The Life & Death of the Great American Novel
A friend recently, and with a hint of sarcasm, suggested her goal was to write ‘The Great American Novel’ – but what, exactly, does that mean to us today? The meaning, usage and titles associated with the idea of a ‘Great American Novel’ have changed over time – from being applied to specific books to becoming revered as an unobtainable ideal. In a time when more content is produced and published in short form than ever before and the very nature of novels (not to mention books in general) is in flux, what is the role of either a real novel capturing the American Zetigeist … or even a fictional one to which authors aspire?
It is my current believe that the next ‘Great American Novel’ will be more than the sum of the words within this long-used phrase – perhaps even contracting each one individually. (1) It will not be ‘Great’ insofar as that adjective suggests something epic, long or universally praised. (2) It will not be distinctly ‘American’ in scope, for Postmodernists have forever dashed our dreams of such a unified vision of ourselves as a nation. (3) Most importantly, it will not be constructed in the linear narrative fashion of a traditional ‘Novel’ per say – our times call for a different form of expression.
I am not suggesting that books are on their way out, or that linear narratives are exclusively the province of the past, but that such static traditional volumes can no longer capture the ways in which language and the very nature of written and verbal communication have changed in recent decades. Sure, none of this is truly new – micro-messaging predates emails, cellular phones and text messages, dating back to the telegraphs and beyond, but never has it been so ubiquitously employed. Any substantial written body of work seeking to reflect the spirit of our times has to take into account these very fundamental ways in which we related to one another as human beings.
Of course, one could easily imagine a series of gimmicky attempts at too-literally writing for and with the times – such as the already-extant books filled with Twitter ‘Tweets’ already lining the shelves of stores. I make no claim to see specifically what will arise to challenge the status quo and forever change the meaning of ‘Great American Novel’ in the minds of successful and aspiring writers, but I sense strongly that there is something on the horizon yet to be discovered that will shake our understanding of Great, American and Novel to the core.