The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

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The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby JohnDurvin » 30 Nov 2012, 23:45

The Great American Novel is something I hear a lot of people talk about. Other countries with literary traditions have novels (or at least writers) that define them, that show the spirit of the country, that show what it means to be from there. Apparently the US doesn't have one. My guess is that one reason there's so much trouble with writing it is that other countries have been around a lot longer; the US is only a few hundred years old, and those short centuries have been easily the most dynamic in history. So not that I'm planning on trying to write it or anything, but during one of my recent bouts with insomnia, I got to thinking about what would need to be in it.

I'm pretty sure it would be a life story, beginning to end. Man or woman? I don't know. To avoid awkward pronouns, I'm just going to say "he"; totally could be a "she". He'd probably be black. Anyway, since US culture has always been a melting pot, as the saying goes, I think it would not be too objectionable to have the periods of his life mirror some pieces of classic American literature:
* Youth: some combination of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn
* Teens: "The Catcher in the Rye"
* Young adulthood: "The Great Gatsby"
* Later adulthood: "Death of a Salesman", except without the death
* Old age and death: "The Old Man and the Sea"
And with the Twentieth Century seeming so far to be the most important in our history, I'd say have him live through the most important events. Born around 1910 and raised in the northernmost parts of the South as they come to grips with the Industrial Revolution; his teen years' rebellion culminates in running away to the city to eventually hope to become some sort of 1920's yuppie, until his hopes for the future are shattered when the Depression hits. He gradually struggles back onto his feet, probably seeing some army service during WW2, then having kids as part of the Baby Boom. With the help of his wife, he regains his hopes in the future and starts to become a successful salesman (selling what, I don't know). He narrowly avoids losing everything to various accusations during the McCarthy Era, and settles for a more meager lifestyle afterwards. In the 60's his kids become active in the civil rights movement...I'm not sure what happens next, although generally in a novel there would be some marital troubles in this part of the story...probably his wife was having an affair or something and takes most of the business away during the 80's...I don't know. I do know that towards the end, he would own some kind of junky little charter fishing boat in Florida, and wind up out on the water on election day of 2000, not caring whether he makes it back in time to vote or not. He winds up getting injured (what with being 90 or so) and possibly stuck out there for a while before finally being rescued. (He asks about the outcome of the election, but it hasn't been decided yet.) He's in the hospital for good; old age is catching up with him. We never learn if what's killing him is a result of his boating accident or from just too much living, but he finally passes away on September 11, 2001. His last words are something like "I don't know what happens next".

So that's my quick outline for the Great American Novel. Sound right? Add something? Take away? Go for it. I'm way too wacky a guy to sit down and right a massive slab of drama like this, however central humor may be to the American experience; if you want to write this, go for it. Give me co-author credit if you want.
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby Beethovenfan » 01 Dec 2012, 01:43

Wow, you've really thought this thing through! If I were to add anything to this, it would be something about Hollywood. Entertainment is such a big part of American culture, and most of it comes from there.
I really like this idea of the Great American Story. Perhaps you are just wacky enought to pull it off! ;)
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby polymath » 01 Dec 2012, 08:44

The first acknowledged "Great American Novel" was Herman Melville's Moby Dick from the novel making the first significant departure from British and European voice and mannerisms. The novel signaled that U.S. creative writing found a uniquely U.S. voice and craft and came of age. Other novels followed suit here and there, each in turn additionally departing from what came before from Europe and the U.S.

A chronological maturation narrative could as easily become the next Great American Novel, or any other organizing principle's pattern and sequence, as any other that came before or a new one. Currently, the state of publishing and literary cultures are as fractured as maninstream culture, though. Thus fractured identity struggles seems to me a publication-worthy theme for a next "Great American Novel" if managed artfully.

Other age tableaus from great U.S. literature:
Early adult ages 18 through 25, Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The significance of which is a social mobility narrative represented by physical mobility, the automobile's technological contribution to cultural change. Technology and social changes' influences on and reflections of culture define a generation. The era's milieu set up for the coming middle twentieth century's Postmodern social upheaval questioning and challenging presupposed notions of propriety.

Middle adulthood ages 25 through 50 or so, I'd say has yet to be done in any culture as a "Great Novel." These are the ages when human duty copes with the struggles and impacts of responsibility and obligation which burden existence. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champion's comes close, more of a midlife crisis struggle with end stage middle adulthood though.

The Old Man and the Sea I'll give you is about coping with late adulthood's onset, though not about death so much as a thematic center. End-of-life life narratives generally have passed beyond Kübler-Ross's denial, anger, bargaining, and depression cycles into acceptance, speaking of an organizing principle's pattern and sequence. I'm aware of a defining narrative or two that express that, but not in the same league as Moby Dick.
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby JohnDurvin » 06 Dec 2012, 14:44

Beethovenfan wrote:Wow, you've really thought this thing through!


Yeah, I tend to do a lot of my best thinking when I'm supposed to be going to sleep.

