Friday, July 11, 2014

The Great American Novel, Continued

Manuel Ramos, all rights reserved

Ernest Hogan’s post on yesterday’s La Bloga, What If a Chicano Wrote the Great American Novel?, was, as usual for Hogan, provocative. With me, it provoked thoughts along the lines of “What IS a Great American Novel (GAN)?”

Typically, this question is answered with titles of books written by, as Hogan describes them, “heroic, white, male alcoholics on manual typewriters.” Although I don’t know if all these guys were alcoholics, here are ten books that often are referred to as “great American novels."

The search for the GAN, or, is the whale really white?
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Rabbit, Run - John Updike
On The Road - Jack Kerouac
The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow

The ultimate question for those who ask such things is: Which of these is THE Great American Novel?

But this list could just as easily include Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Beloved by Toni Morrison, My Antonio by Willa Cather, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Could it include a Chicano or Chicana? Would Bless Me, Ultima suffice? How about any of Rolando Hinojosa’s Klail City Death Trip Series? The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros? Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Acosta?

And so for me (and Ernest Hogan) the question eventually becomes: Could I, a Chicano writer, write The Great American Novel?  (The question assumes I am capable of writing a great novel.)

Digging into this question requires a bit of context. So, here’s a tiny bit of history.

One place to start is an essay on Slate (2012) entitledThe Great American Novel: We’ve Been Looking for One Since the 1860s. Why?” written by Maria Konnikova. Konnikova asks the question from the perspective of a U.S. writer of Russian heritage. She first contends that GAN is a bizarre concept. The idea of looking for a great novel is certainly an admirable search, but why attach a nationality to literature? Good point. Makes me ask, “Do Mexican critics, academics, and writers fret about who has written the Great Mexican Novel?”

This acknowledgment of the weirdness of the idea of a GAN raises the old question about whether Chicano/a writers are served better if their writing is defined as (U.S.) American Lit or Ethnic Lit or maybe just plain old Lit. One Chicano writer I know, in fact a man whose books could certainly compete in the great GANs contest, told me that he worried about “narrowing his audience” if too many labels were attached to his work. That is a fear I can relate to. In the more than twenty-one years that I have been publishing fiction, my work has been labeled, at various times, as mystery, ethnic detective, Chicano mystery, crime fiction, Chicano Lit, noir, hard-boiled, and so on. I have to wonder if those kinds of categorizations simply serve to keep readers away who might not identify with the particular label.

Konnikova goes on to summarize the flexible definition of the GAN, surmising that it has changed depending on various crises, problems, and social movements. However, it does appear that there has been one aspect that has remained consistent. Here’s a quote from the Slate article:

“In an 1868 The Nation essay, Civil War veteran John William DeForest—himself an aspiring GAN-ist—described the GAN as 'the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,' a work that painted 'the American soul.' And what, precisely, did that soul entail? There was but one real—though unquestionably daunting—requirement: it had to be supremely national in breadth and scope.”

So we might be looking for books that portray the “American soul.” Books that are national in scope. DeForest excluded The Scarlet Letter from consideration as a GAN because it lacked “national” scope. But no one denies that The Scarlett Letter is a great book, right? Thus, great writing, a great story, and great characters do not necessarily equal a GAN, but I would add that every GAN must have great writing, a great story, and great characters. I tend to agree that if we must have a definition for the GAN, it appears appropriate that it should say something about the national character, something about the “American” existence at the time of the writing of the book. But, of course, a well-written story can do that even if it is about a small community, or only a few individuals. The scope does not have to be coast-to-coast.The writing has to be world class.

Konnikova notes that the characteristic of writing in a national vein almost immediately produced dialog and rebellion. Writers complained that writing about “Americanism” was a trap. One example --  “In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in an essay on Hemingway, lashed out against the inherent parochialism of the 'American' epithet. In his estimation, it not only had no place in great writing as such, but hampered novelists who were trying to achieve anything of distinction. The 'necessity for an American background' caused writers to be 'stupid-got with worry.' Even those of talent had 'botched their books by the insincere compulsion to write "significantly" about America.'"

After reading some of the commentary about the GAN and what it has meant to literature, I can’t help but worry that the search for the GAN is another example of our (United Statesians) never-ending attempt to define ourselves on the world stage as “The Greatest.” With typical North American arrogance, when we say Great American Novel we really mean Great World Novel. On the other hand, defining (or writing about) a national identity is not an easy job. Good luck to any writer who attempts to tackle that task.

At the end of the day, here’s what I think. Sometime in the not too distant future, a Latino (could be a Chicana, Puerto Rican, Dominican, whatever - could be Anaya, Cisneros, Diaz, Vea, Gilb, or someone has yet unnamed – could be living in East Los, the Bronx, San Antonio, Miami, or wherever) will write a book that will amaze and frighten and move to tears. The critics will exclaim in surprise and unity that “it took a (fill in the blank) from (fill in the blank) to write The Great American Novel of today. A novel that beautifully captures the pain and joy and mystery of living in 21st century America, that honestly deals with race and gender and sexual orientation and immigration and militarism and climate change and love and death with a fresh but obviously American perspective.”

And several writers I know will look at one another, smirk, and say, what else would we write about? And a few will add, shit, you should read my book.




We may also ask if the Great American Novel is relevant in the 21st century. In my ten years as a bookstore clerk, no customers asked for a GAN. I did talk to a look of folks who didn't like to think when they read, and wanted some kind of light fiction that went on forever. They got sad when the got to the end. They loved sequels. They were also mad at their favorite writers because they didn't crank out new stuff fast enough. Sigh. It amazes me that these readers have so much time on their hands.

Manuel Ramos said...

And then there's the annual lists of books bought but not read -- usually "literary" novels that look good on the table. Still, I think good literature will always be relevant, no matter what we call it.

Adrian said...

Like I always say; just write your heart and what happens, happens. Only time and history will tell, if anyone ever gave a rat's tuchas. If you go out trying to write the GAN, you won't. That's just not how it happens.