Let the Quest begin…
Last year I somewhat presumptuously declared in my review that Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land should be on the shortlist for the title of Great American Novel. One of the reviewers I often chat to on Amazon US asked me which other books I would shortlist. After some humming and hawing, I had to admit that my knowledge of American literature was so woeful that I couldn’t come up with anything other than The Great Gatsby and Roth’s American Pastoral. This led to a series of conversations, both on Amazon and here, about which books were deserving of the title. So now it’s time for me to get better acquainted with some of these books…let the Great American Novel Quest begin!
Great American Novel Quest
Over the next year and probably beyond that, I propose to read a contender once a month or so. Of course, life might intervene as it has a habit of doing, so this will be a fairly flexible target. During various conversations, I’ve built up a little list of recommendations (see below). I’m hoping blog readers will join in by adding to the list of contenders or telling me why the books already on the list shouldn’t be on it after all.
But the first question is – What qualities must a book possess to make it a Great American Novel?
The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.
Hmm! I like some of that – the representative theme, the American author – but dislike some. I wouldn’t want to restrict it to exclude books written in standard American English, or even in British English for that matter. And I don’t feel it should necessarily be epic in scope. Also, America is such a huge concept with so many different parts that I feel that to ask one book to capture the ‘American experience’ might be too much.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:
any novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.
Again hmm! That seems pretty broad to me…too broad.
An article by Kevin Hayes in the Huffington Post gives the background to the creation of the phrase as an advertising slogan. Hayes suggests that a GAN should be a ‘national epic in prose’ that would ‘encapsulate the nation’. Hayes adds another requirement:
The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.
No hmm! this time. I entirely disagree with this statement. I find innovative storytelling methods usually lead to books that last for a season rather than eternity, and for me any novel that aspires to greatness must be both timeless and a pleasure to read. (Ulysses, for example, uses innovative language – but is also reputed to be the book that is most often abandoned unfinished.) Vernacular if appropriate, beauty in the use of language certainly, but otherwise stick to the tried and tested. Let the insight be the thing that takes precedence.
So here are the criteria I’ll be judging the books against – each one achieved will gain the book 1 GAN star:-
- Must be written by an American author or, since the US continues to be a hub of immigration, an author who has lived long enough in the country to have assimilated its culture.
- The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing – therefore, it might be set in a historical (or even futuristic) timeframe but must still say something about the contemporary American experience.
- It must be innovative and original in theme – difficult to define originality in words but I suspect we all know it when we come across it. No derivations, no ‘school of’, no banality.
- Must be superbly written – I don’t care how insightful it might be; if it’s dull or badly-written, it’s out.
- For the elusive fifth star, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole. I suspect this will be an almost impossible challenge, but I hope to be proved wrong.
What do you think? Do you agree or do you think I’m starting off on the wrong track? Are there criteria you would add – or remove?
Here are the books that are currently on my list. The first 4 I already own, so they’ll be being read first. After that, the list is subject to change – I’m hoping you’ll help by telling me which books you think should be added and which you think don’t deserve to be considered…
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – starting off easily with a re-read of a book I already know and love. ‘A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.’
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – ‘Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream.’
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – ‘The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior – from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness.’
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn, It’s the best book we’ve had.’ –Ernest Hemingway
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford – ‘In his third Frank Bascombe novel Richard Ford contemplates the human character with wry precision. Graceful, expansive, filled with pathos but irresistibly funny, The Lay of the Land is a modern American masterpiece.’
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – ‘Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming with longing and hope.’
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – ‘In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears.’
A Hemingway novel – any suggestions for which one, bearing in mind the American theme? Should Hemingway be included at all?
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – ‘A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.’
Empire Falls by Richard Russo – ‘In Empire Falls Richard Russo delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.’
American Pastoral by Philip Roth – this will be another re-read. ‘In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all the twentieth century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss.’
(All blurb extracts are from Amazon.)
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Thanks in particular to Roger Brunyate and Matt Geyer for most of these recommendations. Both Roger and Matt review on Amazon US and I always enjoy our bookie discussions there. (Matt also comments here occasionally, and is the author of his own book, Strays – you can see my review here and, before your quite natural cynicism kicks in, the review was written before Matt and I became online friends.)