I like the idea of switching his career over to Hollywood--he should totally be an actor, taking leading roles over with his dominant personality, and perhaps a healthy disregard for his subordinates. His wife leaves him (probably in the 1970's) for being such a jerk over the years, and the realization of what he's become ruins his acting abilities, which is how he winds up owning a charter fishing boat by the 1990's.

Another detail I thought of is what he was doing during WW2: he was an alternate for one or both of the atomic bomb drops--specifically, he would have been the one to flip the switch (or whatever you did to drop bombs in WW2 planes). He lives his whole life conscious of that fact; if one guy had gotten sick or slipped in the shower, it would have been our MC's job to personally kill millions of people. He's incredibly glad he never had that responsibility, because he's not sure if he could have done it; but then that lingering indecision is always lurking in the back of his mind, and as glad as he is to not have had to do it, he's really keen to know what he would have done.

But seriously, there's no way I could really write this--not now, anyway. My WIP is a mash-up between Mark Twain, John Hodgman, and Harry Potter; this thing here is way too serious for me to sit down and write. Outlines I can do--heck, if I could do nothing but outlines and world-building, I'd be happy. It's possible that I could hold onto this thing for a few decades and write it once I'm old enough to know what I'm talking about. These days, though, I'm still too "Adult Swim"-ish; this is a book for a mature, world-weary writer, not some kid that makes web-comics about goofy cyborgs.
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby Shipple » 15 Dec 2012, 17:10

Even though it's a movie, I'd like to suggest replacing "The Great Gatsby" with "The Graduate." I empathized a lot more with The Graduate than Gatsby, although if you want to hit the 1920s as an era, Gatsby would make more sense. Plus, I see Holden going from Catcher to The Graduate a lot better than going from Catcher to Gatsby. And The Graduate definitely entailed great American writing.

Also, my apologies if I'm harming the serious nature of this potential work, but I'd love to see a little Eloise in the 6 year old phase. Eloise was awesome and comes from the same background as Holden-overindulged, wealthy, and absentee parents.
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby Shipple » 15 Dec 2012, 22:04

I just came up with a good middle aged book for you (not that you need one other than Death of a Salesman, but if you're looking for any alternatives) - "Babbitt". Goes well with skewering the middle class lifestyle of Catcher in the Rye. Although I'm not sure if that works for the Great American novel. But in my interpretation of "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald does quite a bit of that too.

I don't think this Great American novel would do much to commend American life.
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby lmjackson » 31 Dec 2012, 07:13

I've become quite jaded with the term "Great American Novel" as well as the American literary canon as a whole. As you'll find, the majority of authors on such lists are:
- White
- Middle class
- Male
- Dead

Additionally, the protagonists of such stories are usually:
- White
- Male
- Middle class

So while a post-modern "Great American Novel" could star a middle aged Black woman, a book featuring such would/will never be considered such by the American reading public.

Instead of capturing the everyman/woman, I rather think prominent parts of the literary canon represent what literary critics throughout the centuries have wanted to assert were/are critical values, lessons, and experiences for Americans; whether or not our culture actually reflects them.
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Re: The Great American Novel (not that I'm going to write it)

Postby polymath » 31 Dec 2012, 10:37

lmjackson wrote:I've become quite jaded with the term "Great American Novel" as well as the American literary canon as a whole. As you'll find, the majority of authors on such lists are:
- White
- Middle class
- Male
- Dead

Additionally, the protagonists of such stories are usually:
- White
- Male
- Middle class

While cultural diversity is underrepresented in the literary prize canon and within the widespread critical acclaim canon, the reasons are of greater significance. Why is a majority of top tier literature monocultural? At least because the publishing and literature cultures are monocultural. WASP male writers, editors, publishers, critics, and academics participate in the cultures at a disproportionate number and degree.

Another subtler reason is because any other character type should, as a best practice, represent that character's folkways—his or her normative behaviors, values, taboos, mores, etc., and cultural identity.
lmjackson wrote:Instead of capturing the everyman/woman, I rather think prominent parts of the literary canon represent what literary critics throughout the centuries have wanted to assert were/are critical values, lessons, and experiences for Americans; whether or not our culture actually reflects them.

This asks what functions or roles literature plays in a culture. Let alone asking how literature fulfills its roles. The term text has come to mean any performance piece, be it a written word publication, a stage or screenplay, a spontaneous or polished oral transmission—radio, recording, or spoken in person— or a dimensional object that expresses a concept, like a painting or sculpture or craft object, including everyday features of daily living, like buildings, furniture, apparel, transport, food, beverage, etc.

The functions of texts, the roles they play in culture track back to the concept of publication—a first principle—they are for public consumption. They express what people make, say, do, believe, know that express shared esoteric cultural identity, even shared alienation and animosity toward exoteric cultures. They inform, instruct, correct, and control social behaviors. They function as social-cultural remediations.

I'm kind of put off by the outworn usage of "Great American Novel," too. My reasons, though, are disagreement with the culturally hegemonic hubris of using "American" to represent but one country's cultural identity out of many countries' identity cultures in the American hemisphere. And because the "Great Novel" in a global age should appeal across the globe—The Great Global Novel!
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