. No. It just ain’t germane when discussing books. Particularly when Smiley’s inept “literary” style is evident from Ten Days‘s first sentence (which, believe it or not, contains the unintentionally hilarious phrase “his eyelids smooth over the orbs of his eyes,” which makes one wonder whether Smiley has confused the simple act of sleeping with opening up a Dremel contour kit).

I happen to have read Certain Girls and, while I have some problems with the book, I’m not going to pin them on genre. After all, as John Updike’s first rule of reviewing states, “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

Smiley, however, lacks the perspicacity to elaborate on how precisely Weiner is “boxed in by her chosen genre,” which she does not even have the decency to name — presumably because typing in the word “chick” into her computer will cause her to faint in the politically correct California heat.

In fact, with the exception of Goodnight Nobody, Certain Girls is possibly the least “chick lit” title in Weiner’s oeuvre. This is because its two central characters are 42 and 13. Even a snob like Rachel Donadio understands that chick lit involves female characters who are in their twenties and thirties and generally involves a happy ending. But without giving anything away, something tragic happens to a major character near the end of Certain Girls. There are a surprising number of geeky asides (even a reference to Doctor Who!) that are not typically found in a typical chick lit title. Of course, Smiley assumes that because Certain Girls has a pink cover, it must, as a matter of course, be chick lit. Which is a bit assuming that because Smiley has won a Pulitzer Prize, she must therefore be a good writer.

Presumably, this inept review wasn’t edited. How else can one explain how such hackneyed turns of phrase like “laugh-out-loud wit” and “smart and edgy” made their way into the review? But, of course, the last thing you want to do is suggest to your “name” reviewer that she’s turned in turgid jerkoff material for the unadventurous.

But if Jane Smiley had asked me what I thought of this review, I would have said, “Do you really expect to collect a paycheck for this piece of shit, Jane? Why didn’t you cite a single textual example in this 900 word review? Don’t you dare write for this paper again until you can learn how to write!” That would have been the more daring and intriguing way to get Jane Smiley to actually write something that I’d be even remotely interesting in reading.

Or maybe Smiley really isn’t that great of a writer or that deep of a thinker to begin with. I mean, what can one say about a writer whose prose style is tailor-made for the New York Times Book Review? I’m thinking we’re dealing with a writer who’s about as much fun to read as a 1972 issue of a home decorating magazine.

I must confess that the continued adulation of Jane Smiley is a mystery to me. I’ve kept quiet for a long time about it. But Smiley has now crossed the line by bringing her dismissive hubris and a dullard’s reading sensibility to a newspaper book review section that once valued content before name recognition. Small wonder that newspaper book review sections are losing credibility.

[RELATED: Jennifer Weiner recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show in relation to Certain Girls.]