Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.