Read an Excerpt from The Questions That Matter Most 

Jane Smiley’s musings on self-growth, literary criticism and the art of writing.


This Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times-bestselling author has captivated audiences with her masterful prose and thought-provoking social commentary. Now in The Questions That Matter Most: Reading, Writing, and the Exercise of Freedom, Jane Smiley allows us to understand her worldview through the lessons she’s learned from writing, her reflections on past memories and her interpretations of literary works from a multitude of beloved authors such as Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Franz Kafka, to name a few. 

These astute essays are personal explorations that skillfully demonstrate how Smiley’s life experiences influence her analyses of popular literature and the conclusions she comes to about the messages readers can gain through reading and writing. 

You’ll definitely enjoy exploring Smiley’s essays on feminism, motherhood, and the intimate act of writing. Below is an excerpt from The Questions That Matter Most, which will give you an indication of the kind of introspective collection of essays you’ll find inside. 




The Questions That Matter Most

By Jane Smiley

Can Mothers Think?

The first summer I taught at Iowa State, my 8:30 class was across the campus from my office, and I walked there briskly every day, across the grass, through the trees, and over the fences, rather than along the walks. I was seven months pregnant, thirty-three years old, and I needed to feel that this wasn’t the end of my tomboy youth. I taught modern fiction, including five days of Kafka—“A Hunger Artist,” The Metamorphosis, “A Country Doctor,” “In the Penal Colony.” I wanted to imbue my fourteen undergraduate students with the enthusiasm for Kafka’s work that I had, for its richness of meaning, its mysteriousness, its elusiveness. I remember, though, that it struck me one day as I was climbing one of those fences that it was very strange to be teaching Kafka and to be pregnant at the same time, pregnant by choice. My first thought, one of those superstitions of pregnancy on the order of rabbits and harelips, was that the child would be affected. I managed to set that one aside.

But I did not manage to resolve the uneasiness I felt at suddenly finding myself to be a living paradox, simultaneously carrying and professing hope and despair, in my head a devoted modernist, in my body a traditionalist of the most basic kind. Such a thing seemed clownish at least, and maybe impossible at worst.

And, since the early 1970s, feminist literary historians have been exploring the lives of women writers, seeking to understand the relationship between pen and gender, between literary production and human reproduction. This relationship has generally been found to be a hostile one, and the hostilities have been traced to many sources, including but not limited to notions of the pen as “a metaphorical penis”; creation as “an act of Godlike solitude and pride”; the triviality of traditional women’s education; feminine habits of submissiveness, modesty, and selflessness; female anxiety about authorship; and of course the demands of family, domestic, and social life. As a young writer, I wasn’t aware of all the obstacles in my path, but I didn’t need scholars to tell me the basic and irreducible fact that all the authors I had spent my life admiring and emulating—Eliot, Woolf, Austen, the Brontës, Emily Dickinson—were childless, if not, indeed, also without husbands and lovers. The writers I knew of with children wrote books like Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. The acme of motherly wisdom seemed to be Erma Bombeck. Even so, my goal since college has been to become not a popular humorist but a novelist of “grace, power, and wisdom.”

When I first started writing, I avidly looked for signs and portents of the future. This went beyond astrology, beyond staring at my palm trying to decide if my “fame” line was actually well defined or not. If I want to recapture what raw ambition felt like, I remember how I used to read biographies of authors as possible maps for my own life. I read them with fear and longing. Those lives didn’t seem very happy, very enlarged by art, very well integrated, or even, for that matter, very much fun. Clearly the wages of modernism. And I was a devoted modernist. I knew that the path to great artistry was as well defined in these biographies as the concrete walks between the buildings at Iowa State. The monuments of modernism and postmodernism distributed along the path were easy to see. There were writers then who frightened me, who liked to say, you’ll never be a writer if you (fill in the blank) or if you don’t (fill in the blank). I listened to them as avidly as I inspected that fame line or read those biographies.

Okay. I chose to be a writer. I had chosen to have one child. So far, so good. Alice Walker had chosen to have one child. She defended her choice in Ms. magazine. But, as far as I knew, she had not chosen to have a family of children, and here I was pregnant a second time, dividing myself even more deeply from the main body of admirable women writers. And here, in the summer of 1982, was Kafka. “In the Penal Colony,” eerily prefiguring the Holocaust, was about torture. “A Hunger Artist” was about chronic failure to find satisfaction in the world. The Metamorphosis was about the experience of the self as an insect. And behind these were the other readings in the course, none of them hopeful about parent–child relations—Native Son, To the Lighthouse, The Man Who Loved Children, Seize the Day. Once I had read and understood and loved them, once I had bought what they had to say, could I repudiate them for Please Don’t Eat the Daisies just because I was pregnant? That seemed a lot like a deathbed conversion to me, panicky and intellectually dishonorable. On the other hand, could I read them aloud to my children, bedtime stories about how real, serious, thinking people saw the world I was bringing them into?

