Please forgive me for posting my Sunday Salon post on a Monday. I was busy and sick, sick and busy all weekend. If I wasn’t doing laundry, taking down the tree, or cleaning house, then I was sitting in a stupor most of the weekend. I finished The Art of Fielding Friday evening, and a post about that will be forthcoming this week, but first I wanted to talk about The Great American Novel.
I’d planned to write a Sunday Salon post about something else entirely, but when I saw this article in The Guardian (thanks, Largehearted Boy), I decided to switch topics. Essentially, the article is about all the hype The Art of Fielding is receiving. Neither The Guardian nor I believe that The Art of Fielding–as wonderful as it is–is The Great American Novel, mind you. But the article considers just exactly what The Great American Novel is, and how that concept has changed over the last four or five decades:
The Art of Fielding certainly cements the idea that a powerful new group of writers has emerged in America in the wake of Franzen’s success with his novels The Corrections and Freedom. The big beasts of US literature – Mailer, Updike, Bellow, Roth – who fought their battles, sometimes physically (“Lost for words again, Norman?” Gore Vidal said after being punched by Mailer) but more usually in intense, convoluted, poetic sentences, are mostly gone now.
Now, in the first place, for my part it’s a bit early to start including anything written in the last decade (or two–or three?) in the category of The Great American Novel. In this case, I side firmly with Matt Damon, who suggested that movies be shelved for about ten years before they are nominated for awards, because time tells us more than anything about what is possibly great enough to endure or deserve an award. That Jonathan Franzen is a pretty good writer and a media darling, I’ll grant you (and full disclosure: although I liked The Corrections, I don’t really get the hype). But it seems a bit early to say that he or Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace or any of our most of-the-moment literary darlings have ushered in a new era.
Of course, all of this begs the question: What is The Great American Novel? I don’t mean, what specific novel is The Great American Novel (although if you have one in mind, feel free to share your opinion); I mean, what qualities exactly does this mythical tome possess? What makes it so great? American themes? (And what are those, anyway? Striving? Pioneer spirit? God? War? Money? Baseball? Football?) Just to keep it simple, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.
The national epic, in case you weren’t sure or didn’t click that link, is an epic poem, such as The Odyssey or The Aeneid. Interesting that the Wikipedia article also has a picture of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the first visual representation of such a book in its article.
Given that definition…First, it raises the temporal issue I brought up earlier: while we may think a novel is great and an accurate portrayal of our world at the time it’s published, how will we really know, without the passage of time? Second, I don’t believe a “common American citizen” exists. (God help us if someone is writing a novel with Joe Sixpack as the main character, although then again…) We certainly have common American archetypes, and I suppose a great novel can treat those archetypes in interesting ways. Or does a great novel actually define those archetypes, make us aware of them, bring them to bear on our literary culture?
Or does The Great American Novel these days mean the biggest book deal? The most references to things like iPod and Facebook and PowerPoint? Does it mean the movie rights sell early to someone like Aaron Sorkin or Sofia Coppola? Does it mean they have to teach the novel in school? Who decides?
Most of the novels whose names I hear thrown around as contenders–Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Rabbit, Run, Portnoy’s Complaint (or any other Roth novel), White Noise, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I guess, now, The Corrections–are all written by men. White men. Some of them Jewish. And while I’m not about to argue that any of those authors get it wrong or that those are not all what I think of as works of classic American literature, where is Ralph Ellison? Where is Toni Morrison? Where is Leslie Marmon Silko? Yeah, okay, I am getting into a canon discussion here, but I think you see my point.
Finally (for this post, anyway–I could chew on this topic forever), and perhaps most importantly, I wonder this: once something has become a thing (The Great American Novel) and someone can consciously set out to achieve that thing (write The Great American Novel), does it actually cancel out the whole idea of greatness? Does it mean a writer gives up something else, something perhaps more interesting, to follow a standard? I don’t have an answer for this one, but I’m inclined to think it does. I’m inclined to believe that a writer can only write The Great American Novel in response to all the other Great American Novels that have gone before it, so in fact it is a novel of type, but not necessarily great beyond being of that type. (I think I just broke a sweat.)
So what do you think about The Great American Novel? Does it exist? Should it exist? What book(s) would you choose?