WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Say bye bye to the Great American Novel

Old books
Writers Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Adam Kirsch (Why Trilling Matters) argue the pros and cons of the Great American Novel in today’s NYT. I’m not sure why.

Every now and then we have to rehash this whole thing, and the consensus is usually that there’s never going to be one, monolithic Great American Novel and never was. Just as Ahab was never going to get the better of the great white whale in that one book. Heck, there’s not even one Great American Car, and America does cars much better than it does novels (or at least we used to). The ‘65 Mustang probably comes closest.

Strayed and Kirsch bang away at the straw man, coming to the mutual conclusion that the idea is ironic. Especially today, when the very definition of “America” is getting hard to pin down (discuss), any book declared the Great American Novel will almost certainly exclude huge swaths of society and culture. No single metaphor — say, building the Keystone Pipeline — can represent the multiplicity of this land. Even New York City is too small to hold all possible meanings and variations. And no meta-fiction about trying to write the Great American Novel could convey the futility of the project.

So why do we keep talking about it? Probably because publishers keep pretending to find it. Every decade — more often than that, really — they tout one thick tale or another as the messiah of great novels, but it’s just a way of stoking some hype and gaming the big awards biz.

That said, sometimes stellar novels come down the pike. They’re excellent. They’re provocative. They tackle big themes and aren’t afraid to look America right in the eye. Trouble is, we don’t hear of most of them because they’re literary with small press runs and receive no publicity. They disappear, and their authors are unknown.

Read the piece and draw your own conclusions, but if everyone agrees that the Great American Novel is an illusion, I guess we can finally stop chasing it.

19 comments on “Say bye bye to the Great American Novel

  1. Charles Yallowitz
    January 19, 2015

    I never really paid attention to the term, so I don’t even know what it’s supposed to mean. I thought it was supposed to be the ‘greatest novel written by an American until the next one comes along’. The whole thing strikes me as odd. Why do people need a single book in that category anyway?

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2015

      That’s the flaw in the concept, that it has to be reduced to one title that covers everything that America encompasses. No can do!

      • Charles Yallowitz
        January 19, 2015

        Yup. That’ll never happen since nobody can even agree on what America actually encompasses.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 19, 2015

        Precisely!

  2. Gretchen Getsinger
    January 19, 2015

    I think The Great American Novel is an Illusion in the same vein as The Holy Grail.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2015

      Good comparison! Didn’t they ever find that thing? (Maybe Monty Python did…)

  3. 1WriteWay
    January 19, 2015

    I’ve read novels that I thought captured a particular moment in American history and made it seem timeless (Babbit by Sinclair Lewis and An American Tragedy by Dreiser come to mind), but that’s just my humble opinion, and I wouldn’t call those novels “The Great American Novel” … naturally, since I named two 😉
    I started to read the Strayed essay this weekend and then decided I had something better to do, like clean out the cat litter boxes.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 20, 2015

      I agree. Some books seem to capture the culture at a particular time, and they last because they’re sort of a record of the era. It’s probably too soon to know what the Great American novel of our era will be. Probably something by Stephen King. 😩

      • 1WriteWay
        January 20, 2015

        Carrie.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 20, 2015

        Ha! I was going to say that!

      • 1WriteWay
        January 20, 2015

        Great (American novelist) minds think alike 😉

  4. John W. Howell
    January 19, 2015

    I think the idea of a quintessential American anything is as you point out almost impossible these day. As to the car I still think the AC Cobra is the one

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 19, 2015

      I think the Cobra is more of a British beast. I should know. I had an MGB for a while, and it still haunts my dreams…

      • John W. Howell
        January 20, 2015

        I suppose. Still think the engine makes the car.

    • donaldbakerauthor
      January 20, 2015

      How bout the Mustang Bullitt?

  5. ericjbaker
    January 20, 2015

    You mean it wasn’t one of those C.S.I. Miami spin-off mysteries?

  6. cinthiaritchie
    January 20, 2015

    I don’t know. It seems that most “great” American novels were written by white men for other white men or at least for a white male dominated culture so yeah, I’m not sorry to let go of the term. I’d love to see more multi-cultured books be termed “great.” There are some but would love to see more. P.S. Great post. P.S.S. I’m reading blogs again! It feels good.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 20, 2015

      True, the white fellers had a pretty firm grip on things for a long time, but I do believe that has changed in the last couple of decades. I keep pushing Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as a major accomplishment, but many more of my favorite books are by gals. Jane Smiley never disappoints. Atwood, of course. Patchett. So many more.

      I hope there’s room for all of us in the coming Golden Age!

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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