Does such uneasiness engage a woman writer more than it does a man? To answer this question, I polled two of my colleagues at Iowa State, Joe Geha, whose collection Through and Through was published in 1990 by Graywolf Press, and Steve Pett, whose novel Sirens appeared in 1990 from Vintage. Their answers were more interesting than I had expected them to be. Yes, each of them said, he had felt a strong contradiction between aspirations of literary greatness and having children. Both felt uneasy about introducing a child to the modern, and modernist, world that we live in. Joe, however, found himself letting go of this contradiction when his wife became pregnant with his first child. He had lost control over the issue—the die was cast, and real life, you might say, resolved things. Steve, too, strongly felt the contradiction, in spite of the existence of two sons, eleven years old and five years old. The contradiction is resolved, but not dissolved—Steve felt divided both spiritually (by a necessary optimism) and practically (by a choice to live a stable middle-class life) from a place where (I couldn’t quite pin him down on this) a somehow greater, wilder, or freer art has its sources. Let’s call that the Romantic position. Polling my colleagues was illuminating for me, because I had assumed this to be a female question. I see that alongside the female question is a more general one that has to do, perhaps, with the conjunction of seeing and choice. Every writer, man and woman, seeks to see truly. The true modernist or postmodernist vision is a vision of disintegration, disorientation, anxiety, anomie. And reproduction, since the invention of the birth control pill, is no longer visited upon one. It is a choice that all writers feel the weight of, male or female.

And yet what my colleagues had to say also highlighted for me the characteristically female question. On the one hand, I never felt, as Joe did, that once I was pregnant, the die was cast, or that the issue was out of my control. It seemed more tenuous than that for me. Along with and part of the fact of carrying the baby was the knowledge that the pregnancy could fail or could be brought to an untimely end. The pregnancy was not a choice made and done with, but an assertion of choice that got bulkier and more certain every day, but would not actually have being in the world until the crisis of birth had been successfully weathered. But this left aside the issue of middle-class domestic life. If I did not find it especially confining, was that because I was too dull to sense a place somewhere else, where a freer and wilder and truer art could have its sources for me? I was looking for signs—paths and portents.

No denying it, our literary culture is built upon the works of many women and a number of men (Kafka, Keats, Wordsworth, Whitman) who did not have children. One effect of this is clearly the notion that Steve Pett shares, that life without children provides a freer, and perhaps more disinterested, vantage point for passionate observation, that parents must be so whittled away by mundane, piecemeal concerns that a larger artistic vision is necessarily destroyed, or at least lost sight of. Steve said to me, “I don’t think about larger existential questions as much anymore. Some days it’s all I can do to figure out how to get everyone home at five o’clock.” This wilder, freer art claims for itself a broader, more disinterested, and therefore truer truth. This is often accompanied by disdain for the middle class, for the safety and security that the middle class seems to seek, largely as a response to the perceived needs of children for safety, routine, stability, order, and the daily felt love of their parents. Ernest Hemingway’s intense hostility toward Oak Park, Illinois, comes to mind, as does nearly everything Henry Miller wrote and stood for. Arguments with middle-class life are a convention of American literature.

But we can argue about the mix of fathers and nonfathers in our literary culture. More crucial, and perhaps less coincidental, it seems to me, is the extreme paucity of mothers, and of the tradition of a maternal vision. What do we know about mothers from reading our literature? We know two things only, it seems to me. We know what they look like, and we know what others feel about them. The figure of the mother, seen from the child’s point of view, is a common one in literature, but its familiarity doesn’t make it less mysterious or illusory, since every child’s view of his or her mother is compounded of so many wishes and needs and resentments and fears, not to mention preverbal imprintings—the child’s view must be unreliable. And then there are depictions of the mothers of one’s children. Feminist literary scholarship has done an excellent job, in the last twenty years, of pointing out how these portraits, too, are compounded of male wishes and fears more than of reality. For an example, the interested reader need only look at the journals of John Cheever, excerpted in the New Yorker in 1991. It is obvious that most of the portraits of the women he drew in his stories grew out of a very partial, needy, and narcissistic vision of his wife, Mary.

To ask “What is a true picture of a mother?” is to ask also “How do people come to know ‘what is true’?” The answer narrative fiction poses to this basic human question is “point of view.” As we look back over the literary history of our culture since Don Quixote, one thread is easy to discern, and that is the emergence into written literary voice of previously “voiceless” classes, nationalities, races, and affinity groups. It is not that these groups had not had a literature, which I define as a systematic way of looking at and analyzing the world through language; it is that the emergence of this “prepublished” literature into the sea of print can be dated. My favorite examples of this are the explosion of Russian literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the emergence of Black American literature in the 1920s. Each of these changed the perception of “what is true” by giving eloquent voice to individual members of groups that had not been heard before, by bringing what had seemed alien into the realm of what the culture defined, through literary forms, as human. For the fact is that, through idiosyncratic voice and point of view, narrative literature highlights the experience of the individual, offers intimate contact with another experience, and circumvents the social differences that inspire hatred and alienation.

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The Questions That Matter Most

The Questions That Matter Most

By Jane Smiley