Jump to content
Christian

The Great American Novel

Recommended Posts

I thought he meant it the other way around: the writers he mentions may as well not exist as far as pop culture is concerned. That is a murderer's row of talent he included. I certainly haven't read a book by every author mentioned.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

I thought he meant it the other way around: the writers he mentions may as well not exist as far as pop culture is concerned. 

 

 

Well, immediately beforehand he says this:

 

You know, in Eastern Europe, the dissident writers used to say that “socialist realism,” the reigning Soviet aesthetic, consisted of praising the Party so that even they understood it. There is no such aesthetic for serious literary writers to conform to in America, certainly not the aesthetic of popular culture. What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety [etc]

 

 

It certainly sounds to me like he's saying that European views of American pop culture have little bearing on European reception of American literature because the two things are vastly different. It's the old division between "low" culture and "high" culture--these novelists strain against, break, the conformity of popular culture. It's precisely the sort of thing I'd expect from an author who got his first big break in 1959. But then he reels off a list of authors that not only includes Junot Diaz, but also Michael Chabon [!] and Norman Mailer [!] [but which notably excludes David Foster Wallace. I wonder if that was deliberate]. The idea that the authors of Oscar WaoThe Yiddish Policeman's Union, and "The White Negro" have nothing to do with the aesthetic of popular culture is...curious.

 

Heck, if he wants to argue that his own novel The Plot Against America owes nothing to books like The Man in the High Castle, then I'd submit he's under the influence. Even if he's never read s.f., there's a certain exchange going on between his book and the pop culture around it.

 

Of course, even if you reverse it, it's still odd. A good number of the authors he mentions are postmodern in one way or another, and it would be hard to argue that the postmodern aesthetic hasn't filtered into pop culture. For the better, mostly. 

 

It is an impressive list, whatever we say about his set-up--and one I've hardly scratched the surface of--and a very nice reminder that the U.S., however we imagine ourselves, isn't quite a cultural wasteland.

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

LARB: After the Great American Novel:

 

A literary history shorn of any strong sense of critique may feel to some readers like a conservative project. This conclusion can be avoided — or at least qualified — as we readers of Buell’s study begin to appreciate why the dream of the GAN has persisted over a century and a quarter. This dream has been resonant not because it has been or can be achieved, and not because it is coherent or even makes all that much sense as a critical designation. Instead, the dream of the GAN has proven to be a useful way of talking. That is to say, one of the chief insights of The Dream is that the ways we talk about literature are, themselves, part of literature. This is true for English professors writing scholarly monographs, but it is also true for publishers and marketing agents, for amateur readers and reviewers, for the students who we teach and who we once were. Novel writers are usually novel readers, and many of them have been some-time novel critics as well. Criticism of the novel is part of the feedback loop that makes “the novel” meaningful as such

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

NPR: Hip-Hop in Print: Brooklyn Publisher Looks to "Reverse Gentrify" Literature

 

FWIW, I know Akashic Books primarily because they're the publishers of the [City] Noir anthologies. I've got Moscow Noir on a shelf somewhere, and maybe one other.

 

I'm bemused by the fact that they managed to devote a whole story to "reverse gentrification" without mentioning the cross-pollination that took place under the Beats and at the hands of Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed. Now, that was some ground-breaking stuff. To me--and this is just based on the interviews here and a glimpse inside the books on Amazon--the work done by these books seems comparatively tame. [seriously, when Reed decides to "reverse-gentrify" literature in, for instance, Mumbo Jumbo, be does it by gleefully breaking the novel]

 

Anyway, I'm posting the link here because of previous speculation in the thread about possible sources for the next GAN. I've not read any of the novels discussed, so I've no idea whether they remotely qualify--but this is the sort of intermingling that very well could lead to a GAN, I think.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

We don't have a dedicated Franzen thread [and since I've neither read Franzen nor have I a particular yen to, I'm not the best person to start one]--but since he's one of the half-dozen or so Great American Novelists [tm], I'm guessing it's a good idea to point out that there's a literary biography coming out next year.

 

 

An announcement of the deal on the industry website Publishers Marketplace promises that the book will explore “Franzen’s metamorphoses as a person and as a writer — from his ultrasensitive childhood through his Swarthmore years, his troubled marriage and his tumultuous self-reappraisal during the 1990s, up to his arrival on the mainstream cultural scene as a literary icon.”

