The Modern American Great Novel

26 Feb

There is something bogus about the title, and those of you who have spotted this have a good ear for irony. Why? Well, because there can certainly be such a thing as a “modern novel” or “an American novel” or a “modern American novel” but to refer to a sub-set known as “the modern American great novel” seems to suggest that the latter is so numerous that it needs a list or a classification. Which is not the case, sadly.

The concept of the “great” American novel may be a throwback to the post-colonial era, when America was keen to demonstrate that it was just as capable as England when it came to producing great writers. With Henry James and other prominent early twentieth century voices, America found itself still very keen to have great writers. And in the end, at the tail end of this movement, we have the likes of Roth and Bellow constantly being asked about the “great American novel” and whether they felt they were writing in that tradition. This was always an idiotic question. The only tradition for a novelist to be writing in is the tradition of creating fiction. Whether it is great or not, and even whether it is American or not, seem to be later questions for consideration.

The rise of the independent publishing sector in America has blurred the lines even more, by pumping out a great variety of fiction by writers viewing themselves as “outside the system.” Their alienation and starvation has led to a sort of machismo, a dated Parisian, Baudelairean reincarnation of the romance of being Bohemian, misunderstood, and very likely a genius too, whose hunting grounds are defined by Goodreads and Amazon. By definition, failure or unwillingness to be a top-selling writer producing easy forage for the mass market  has created a sense of heroism among “independent writers.” Their ethos also takes some of its content from Bon Jovi lyrics: “Stuck in a hotel, drank a bottle of vodka last night, working on the thirteenth rewrite of the twenty-eighth draft of chapter six. Surviving outside the system, man! And my baby left me…”

Fiction is not about blood, it is not the ego being demonstrative about itself.  It’s about spirit, and thought.

Great fiction is usually about slow immersion, not acrobatics, or chain-smoking, or the artist as bench-press master.

And who cares where it is from? America? Liberia? Artists are always something more than members of a national fraternity. They cross borders.

A recent Twitter discussion on “do we really need another novel from Brooklyn” struck me as so very stupid. Of course we do. Brooklyn is not Brooklyn. Liberia is not Liberia. Everything is just the human mind. And now that more and more people are on the move, we may find that the next Modern American Great Novel is written by a Liberian. Living in Brooklyn.





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