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Is 'The Great American Novel' a Useless Concept?

Our national preoccupation with the concept is somewhat odd -- no other country seems to share this need to score ambitious new novels by whether it's a "Great _____ Novel contender."
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In this week's Bookends feature in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Jennifer Szalai and Mohsin Hamid both take on the fraught question often posed by feminist readers: Where is the Great American Novel -- by a woman? Both writers do full justice to the question, which is nearly impossible to answer correctly. Reply with a list of great American novels by women, and many merely side-eye the political correctness apparently needed to equate Beloved with Moby Dick. Reply that women don't write books of the necessary scope to capture the full American spirit, and ... well ... you just seem sexist. Reply, as both writers here do, that the quest to crown the Great American Novel is a fool's errand that we should give up, and (correct as you may be) you more or less remove yourself from the debate. Because the quest will continue, with or without you.

Our national preoccupation with the concept is somewhat odd -- no other country seems to share this need to score ambitious new novels by whether it's a "Great _____ Novel contender." America's late start and boundless aspirations must underlie this obsession; a brand-new country hoping to supersede Europe's accomplishments would surely look at the abundance of great European writers and feel a national urge to compete on the cultural playing field. With America's founding nearly coinciding with the popularization of the novel, what better form to express our national identity? After all, we came up a bit late for a national epic of our own.

Despite all this trying, there's no consensus candidate for the title. Books ranging from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Adventures of Augie March have been touted as such, as have The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, and American Pastoral. Capturing the national spirit of America has proven elusive. The unique diversity of American life doubtless has much to do with it. Though most countries contain a range of lifestyles, Russia and England are far more homogenous than a country embracing Russian and English immigrants, as well as families tracing their roots to countries in Africa and Asia, and to indigenous American peoples. The lingering influences of their ancestors' cultures demarcate communities on a level beyond mere regional custom, socioeconomic class, or even religion. Elaine Showalter, in her book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, also argues that America was more gender-divided than Europe throughout the 19th century, which saw the publication of so many seminal novels. She writes that while English women usually had servants to handle the majority of the housework, American women were expected to do much of the domestic heavy lifting, keeping them firmly in their place at the home and hearth. And of course, the extent and duration of slaveholding in America exacerbated racial fault-lines that we are still far from healing.

But when mainstream critics think of American culture, and The Great American Novel, they generally do think of something coherent and reasonably homogenous. Something that can be captured fully by one book. They may think of an immigrant's child or a citizen whose family has been here for generations, an urban dweller or a country type. But several traits remain fairly consistent. They think of a white person, a man, purportedly straight. These qualities seem almost necessary for us to think of the protagonist as an "American everyman" whose narrative can stand in for the broader American narrative. And our cultural conception of what constitutes the "average" or "normal" American is not an idea that exists in a bubble; on the contrary, it's an underlying belief that has significant political and social consequences -- consequences suffered by the groups considered to be "other" than this average, male, white American. This is one of many cultural struggles that give us a chance to define "Americanness," and to define it in a way that's either inclusive -- or not.

Szalai and Hamid are not entirely wrong in saying that our drive to capture the American spirit in the amber of one glorious novel should be questioned and perhaps tossed aside. It is a parochial ambition, as Hamid cautions, and it's far more interesting and useful on the literary level to evaluate a novel on its own terms than to attempt to force it into the role of encapsulating our national narrative.

But tossing out the desire for a national identity isn't practical. Americans, like all humans, want to feel a sense of belonging and shared identity with their fellow citizens. The Great American Novel is one of the more achievable and least exclusionary ways of seeking this communion of Americans, in theory -- at least it's not as reprehensible as our broken and discriminatory immigration system, which has long been used to keep out those who didn't seem to fit into our government's vision of what "Americans" should be.

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. And while marginalized groups are used to finding relatability in white male protagonists, this exercise is not impossible or without value for white men either. Their experiences have too long been considered the default, standard experiences that can represent all of a culture's experiences in print, but there is no reason a woman or minority can't also be the kind of quintessentially American figure who evinces our country's optimism, individualism, and quixotic idealism.

America's national identity, in truth, lies in its inherent heterogeneity -- and in the dreams that we all, despite our differences, tend to share. That's why, when the debate about the Great American Novel continues, as it surely will, we need to continually question what our standards for such a novel are, and why. If we find a tendency to value a white man's narrative as "universal" and "sweeping" while a woman's or black person's is perceived as merely representative of a niche culture, we must learn to adjust for our prejudices and treat all voices as equally valid representations of America. Writers like Ralph Ellison, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and more deserve to be evaluated without the asterisk of "minority" or "woman" next to their accomplishments. And the Great American Novel should capture the American spirit, not the American-designated privileged gender and race. As long as this debate continues, we should remember that.