Mr. Weinstein says his goal isn’t to dig up dirt on the novelist, but rather to examine how turmoil in his life has shaped his work. “It’s not an exposé of Jonathan Franzen,” he said.

It’s not even a proper biography, he said, adding: “It doesn’t pretend to be a full-scale biography. It’s too early for that. He’s in full career mode. Someone later, a generation from now, will do that biography. It’s a report on who he is.”

 

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

NYTimes Bookends: Why Are We Obsessed With the Great American Novel?

 

Cheryl Strayed:

 

That [John William] De Forest was arguing in hopes of not one Great American Novel, but rather the development of a literary canon that accurately portrayed our complex national character, has been lost on many, as generation after generation of critics have since engaged in discussions of who might have written the Great American Novel of any given age, and writers have aspired to be the one chosen — a competitive mode that is, I suppose, as American as it gets. It’s also most likely the reason that the idea has persisted for so long. To think that one might be writing the Great American Novel, as opposed to laboring through a meandering 400-page manuscript that includes lengthy descriptions of the minutiae of one’s mildly fictionalized childhood (pushing a bicycle up a hill on a hot Minnesota day, sexual fantasies about Luke Skywalker), is awfully reassuring. I have a purpose! I am writing the Great American Novel!

 

Adam Kirsch:

 

It might be hard today to find a critic, especially an academic critic, who would accept the idea of the GAN or even of its component parts. Greatness, Americanness and the novel itself are now concepts to be interrogated and problematized. Yet somehow the news of this obsolescence has not quite reached novelists themselves, who continue to dream about writing the big, complex book that will finally capture the country. There is nothing subtle about this ambition: When Jonathan Franzen wrote his candidate for the GAN, he called it “Freedom”; Roth named his attempt (sincere, this time) “American Pastoral.” These are titles that call attention to their own scope, in the tradition of John Dos Passos, who titled his trilogy of the-way-we-live-now novels simply “U.S.A.”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

The Guardian:

 

The question is, has the American dream run out of road? Perhaps an exhaustion with national myths explains the recent advent of post-apocalyptic literature: from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. When the dream has been blown to bits for more than a century, all that’s left is to tell bleak stories of human survival set in the wreckage of a junkyard. But I believe there are still some bits of the dream left to explore in the country’s literature. Because people still come to America hoping for more – and writers are there on the Ellis Island of the last brick-and-mortar bookstores to break the bad news in clever and incendiary ways.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

David Frum makes a bid for Herman Wouk as a one of the great war novelists:

 

Wouk won a Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny. From then on, however, critical accolades eluded him. Reviews of the two “War” novels proved mostly dismissive—sometimes even savage. Critics assigned the proudly Jewish Wouk to the category that included Leon Uris and Chaim Potok rather than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
 
Negative critical judgment matters. After the first fizz of publicity, it is critics who in almost all cases determine what will continue to be read.  The novelist known as Stendhal described books as tickets in a lottery, of which the prize is to be read in a hundred years. If enduring readership is the ultimate prize for a writer, then Wouk is at present failing. Readers under 40 know Wouk, if they know him at all, as a name on the spine of a paperback shoved into a cottage bookshelf at the end of someone else’s summer vacation—or perhaps as the supplier of the raw material for Humphrey Bogart’s epic performance as Captain Queeg of the USS Caine. What they don’t know is that Herman Wouk has a fair claim to stand among the greatest American war novelists of them all.
 
I've not read Wouk--though I should--but I'm a sucker for quixotic attempts to redeem critically-dismissed writers. So now I'm curious (and he's still working! Or, at least, he was in 2012 when The Lawgivecame out--a book that might be interesting to several people on this board, since it deals with an attempt to make a movie based on the life of Moses). Where I think Frum fails to make his case is that he equates bigness with quality. Then again, as per V was for Victory, which I'm reading right now, WWII was the era in which bigness became in some sense synonymous with quality, so perhaps Wouk is the most WWII writer possible. 
 
What Frum never quite comes out and says--but I think it's implicit--is that Wouk tends to be dismissed because he's essentially--and politically--conservative in his outlook. Having read a couple of one-sentence dismissals of Wouk here and there, I'm inclined to think this is a fair assessment (though, of course, being dismissed because of ideology doesn't mean the work is worth reading). Wouk's other big series is about the state of Israel in its early days, and it seems--based on the copy, which might be misleading--to be pretty unapologetically Zionist. So we have an author of Big Books who's seemingly unconflicted about the War and the State of Israel--who is, moreover, popular--and I can see why critics would dismiss him.
 
