It took most of my young adult life to figure out why everyone wanted to write the “great American novel.” It took even longer to figure out what the phrase actually meant.
It’s a symbol, something to strive towards as a writer or a student of literature. To craft the masterpiece that would epitomize the American experience, the zeitgeist of a generation, is the highest benchmark to which you can compare your work. An unattainable goal, but somehow, some achieve it.
In the end, I suppose the best way to sell a book to a group of people is to write the book about them.
On Wikipedia’s list of great American novels, there are a few surprising appearances. Nabokov’s Lolita. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Who put this list together? What American experience does a socially-inept pedophile epitomize? Or a pair of struggling wanderers in a post-apocalyptic world?
It seems to me that the “great American novel” is a misnomer. What we really see on this list are damn good books. That’s it. It has nothing to do with American or not American, zeitgeist or otherwise. If it were, wouldn’t Twilight be a “great American novel”? It spoke to a generation of young Americans. Clearly the requirement can’t be “involves non-fictional beings,” or Moby Dick would definitely be out. And if post-apocalyptic is acceptable, what about The Hunger Games? Not only a damn good book, but one that appealed to readers of every generation.
But I digress. Perhaps it is jealousy. I, too, wanted to write the great American novel as a teenager. I even took a stab at it–Cold, a short novella about a bisexual eighteen-year-old (it is not revealed until the end that she is, in fact, female) who is slowly freezing to death in a meat locker after murdering her best friend and ex-girlfriend Emily. She spends the novel swimming in a mixture of madness and memory, conversing with an imaginary man named Orange. Wow, wasn’t I a ray of sunshine? (Actually, I was a pretty happy teenager. I just thought Cold could really make a splash.) But if Turn of the Screw can be considered a great American novel, why not?
And this is exactly why we, as a culture, need to relinquish our obsession with “the great American novel”: because the term itself is meaningless. We should be encouraging our students to write great books, whether they are fantasy, post-apocalyptic, or completely devoid of human characters.
Who cares about the great American novel? Not me.