Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Vote for the Great American Novel

Publishers Weekly is on a search for the Great White Whale of literary discourse. What can it all mean?

Mon, Mar 11, 2013, 22:45


Yes, on balance, I think “Great American Novel” should be capitalised. Publishers Weekly is currently running a poll to discover the definitive holder of that title. The list has its fair share of obvious titles. There’s a book about some one-legged bloke and a whale. Goings on at East and West Egg are much in evidence. Sexual high-jinx are afoot in the search for a pattern governing distribution of V2 strikes on wartime London. I don’t need to ask if the well-read Screenwriter demographic is still with me. Of course you all are.

Before coming back to the Publishers Weekly poll, it’s worth pondering what is going on here. No other nation is, to my knowledge, so taken up with discovering a book that places all its lakes, rivers, railways, billboards, grandmothers, beers, horses, dustbins, diners and doormats within one humble dustcover. I suppose you might occasionally refer to War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov as the (more likely “a”) great Russian novel. But that’s as much to do with sheer scope as anything else. Here, “great” is being used in the way that word is used when it appears in the phrase “Great Barrier Reef”. They’re bleeding enormous, those books. But they don’t form part of the hunt for (watch what I do here) a sort of metaphorical great white whale.

I think the American obsession with this odd concept is tied up with the fact that the country is not just a place; it’s an idea. When the founding father’s set up the United States they had some notion that they were constructing a new sort of country. Virtually every other nation on the planet works hard at making connections with an (often imagined) ancient past. That sort of national identity is impossible to summarise in fictional form. By way of contrast, the Great American Novel — which can’t generalise about race — need only summon up a few hundred years of reinvention, immigration, compromised democracy and devotion to deep-fried everything.

Here’s a strange thing. If we know anything about the Great American Novel we know that it is long. Right? Every other month some indigestible phone directory arrives from a creative writing department in Oklahoma (or somewhere). Undone so Many by Rufus Sputnik will travel across 52 states in its desire to pack all of America — the place and the concept — into a novel that will fit conveniently into a steamer trunk.

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Yeah, I know. Oh, it might be all right. Might it not? 

And yet. Of the three most mentioned candidates for the title, only one is abominably huge. Another is positively slim. The trio I am referring to are: Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Moby Dick was the Great American Novel before the concept was even a twinkle in the eye. It’s big, comprehensive, dense and full of ideas. Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby do, however, make a better stab at getting to grips with what it means to be an American. The word “adventure” is key to Huck Finn. Journeys are taken. New territories are lit out for. The Great Gatsby is, of course, all about that most American of notions: reinvention. It has, in that sense, a great deal in common with a famous Great American Movie that also begins on Long Island. Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather is less evasive and self-deluded than Gatsby. But he too is a nobody now celebrated as a sort of demigod. How have we got so far without mentioning those dread words The American Dream.

All of which pontificating leads us down a dark alley when considering the Publishers Weekly List. We have a question. Are you voting for your favourite novel, the “greatest ever” book or the one that most efficiently and comprehensively sums up the American condition? If that last option were the only one worth considering then we could argue quite convincingly for Ayn Rand’s appalling Atlas Shrugged (not, thank God, on Huffpo’s list). I mean it certainly takes a crack at summoning up mid-century discontents. Does it not? Stephen King’s The Stand would also fit the bill (and pass the time a great deal more pleasurably).

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You are expendable and we’re going to leave you to rot. Is this right, Ms Rand?

One is, I suppose, looking for a blend of all three. Gatsby and Huckleberry manages the trifecta. So does The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I bow to nobody in my devotion to The Big Sleep. But is it not very much trapped in one time and one milieu? Besides, The Long Goodbye is a better book.

What’s missing from the list? Well, I am very surprised not to see Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections among the throng. It’s far from perfect. But it seemed to define the millennial era quite nicely. JR by Willam Gaddis, a key novel from the giant avant garde, is surely a strange exclusion. Neither Thomas Wolfe nor Tom Wolfe? What’s going on there?

Anyway, I am voting for either Moby Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow or The Sound and the Fury. Oh hang on. What about Ragtime? Oh I don’t know. These things are just so silly.