The Great American Novel
Per Wikipedia: “The idea of the Great American Novel is the concept of a novel of high literary merit that shows the culture of the United States at a specific time in the country’s history… The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the U.S. people of the time and to capture the unique U.S. experience, especially as it is perceived for the time.”
You know what I think is the best part of that description? The first three words. “The idea of…” Because that’s what it is: an idea. It’s all subjective, but I suspect that if you asked the people who are nominally in charge of deciding whether or not a book merits the lofty “Great American Novel” designation, it’d be much like porn — they know it when they see it.
I mentioned earlier that my mother has always wanted… nay, expected… me to write a book. I once teased her that her high expectations would be her undoing, because my first book was certain to be an extremely gory horror novel that she wouldn’t want to read. She responded, with the weight of ten thousand bags of sand, that she was certain I’d write something more subtle than that. I doubt that the words “Great American Novel” ever passed through her mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the concept was lurking beneath the surface to some degree.
I don’t think that “telling a good story” and “high literary merit” are mutually exclusive concepts, but I do think that being overly conscious of the latter is probably a good way to sabotage yourself. Taste is subjective, yes, fine, of course, and thank crap for that, or there would be a lot more unemployed writers. But sometimes, I wonder if the concept of the Great American Novel is actually a nasty little mutating virus that exists to infect people with either pretentiousness or despair. Heck, some people probably get both.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. Here’s what I know for sure: the fiction that I enjoy the most, the books that I read over and over again — they’re good stories. And they’re written well enough that the language, at the very least, doesn’t get in the way. (Habitually failing to recognize that “phase” is not “faze”, for example, turned out to be a deal breaker for a certain series I stopped reading long ago. That wasn’t the only issue, but it was the last straw.)
If I had goals for my books, they might look something like this:
- People enjoy it, for reasons of their own.
Ok, one goal. That’s pretty much it. Everything else is gravy.
Wait… sorry. I don’t really like gravy. Everything else is whipped cream? Ugh, that might lead to the wrong images. Umm, everything else is extra cheese? Doesn’t really flow, though, does it? No, not the cheese, the sentence, you… can I skip the extra… yes, I know I started this, but now I’m too far into it to back out. Do you think you could… just… no, just cut. Cut! I know this isn’t a movie, I just.. will you just stop, already?