A recent post in the New York Times fingered the Stateside obsession with the Great American Novel, that white elephant that has crushed many literary aspirations and engendered all kinds of weird mutants that sprawl around the landscape. Indeed, there have been whole books written about the Great American Novel, as well as novels titled, modestly, The Great American Novel. In the NYT, however, Cheryl Strayed concluded that “the idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.” And Adam Kirsch declares that “The GAN, to use the acronym … represents just the kind of imperial project that contemporary criticism has learned to mistrust. What writer, after all, has the right, the cultural authority, to sum up all the diverse experiences and perspectives that can be called American in a single book?”
All the same, some writers try all too visibly, agonizingly, excruciatingly hard to write the Great American Novel; to write seriously, importantly; to devote themselves hermetically to the toil of pushing out something of significance. Who else but Jonathan Franzen? Who “wore earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold” while writing The Corrections. ”It’s very, very hard to concentrate,” he complains. Especially if you’re Jonathan Franzen. Trying to carve out your rep as a Serious Great American Novelist (or Great American Serious Novelist, or even Great Serious American Novelist), instead of as a poster boy for ADD.
Where’s the joy in that? Where’s the free play of the creative imagination? Where’s the energy, the vitality, the elan, the allure of life captured sur le vif? Where’s any hint of imaginative pleasure in your work that can capture and involve the reader, instead of holding them rigid in the closed circle of your self-regard? Because, if the Great American Novel is brought into being by “the call for American counterparts to great British [or European] authors,” then what can it ever be about except self-image and cultural cringe versus the rest of the Western canon?
Mind you, enough American readers to buy in to the same concern to give a Franzen his readers. But Cheryl Strayed in the NYT, citing Franzen, fingers the whiteness of that particular white elephant. “America isn’t one story. It’s a layered and diverse array of identities, individual and collective, forged on contradictory realities that are imbued with and denied privilege and power. Our obsession with the Great American Novel is perhaps evidence of the even greater truth that it’s impossible for one to exist.”
In other words. the Great American Novel obsession also mirrors project to forge a single American identity, at times by suppressing or eliding over other identities or contradictions. As Junot Díaz remarked, “in a country that has become so extraordinarily diverse, we still imagine a white writer as the universal writer – and that absurdity is becoming almost unsustainable.” Franzen, notoriously, had big problems with the prospect of American women – and apparently, black American women in the person of Oprah – as his audience. If that’s the kind of attitude that the Great American Novel myth engenders, then perhaps it is time that this particular chimera was quietly prodded into the tar pit. After all, there will continue to be great American novels written by great American novelists – of every shade, gender, color, proclivity, age, kind, class, and creed, with similarly diverse audiences. In a democracy that aspires to be all-inclusive, that ought surely to be enough.