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.


  1. Hmm, since I’m in the neighborhood… I’m a big fan of “Ordinary Love & Good Will.” They’re two of the most memorable novellas I’ve ever read. I particularly admire the unreliable (understatement) narrator in the latter, who’s right up there with Ford Madox Ford’s myopic mouthpiece in “The Good Soldier.” I liked “A Thousand Acres” as well, although I could have lived without the Shakespearean baggage.

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