Who is the Great American Writer?


Sometimes being a nerd is more than just being a fan (read as hollow eyed, breathless, and drooling). Sometimes being a nerd means being a creator. I’m not talking about just things like electric guitars or internet–I’m talking about writing. American novel writing to be exact.


The Great American Novel (or GAN) is a tradition in literature of the United States that started sometime around the Civil War in which authors try to capture some aspect of life in their time and place. It usually is treated like a journalistic take on an adventure or series of events. The object is for the reader to experience events the narrator sees in their daily life. I would say they commonly share something else: curiosity.


The Great American Novelist is curious about the world around them. They are studying it, pulling it apart, and with it they pull themselves apart. By dissecting the space between individuals that defines us, makes us separate, and unifies us they hope to dig into what it means to be an American.


Some examples are ‘Absalom, Absalom!,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Most readers exclude fantasy, science fiction, and horror. The subject matter tends to focus on normal life askewed by breaking tradition, formality, or responsibility.


Each story stands apart but they seem to share a lust for something more, something free, and the hero takes off to be irresponsible. Through twists and turns their world spirals out of control until they ‘buckle down’ and ‘fly straight’ to return home. Like a Cambellian monomyth, the American hero is a caricature of substance but also one of labored habit. They always return home in the end, or the new normal. When they do, however, they are forever changed and have to reconcile knowing the world is ugly, or shameful, or depressed.


Consider ‘How to Kill a Mockingbird’ for a moment. If you were Scout, would the way you treat people who are different than your perfect white middle class family after watching your father, Atticus, protect and work to save those that were different? Did your views as a reader change? Were you more aware of discrimination after seeing the shameful evil the world could create?


That is the power of these “Great” works. They mold us, transform us, and make us wonder about the world around us. In ‘Three Dialogues on Liberal Education,’ the lecturers try to pin down what makes a great novel. Their argument comes to a head on this point. You may not be a Christian but you know the ‘Bible’ changed how people thought. The same can be said of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ in that it still holds some grains of truth (or “truthy-ness” if you want to get all Library and Information Science-y about it). You may not be a Communist but by reading their literature you can better understand them (the same could be said of rich aristocrats of Gatsby’s company–I’m not one of them but I can understand their feelings and motivations better after experiencing them).


This is where the ‘great’ in Great American Novel comes from. There is something about these works that makes us change as we read them. Some like ‘Fountainhead’ have the power to blow up comment sections with angry rhetoric but we inherently know the reason it does is because it had that profound affect on many people (objectively speaking of course).


Looking over the lists of GAN’s you may notice however that they are all old books. Some of the younger titles like ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ are still over forty years old. One of the standbys is that a GAN needs to last the test of time. The work has to be important for not one generation but many. It must stand as a keyhole to peek through at years gone by. Some reviewers however are beginning to accept more and more younger works with books like ‘Infinite Jest,’ ‘Underworld,’ and ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’ have all been listed as new titles to add to the old standbys like ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and others.


To put these criteria simply, a Great American Novel should be;

  1. A work completed in, about, or by an American point of view
  2. The work should be of novel length or scope*
  3. Characters likely will face an existential crisis revolving around duty
  4. Events should mirror the life and spirit of the time it is written in
  5. Readers should be emotionally, spiritually, or mentally moved or changed in some way
  6. Stories should be timeless (or be meaningful for a long time rather)
  7. and lastly, the protagonist should be curious


So then all GAN’s are stuffy old books some white guy wrote while have a temper tantrum in New York over a weekend? NO! And shut Holden Caulfield! The GAN is a novel about the people and times they are written in. Consider ‘On the Road’ by John Kerouac. It tells the story of the author and his friends traveling around the United States. It was during a time in the fifties in which minorities were being oppressed culturally and commercially. Authors like Julia Alvarez however are now making a much greater impact in the literature scene.


I would propose a thought however about the nature of the Great American Novel–could it be a work of science fiction, fantasy, romance, or horror? These genres are usually tossed aside as trashy and unimportant. Genre writing is for young readers who just aren’t mature enough for good books yet, right? Wrong!!!


This is issue of judging a book by its cover. If we threw out genre writing as unimportant we would be tossing out ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ with the bath water. For more recent debates on this matter read ‘Watchmen’ or ‘V for Vendetta’ and try to tell me they are not great works of literature that have changed the world while encapsulating a time in the life it depicts.


My argument isn’t that we should open the floodgates and let piece of crap be called a part of the Great American Novel heraldry. Letting “books” like ‘Twilight’ or ‘50 Shades of Gray’ that seemingly try to act out morbid personal fantasies rather than better the reader would devalue every other book ever called a GAN. However titles like ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ have had dramatic impacts on its readers and the culture of America. Though it is written about a fantasy world that would be equivalent to Medieval Europe it is rings true the thoughts and feelings of the generation. In fact, maybe Game of Thrones is not a Great American Novel. Maybe it is an Epic American Novel (just kidding… I digress).


There are many other works however one can point to. Ever heard of a little title called ‘The Walking Dead?’ It perfectly wraps up the thoughts and feelings of those living in a world full of cultural dangers and barriers created by technology, partisan politics, and corporate America. It says this all through the moniker of zombies. The series follows every day people brought together by the collapse of civilization that mirrors the equality issues those living in the US during times when the richest 1% of the population controls the other 99% through power and vice.


If you don’t like that assessment of ‘The Walking Dead’ why not say it is a critique of the prescription drug culture within a suburban (metaphorical) wasteland. What if it demonstrates the feeling of abandonment that we mature into orphaned adults as our parents die and we become disillusioned by society losing our faith? Or maybe it could be… you get the picture. Great works aren’t a single faceted work that you read for some quick escape and put down. Great books are ones that stick with you the rest of your life. Great American Books are ones that stick with you and say something about my homeland.


In short, I think it is high time we expand our horizons (some) and begin considering works that have historically been left out of the discussion about the United State’s greatest authors. Is Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ not a testament to timely and timeless horror? Would you say that Philip K. Dick’s work doesn’t represent the culture of his time? Would you say Ray Bradbury couldn’t capture the feeling of curious independence?


Hopefully not.


The time period, technology, setting, and world of a great novel should not have an effect on whether or not it is profound. The medium of the novel is important because of its story and characters. Not if it has the right number of curse words or the right amount of social awareness name drops. Being a nerd means seeking these ideas out. As a community we should work together to stop discrimination against books just because they don’t fit what our high school English teachers told us about “children’s books.”


The Great American Novel of today should represent us. All of us. Even the Nerds. In fact, the Great American Novelist is one of us. He/she is a nerd. So let’s get curious and read something great this summer.


What do you think? What is a Great American Novel to you? What works would you consider to be modern GAN’s?


Works Referenced (or mildly Googled while writing)

*Scope in this case denotes the fact that word counts, page numbers, and total characters of a work of prose cannot accurately describe the actual criteria for what is a novel alone. Estimates within the industry vary widely from publisher to publisher. I could extol this issue for an entire paper by itself about this topic alone (and likely will be in the future).


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