Washington -- With "Moo," her first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres," firmly on the best-seller lists, Jane Smiley can afford to be light-hearted about the critical reception it has received. She points out, for instance, that many critics have appreciated "Moo," a comic novel released last month about a large, agriculturally oriented Iowa university not unlike Iowa State University, where she teaches.
Some people were not amused.
One reviewer, Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times, wrote: "If neither satire nor seriousness entirely work, it is because the author's hand grows heavy . . ." Others have harrumphed and intimated that Ms. Smiley was writing lightweight stuff, not at all up to the level of "A Thousand Acres," the "Lear"-influenced work that was a dark portrait of an Iowa farm family. It won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1992.
As for the nay-sayers, Ms. Smiley, 45, says she saw it all coming. She had a feeling that everybody doesn't love a clown.
"It just makes me laugh because I wrote an article for Civilization magazine about changing forms and writing a comic novel," she says. "I talked about what I expected reviewers to write about this novel. And I said I expected bad reviews because when I was reading a lot of comic novels, and reviews of comic novels, a few years ago, I was astounded at how bad the reviews were, and how mean they were, even books I really liked, like [Garrison Keillor's] 'WLT' or [Nora Ephron's] 'Heartburn.'
"I finally decided that comedy is really a much more complex form -- it's less predictable how people will react to it, because humor is much more a matter of personal taste than a 'serious' or tragic novel."
A keen observer
It should be noted that Ms. Smiley was not a likely candidate to write a comic novel. All her previous eight works of fiction were straightforward literary efforts, often with everyday family life as a dominant theme. But in other ways, they've varied widely.
"The Greenlanders," published in 1988, was inspired by Icelandic family sagas and is set in the 14th century. It's a remarkably vivid re-creation of a time and place generally thought to be uninteresting.
As for "A Thousand Acres," it depicts not only the disintegration of American farm life in general but also one Iowa farm family in particular. (Larry Cook, the scion of the farm, commits incest with two daughters.)
Then there's Ms. Smiley herself. She comes across as brisk and efficient, a keen and intelligent observer but not exactly on a life-long search for laughs. Even when she's talking about comedy, it's with a certain detached tone that could be just as easily used for, say, discussing tragedy.
Consider, too, how she went about writing "Moo." Known for doing meticulous research for her novels, Ms. Smiley read dozens of comic novels and dissected them carefully to see what worked and what didn't. You get the feeling she was the kind of student in high school who turned in term papers a week before anybody else.
Yet, she allows, "In some ways, this narrative is much closer to who I really am than say, the narrative of Ginny [one of the abused daughters] in 'A Thousand Acres.' I think the narrators in my novellas were probably close to me as well, but this is the side of me that emerges with friends."
Although Ms. Smiley seems the soul of Midwestern reserve -- she grew up in St. Louis and has lived most of the past two decades in Iowa -- there is a free-spirit aspect to her personality. After she got her doctorate in Old Norse literature at the University of Iowa in the late 1970s, she told one interviewer, "My plan was to go to England and then wander around the world, with my typewriter in one hand, my banjo in the other, and my backpack on my back."
But she chose the domestic life instead -- she's on her third marriage. She talks with affection about her three children, and discusses her relatively recent literary fame with good-natured skepticism -- "I view a lot of the Pulitzer aftermath as an intrusion rather than an opportunity. But it's an intrusion and not an invasion."
'Light and ironic'
In her novella "Ordinary Love," the narrator, a middle-aged woman, characterizes her family this way: "We try to maintain a light, ironic (though sometimes rueful) atmosphere around here . . ." One could easily see Ms. Smiley running the same kind of household.
"Light and ironic" would be a good way to describe "Moo" as well. Moo U. has self-aggrandizing professors, bumbling and self-protective administrators, and a generally lust-filled collection of faculty, students and staff. There's an enormous hog named Earl Butz whose sole purpose in life, it seems, is to eat as much as possible and become as huge as possible.
But it's not a complete send-up of academic life and, Ms. Smiley says, that's by design.
In fact, she notes, "Moo" is linked to her last novel in ways that some might not expect.
"In 'Moo,' I was writing about a specific point about a specific type of university," she says. "It's very similar in theme, I think, to 'A Thousand Acres.' My overall subject is not academia. It's a larger point about technology and agriculture. 'A Thousand Acres' has a lot of sub-themes and motifs about how the world these people has lived in has been destroyed by such things as pesticides in the water supply and this giant machinery.
"The other side of that thematic coin takes place at the university. This university is very closely tied to the farm. So I would never have written an ivory-tower comic novel. I call my novel a slippery-slope academic novel, in which academia is not cut off from the world, but is constantly contaminating the world, is constantly both re-creating the world in its own image and re-creating the world. I thought that was pretty explicit in this book, but others persist in seeing it as a novel about academia rather than a novel about technology or whatever."
Regardless, the publication of "Moo" means people will have one more way to perceive Ms. Smiley.
Writing so many different kinds of books means, as she says, "I have so many subgroups of fans. I have people who are fans of the novellas, and a lot of people who liked 'A Thousand Acres' who never liked anything else. And this group of fans of 'The Greenlanders,' they might have read some of the others, but they all look small in comparison. And I think there are a few people who liked 'Moo' more than the others."
Besides, "A Thousand Acres" taught her something about perception. That book's critical and popular success landed her a profile in People magazine (with the headline: "Jane Smiley's new novel puts King Lear on a farm -- and in overalls"). She had steadily been amassing an enviable reputation as a "serious" writer, but it wasn't until the People story came out that she saw what fame was really about.
"All of a sudden, I had people stop me and talk about the People story -- people who had never commented on anything else, like a great review in the New York Times," she says wryly. "And my students' mothers would say, 'Isn't that your teacher I read about in People?' "
"That's why I can't take this all too seriously," she continues. "Some people say that there's a post-Pulitzer onslaught that destroys your life. But I think if you dig your heels in early, you can reject a lot of stuff that takes up your time. The main thing I regret is that I can't answer all my mail. And there are a lot of offers, like, 'Would you please sit in with our reading club in Rochester, Minn., while we discuss "A Thousand Acres"?' One response is to be flattered, but another is: 'Don't you people think I have a life?' "
Ms. Smiley shakes her head ruefully.
"You see a side of people that's just astounding. One woman, a businesswoman, wrote that she was moving to Iowa City from Minneapolis, and wanted to get to know the right people there, and would I be her contact and introduce her to people who could help her with her writing? That just floored me, that someone would have the gall.
"Fortunately, most people write nice letters saying what they like about the book, and thank you for writing it. That's the wonderful part about it all."