Jane Smiley fans, get excited! The Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s forthcoming book, The Questions that Matter Most: Reading, Writing, and the Exercise of Freedom, explores a number of provocations around class, race, and gender in the Western literary imagination and—most importantly—reflects on how the autonomy of a reader’s interpretation of any work of literature makes reading an inherently political act. (Is anyone else suddenly inspired to pick up another book?) Smiley joins Alta Journal editorial director Blaise Zerega to discuss her new collection, explore the connection between the writer and the reader, and answer your questions. Do not miss this exciting and intimate conversation.
About the guest:
Jane Smiley was born in Los Angeles. Her novel A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton won the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West. Her novel Horse Heaven was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002, and her novel Some Luck was long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1987 and has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Nation. Her most recent novel, A Dangerous Business, was published in 2022. She lives in Carmel Valley, California.
About the book:
When it comes to writing—what questions matter most? From Dickens to Kafka and beyond, The Questions that Matter Most: Reading, Writing, and the Exercise of Freedom gathers 18 of bestselling novelist Jane Smiley’s most penetrating works for the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and other outlets, as well as three new essays original to this book that assess the empathic, liberating power of the written word.
In this volume, Smiley’s analytical terrain is capacious: she explores ancient Icelandic sagas, the paucity of maternal voices in literature, the radical muckraking of Jessica Mitford, child development vis-à-vis Little Women, dogged questions of virtue, the racial pitfalls of Mark Twain, and the redemptive voice of Harriet Beecher Stowe—among myriad other concerns. Woven throughout are personal reflections on her own upbringing and identity and their influence on her writerly outlook.
Taken together, these meditations provoke the central tension of any reader’s experience, namely: What happens when the theory that a reader brings to a book rubs up against their sense of the world? And when those worlds collide, will the reader submit to prevailing narratives or resist?
“The entire time you are reading any novel, you are experiencing freedom and autonomy, and this is a political experience,” says Smiley. “You are also experiencing either agreement with the author or disagreement, and this is a political experience, too.”
Ultimately, The Questions that Matter Most reveals that, like life, writing and reading are rooted in voluntary acts of connection—and that it is critically important to remain ever open to the intimacy, empathy, and unexpected turns that such an exercise entails.