Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What is the Great American Novel?

There's been some discussion in mainstream media lately about The Great American Novel. Over at The New York Times Sunday Book Review Jennifer Szalai and Mohsin Hamid ask Where Is the Great American Novel by a Woman?. At The Huffington Post Claire Fallon asks Is 'The Great American Novel' a Useless Concept?.

Szalai says, The scholar Nina Baym has pointed out how “stories of female frustration are not perceived as commenting on, or containing, the essence of our culture.” Stories of male frustration, on the other hand — especially those “melodramas of beset manhood” in which men struggle with the siren call of comfort and domesticity — jibe more neatly with what we expect serious literature to be. Men's self-discovery is hunting for big game; women's self-discovery amounts to tidying up around the house. Szalai's central thesis seems to be that American culture, at least American literary culture, is still hobbled by sexism. Instead of the Great American Novel, maybe we should be talking more about our Great American Fixation, the insistent desire to find the book that tells us who we are. How we define that search — what counts, what doesn’t — has said as much about “the American soul” as any novel that’s supposed to do the same.

Hamid asks the question What else are those mind-blowing late-20th-century works by such American women as, among others, Kingston and Kingsolver, Morrison and Robinson, L’Engle and Le Guin, if not great novels? But he says, "...they aren't the Great American Novel. ...There is no such thing." Hamid concludes "Literature is where we free ourselves." Why even worry about labels like 'The Great American Novel?'

Fallon correctly notes, however, "...the quest will continue, with or without you." She makes a lot of interesting points, including, Our discussion of the Great American novel is actually a fantastic opportunity to challenge our ingrained conception of what an "everyman" in America can look like. Can an everyman be a woman, or black, or a recent immigrant from Mexico? Can an everyman be disabled, gay, or have parents who moved here from Taiwan? It's instinctive to designate such narratives as great or definitive books about being black in America, or about a being a woman seeking self-discovery, or about LGBT communities -- but these narratives are not any less purely American than those of white, straight men seeking their own identities or fortunes across the country.

Hurray, Ms. Fallon. I'm ready and waiting for the everyman story which just happens to be about a female, black, disabled, gay Mexican-Taiwanese-American. Because, really, what is this thing we call The Great American Novel?
It's our story.

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