Something happened to Jane Smiley with her eleventh novel, Good Faith: others liked it but she didn’t. An exceptionally versatile, inventive and successful novelist, suddenly she had become detached from – had seen the possibility of losing faith in – her vocation. So what did she do? She decided to read a hundred novels. The logic of this decision may seem puzzling, but it led to her writing this book, so we must be grateful for it.