However, it's not just because he's conservative, either--it's because he's unconflicted, at least based on Frum's interpretation--and unconflicted writers are often boring writers. I think Chester Eisinger might be closer to the mark when he discusses Wouk's The Caine Mutiny as one of a number of "rhetorical" novels:
 
The rhetorical war novel is one that is unblushingly patriotic in intention, written to persuade us that the war was a noble effort. These novels justify the brutality of the war by arguing that fighting against the nation's enemies somehow completes a man; the only effective rebuttal to brutality is brutality [...] They admire without apology the athleticism of the military hero. They regard the officer class as a well-trained, competent corps. The top brass are tenderly concerned for the welfare of the men and will sacrifice them only to shorten the war.
 
I've not read Caine, but my memory of the film suggests that this characterization is slightly unfair. But my point is--what Frum sees as a strength of the novels, Eisinger sees as a weakness, not on the basis of its politics (though there's that, too--but Eisinger spends a lot of time on the conservative backlash in literature and he's pretty even-handed), but on the basis of complexity. 
 
Still and all. I am, at any rate, somewhat more inclined to check out The Caine Mutiny sometime soon.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The last Great American Novel I read was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. It's just such a perfect novel. It's epic, majestic, powerful, violent, and masculine. It's one of the greatest books I ever read. There are still more titles worthy of "Great American Novel," like Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Underworld, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and others, but Blood Meridian is such a distinctive and flavorful work, so traditional and so unconventional at the same time, that it remains powerful.

 

Plus, it's a textbook example for great prose style. 

Here's one of literature's finest pieces of beautiful writing:

 

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

 

Something so elemental and haunting about the imagery, the historic expansiveness, and the shamelessly gorgeous luxury with which the sentence carries itself — something makes this so powerful.


James' fiction is too airless for my taste

 

 

Which is probably why Cormac McCarthy, one of America's greatest men of letters and a true hero of literature, said that Henry James (and his French counterpart Marcel Proust) were not literature.

Edited by Anand Venigalla

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just finished Matthew Thomas' We Are Not Ourselves audiobook during my drive back from a lunch event. If that's not a great American novel, I don't know what is. Whether it's an example of the Great American Novel I couldn't say with any authority. But man, it's good. 


Which is probably why Cormac McCarthy, one of America's greatest men of letters and a true hero of literature, said that Henry James (and his French counterpart Marcel Proust) were not literature.

Really? Wow.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just finished Matthew Thomas' We Are Not Ourselves audiobook during my drive back from a lunch event. If that's not a great American novel, I don't know what is. Whether it's an example of the Great American Novel I couldn't say with any authority. But man, it's good. 

Which is probably why Cormac McCarthy, one of America's greatest men of letters and a true hero of literature, said that Henry James (and his French counterpart Marcel Proust) were not literature.

Really? Wow.

 

Christian, at some point in the last year you were reading/listening(?) to Don Delillo's Underworld, and made several Facebook updates as to your progress.  I don't think I ever saw a final verdict.  Did you finish it, and what were your final thoughts?  I read Underworld about three years ago, and earlier in this thread mentioned that I thought it was the closest thing to a GAN I'd read in some time.

Edited by John Drew

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

John, it looks like my response to your post has vanished, but I have an update: I couldn't sleep last night and ended up turning on my Glow Light and reading up to p. 480 in my 735-page e-edition of Underworld. It's an extraordinary book, although I lose track of the characters between sections. I had paused in my reading of the novel a few weeks ago, but now I'm reminded, after venturing back into the book last night, how masterful the writing is chapter to chapter.

 

I do feel like the book is building a narrative, but not in a traditional manner. "Tapestry" seems an applicable term for this novel. As I had mentioned in my now disappeared post, each chapter could almost be a discrete, standalone story.

Edited by Christian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

Is American literature too dark for television?

 

Hollywood has locked up the rights to most major American titles that aren’t in the public domain. That’s not the case with great British literature, partly because much of is older, written in the 18th and 19th centuries.
 
But Eaton also theorized that American literature is often too dark, too weird, for Masterpiece and maybe for TV more broadly. “This is a huge generalization, but [American novels] have tended not to have all the elements that make it good for television, whether it's too interior or there's not enough action,” the Boston-born Eaton said. By contrast, “the Brits tended to write more colorful stories rather than the darkness and struggle. Dickens and Trollope certainly knew how to write sequels, books that would make good ongoing series again and again. And the greatest love stories are in the Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudices. I don't know what our equivalent is.”
 
