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The Great American Novel: How and Why

By Ruth Howells, on 8 March 2012

The ‘Great American Novel’ is often considered a benchmark for literary ambition, sales and critical acclaim.

Dr Kasia Boddy (UCL English Language & Literature), in a Lunch Hour Lecture held on World Book Day (1 March), considered some of the forms this type of novel has taken and some of the issues and needs it looks to address.

The GAN is born
The ‘GAN’ (I am unclear if this acronym is derogatory, affectionate or both) has existed as a concept since 1868, when the American civil war novelist John William De Forest wrote an essay titled ‘The Great American Novel’ in The Nation.

In it, he called for a type of novel that would “successfully assume a burden of cultural importance”, that would take America “not only as their setting, but their subject”.

In the wake of the civil war, the concept originated in a form of American nationalism that looked for a new literature that would rival that of the great British authors. It aimed to be an accurate representation of the zeitgeist in the US at the time of writing.

The GAN aims not just to reflect national identity, but to consolidate it somehow – to show it in its entirety. It aims to be a record or inventory of all that exists within a nation. (This probably explains why they’re often very long or come in more than one volume!)

The hallmarks of the GAN
Perhaps to try and more realistically tackle this breadth of vision, the GAN is sometimes written through the prism of one person’s journey and education. This can take the form of someone travelling, whose narrative is supplemented by others they meet on their journey – such as in The Adventures of Augie March.

Another popular form is the family saga as national saga – as seen in Roots, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Godfather. The trilogy is another hallmark, with examples including John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Border’ trilogy.

GANs can be something of a homage to authorial labour – more recently encapsulated in Jonathan Franzen’s constant cataloguing in Freedom, or in the late David Foster Wallace’s pages-long footnotes in Infinite Jest.

The GAN censured
The very concept of the GAN is open to criticism – don’t other cultures have this genre of book? How is it possible to – and isn’t it a little arrogant to assume you can –provide a comprehensive picture of a nation? And why is the GAN almost exclusively written by men?

Female novelists, both in Kasia’s lecture and in any list of GANs that you find on the internet are very few and far between – Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison are the ones more commonly mentioned, hidden among swathes of male writers.

The genre has become a butt of jokes and even has its own merchandise. Kasia displayed photos of mugs and t-shirts in her presentation, as well as cartoons that included one with the caption: “I’ve decided to scale back and just write the Mediocre American Novel.”

21st Century GAN
Novels with the GAN tag continue to be announced every year – and in a ‘good’ year there are usually several. Most recently a serious, grey portrait of Jonathan Franzen adorned the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Great American Novelist”, encapsulating the power the term still has – and the storm of hype it can generate.

When the GAN stole onto the literary scene, it displaced epic poetry. More recently, Kasia argued, it could be considered as having been somewhat displaced itself by cinema and television.

Kasia used some of her lecture to talk about television with a GAN feel – particularly The Wire, which is epic in scale and concerned with national identity and national allegory.

She played the opening scene of the very first episode, when Detective McNulty has an exchange with a young man in which he asks why the young man and his friends continued to let someone gamble with them when they knew he always tried to steal the pot of money. The young man reasons: “Got to. This America, man.”

At the end of the lecture, one audience member asked why there seemed to be so many GANS in the 1930s. Kasia replied that the 20s and 30s were a busy period – and that you could say the same for the 50s and even post 9-11. She suggested that these clusters tended to be in periods of national anxiety.

When asked why so few GANs are written by women, Kasia commented that she felt fewer women where interested in writing this kind of novel and that they tended to want to debunk the idea rather than attempt it.

What was clear from this enjoyable and informative lecture was that, whatever our (often legitimate) reservations about the GAN concept, it continues to inspire devotion, vitriol and everything in between more than 150 years after the concept was born.

Image: Novelist Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time magazine (Credit: Time)

One Response to “The Great American Novel: How and Why”

  • 1
    Truda Thurai wrote on 9 March 2012:

    Fascinating history of the GAN. Seems to suggest that a genre can perpetuate the social mores of the age in which it was first conceived. This would certainly explain the absence of women in the GAN landscape. Howevever, there may also be another explanation – even if women do write such manuscripts, it is poosible that publishers/agents are simply not taking them on. As a female author who has written a serious historical novel (possibly comparable to a GAN model), I discovered that agents are only interested in herding women into the chick-lit/crime/horror pen. The ‘absence of women’ comments also gave me a frisson in the light of the recent VIDA survey re low % of reviews of women’s books and of female authors. If you want any further comments from a contemporary (female) author on these issues, I should be very happy to oblige. For the record, I am an ex-student of UCL (BA) and KCL (MA). My book has recently been ordered by the SOAS library and has been independently reviewed by the Law Society Gazette:http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/bookreviews/written-lawyers/the-devil-dancers
    A summary + additional historical background can be found on my website (above). A summary also appears on KCL’s Alumni page: http://alumni.kcl.ac.uk/page.aspx?pid=4878

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