It’s Time to Rethink the “Great American Novel”

Yesterday I came across an article by an author who was trying to both define and write The Great American Novel (GAN). It got me wondering about what, exactly, the GAN is, why we are supposed to aspire to write it, and if the idea of the GAN still holds water today. It is something I hadn’t previously considered–I guess because I write commercial fiction and not literary and most definitions for some reason preclude commercial fiction.

First, how do you define The GAN? According to Wikipedia, it is “a canonical novel that is thought to embody the essence of America, generally written by an American and dealing in some way with the question of America’s national character.” Other criteria that have been developed include:

  • It must encompass the entire nation and not be too consumed with a particular region.
  • It must be democratic in spirit and form.
  • Its author must have been born in the United States or have adopted the country as his or her own.
  • Its true cultural worth must not be recognized upon its publication. (Source)

Let’s break this down:

“A canonical novel”
So it basically has to be a modern classic. But who determines that? Is it academia, critics, the public, or some combination? For the most part, what we define as a “classic” today is what we were told was classic in school. And does a classic always remain a classic? As we’ve very clearly seen over the last few years, culture changes, and with it, so does the definition of what is acceptable, both in subject matter and in regard to the behavior/attitude of the authors. (Let’s face it, the authors of some “classics” were sexist pigs.) Do we allow works with problematic content/authors to continue to be labeled as classic (as products or their time) or does the definition change over time?

“Thought to embody the essence of America”/It must encompass the entire nation and not be too consumed with a particular region.
My first thought is “whose America?” My America as a middle-class white woman is going to be vastly different from that of a Black woman, a white man, a non-binary person, an immigrant, or someone of a class above or below mine. The “essence of America” used to be considered that of the middle-to-upper class white man. But I would argue there is no one essence anymore, nor was there ever–there was simply a prevailing or ruling cultural viewpoint.

As for encompassing the entire nation, how does one do that? Unless you’ve lived everywhere for a length of time, how do you know what it is like to live in a certain place or be from that place? We have different viewpoints, attitudes and values in different parts of the country. If they mean the theme or plot has to be applicable to the entire country and not just, say, the Midwest or South or whatever, I guess I can get that.

Generally written by an American” or “Its author must have been born in the United States or have adopted the country as his or her own.”
Some people argue with this point because it rules out authors from other countries, but I can see it. As I said above, how do you really know a place if you’re not from there or you haven’t lived there for some serious length of time? I LOVE England. But no matter now much of an anglophile I am, can I really write something true to what it means to be English without having lived there? I don’t personally think so.

“It must be democratic in spirit and form.”
I’m not sure what this means. I guess they mean it needs to reflect the democratic system/values behind America. I think I can get behind that.

“Its true cultural worth must not be recognized upon its publication.”
Soooo, does this mean it can’t be a bestseller when it comes out? That it can’t win awards, etc.? That it has to molder in obscurity for 50-100 years? This is just dumb. How can it be a classic if no one at the time thinks it is destined to be? I think this may be an old point that doesn’t apply to an more literate and engaged audience like we have today. I also think it may be a precaution to keep commercial fiction out of the mix because it is what you see on the bestseller lists for the most part.

Why is the GAN important? Is the GAN still relevant today?
If you look at the GAN as it used to be conceived–by well off white men about the white male experience–no, it’s not relevant anymore, at least not to anyone outside of that group. I honestly couldn’t care less what some white dude thinks about American life. We’ve heard their blathering for centuries. They can continue to blather, but I also want to hear the voices of the underrepresented: the people of color, the immigrants, the women, those on the spectrum, the disabled, and those part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

As a concept, I can see the Great American Novel as a kind of guide or signpost about what it means to be American. However, the qualifications given really preclude this kind of book from ever existing. I mean, if it can’t focus on a region, how can it get to the essence of those people? And how can one single book really reflect the essence of a time period? I know some people argue that The Great Gadsby captured the essence of 1920s America. (As someone who HATES that book, I certainly hope not. If it does that means most men were pretenders and most women were featherheads.) But not everyone during that decade was a flapper or a bright young thing, so I don’t see how it can claim or be claimed to represent the whole of a country or period.

Instead, can there be a GAN for each decade, each class or for different parts of the country? It’s certainly more likely than there being one that encompasses everything. As Cheryl Strayed wrote, “the idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.”

However, if we must persist in this idea of a GAN, then I believe we need to include commercial fiction (whether bestseller or not), break the definition into more manageable pieces, and allow for more than one perspective or book to encompass a part of what it means to be American. I actually wouldn’t mind if there was a collection of great American novels (notice I didn’t cap that)–ones that represent what it is like to live in all strata of American society. What it is like to grow up poor, be homeless, be in jail, have your rights taken away (or never granted) by law, to be blind/single/gender fluid/etc. in a world built for sighted/couples/cis/etc. people. What it is like to be an East coast elite or working class person, a Midwestern mogul or farmer, a Southern woman of color or a poor Appalachian. What it is like to rise from one thing to another within your community/culture/race. You get my point. That would be a really interesting reading experience.

If you want examples of books I would include, I would say that Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone and The Four Winds are both great American novels. The Great Alone vividly captures the isolation and beauty of life in Alaska and also what it must of been like to come back from Vietnam with PTSD, but not have a word or diagnosis for it yet. The Four Winds is an amazing portrayal of life during the Dust Bowl in the South/Middle Plains and as an emigrant seeking shelter in California. Both books are extremely immersive and teach as they entertain. I also think The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is an excellent example of what it must be like to be a Black teenager in a society where you have to fear the police.

Now, if we could just get the reading and literary communities behind something like this that would be a huge accomplishment. It would also be an inspiration for writers everywhere because it would mean any and all of us have the potential to write the GAN.

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