I have wondered about this, myself, and the money thing has long been my go-to explanation. But the idea that American literature is simply too dark is...intriguing (though, hey, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Booth Tarkington.... It isn't like we lack entertainment for the costume-drama set).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am going to bump up this thread and see if The Scarlet Letter is a viable candidate for Great American Novel (actually, it shares the spot as "great American novel" with great works such as Moby-Dick, Blood Meridian, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mason & Dixon, and Underworld)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

I'd say it's certainly a contender, though it might lack the "scope" (for want of a better word) to be a true GAN. I actually just finished a second read-through of it in preparation for some tutoring I do. It's quite good. And it certainly encapsulates much of what makes American literature distinct--not just the Puritan heritage, but the weirdly sexless nature of a novel that should, by rights, be all about sex (someone, and I don't remember who, once said that it's the least sexy novel about adultery ever written, and I'm inclined to agree). 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks Nbooth. However, I want to read The Scarlet Letter, and many seem to hate it, particularly among the Goodreads crowd, due to its archaical prose style (a prose style I appreciate and would like to see in major modern novels), the allegorical and symbolic tone Hawthorne takes in violation of "realist" decorum, and other things.

 

I will read the novel soon, as I believe I may enjoy it. However, would you, Nbooth, consider it one of the greatest novels of all time? And, also, is "The Custom House" thing worth reading? Or should I skip it on my first read and return to it later on?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

One of the greatest American novels, almost certainly. I'm not sure I'd say "of all time," primarily because I've not read all the GNOAT (I've never read, for instance: most of Moby Dick, or any of Ulysses, Dream of the Red Chamber, In Search of Lost Time, more than one book in the La Comédie humaine, etc etc etc).  I'm pretty sure I enjoyed The Blithedale Romance a tad more back when I read it--but that was years ago and for an undergrad course, so my attention wasn't really on it. But The Scarlet Letter is quite good and structurally interesting in spite of (or, perhaps because of) the long stretches of non-action-oriented narration. 

(Keep in mind, too, that TSL is technically a "Romance," which is a distinction that some critics--Henry James, for one--have considered important).

"The Custom House" is fun. It's kind of a relic of Hawthorne's early plan for the book, to my understanding, but it's a great little sketch and one that goes a long way in setting up the mood of the book. 

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

NBooth, what do you think of Blood Meridian? It's one of my favorite novels and indeed one of the great American novels. Harold Bloom, whom I view as one of the best literary critics, considers it to be in the league of great masterworks as Moby-Dick and As I Lay Daying.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

To my shame, I've only read three McCarthy novels and Blood Meridian is not among them. It's not necessarily a lack of interest, so much as the fact that I've increasingly focused on lit crit and various books in my area (so--detective fiction, Lit Fic of the Forties, small town fiction of the early 20th C, etc etc etc). Eventually I'll get to it (once I've read Moby Dick, I'll need another book to use as an excuse to not read Game of Thrones).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
NBooth   

Marlon James' Great American Novel: None (with an 'American Tabloid' asterisk)

 

Quote

There is no such thing as the Great American Novel. Nor the great Russian, Swedish, Irish or Papua New Guinean novel for that matter. In fact, once you import the concept, you realize how ridiculous it is. But also how strangely American, mostly because this is one of few countries where such a thing is not exactly taken seriously as much as taken at all. There is not, nor can there ever be, one great novel, but there is a Great American Neurosis, which plays itself out in a Great American Inferiority Complex, which plays itself out in a Great American Exceptionalism, which cuts to the core of everything, including I would bet who has the greatest peanut butter.

[snip]

The truth is no one novel could ever capture the American experience because there is no such thing. Or rather America is far too many things for one novel to ever capture. Maybe the great American novel only needs to capture one American experience, and in that case one could nominate “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. But one could also nominate, “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros or “Sabbath’s Theater” by Philip Roth. Or Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” Or Toni Morrison’s “Sula.” Or Dennis Cooper’s “Frisk.”

 

Edited by NBooth

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As an Ellroy devotee, I can totally get behind American Tabloid as the GAN.

But who needs a GAN when we have The Life and Times of Donald Trump playing out in front of our eyes?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×