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.]


  1. You write, “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.” But Ed – 1972 home decor magazines are HUGE FUN! All the attempts to integrate psychedelic design into suburban living, the knockoff Saarenin chairs, the lush shag carpets and knotty pine paneling. Not fun? Give my home decor books a break.

  2. I’ve been recently reading Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel(trying to get thru it after an earlier attempt failed)and after checking out her review of Certain Girls,I think that I may have to put it aside yet again.

    I don’t mind her criticizing some of the plot details of the book but it sounds rather odd to me that an author as established as Smiley acts so shocked at the “pinkness” of the outer and inner cover and seems to blame that on Weiner. Even a blogger gal like me knows that most authors don’t have a lot of say over how their book covers are made(except for big league folks like Grisham and Stephen King).

    Also,Smiley seems embarrassed about reading such a “pink” book,like it’s the equivalent of buying a porno mag in public and her condescending tone of “well,she could write something much more artistic but she seems to like being in that big pink box” is sickening.

    I reviewed Certain Girls on my blog and liked it very much,as will other folks who also liked Good In Bed(which Smiley seems to have read,but she really thinks that Bruce’s article was “insightful”,I don’t know what to tell her,yeesh!).

  3. I understand and basically agree about Smiley’s review, but I remember liking The Age of Grief, especially the title novella.

    It seems like Smiley might have been trying for the kind of Yardley-to-Chabon tone that prompted Chabon to write Kavalier and Clay.

    Have you seen Weiner’s response to the whole mess? Seems pretty gracious.

  4. I don’t understand why Jane Smiley exists. Nor Michael Chabon, for that matter.

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