The Great American Novel (Pick Only One)
January 14, 2017 11:04 PM   Subscribe

LitHub suggests some top picks for "the" Great American Novel and offers rationales for each with links to articles arguing for them.

Works include: The Great Gatsby -- Moby Dick -- To Kill a Mockingbird -- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- Mason & Dixon -- American Psycho -- The Grapes of Wrath -- Underworld -- Lolita -- U.S.A. -- Invisible Man -- Blood Meridian -- Light in August -- Absalom, Absalom! -- Rabbit, Run -- Infinite Jest -- The Adventures of Augie March -- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -- Beloved -- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Freedom -- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao -- These Dreams of You -- The Flame Throwers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (170 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
I had to look through all the comments to find William Gaddis' JR, but there it was.

I agree with this list. Of the Great American Novel there can only be nominations, never a winner.

The more, the more Great, the more Great American. Our last remaining beautiful thing.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 11:47 PM on January 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


No Stoner?
posted by Going To Maine at 11:53 PM on January 14, 2017 [8 favorites]


I can't pretend to nominate something as being the Great American Novel, but I'd be inlined to put It Can't Happen Here on the shortlist.

“The picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” huh? Can probably do without all the lily-white romanticizing optimism the list-maker felt compelled to include, then.
posted by kafziel at 11:54 PM on January 14, 2017 [5 favorites]


The Great American Novel is the one I haven't written yet.
posted by Samizdata at 12:04 AM on January 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


I'm quite persuaded by the argument for Invisible Man, which I'm not sure I've seen nominated as THE Great American Novel before, but I am totally on board, excellent points, article guy.

I think I'd pick Moby Dick but I also just read it in 2015 so it's pretty fresh in my mind. Hard to argue with Gatsby but Gatsby's also more specific to a particular time and place than maybe I want in THE Great American Novel? It's also very 20th century, while Moby Dick feels a little broader in its engagement with philosophy.

I could maybe also be persuaded to support Huck Finn or Mockingbird.

(I like Junot Diaz's work in general but I feel like the only person in America who didn't like Oscar Wao. I was very lukewarm on it.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:13 AM on January 15, 2017 [8 favorites]


Disqualified for absence of Portrait of a Lady. How do you see what is American except by contrast?
posted by praemunire at 12:18 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


I am greatly disappointed to see neither "Jurassic Park" nor "I, Robot" on this list.
posted by sour cream at 12:53 AM on January 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


didn't America already have its century?
posted by philip-random at 1:04 AM on January 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


(I like Junot Diaz's work in general but I feel like the only person in America who didn't like Oscar Wao. I was very lukewarm on it.)

Not to overly disparage Junot Diaz, but his writing often comes across as an annoying guy shouting at you. I guess "voice" is his thing, but it often seems as if there's not much else. I didn't much like Oscar Wao (maybe it had been too hyped) and I stopped reading any of the short stories the New Yorker printed (there have been many).

Good to see Kavalier and Clay on there - fabulous book.
posted by 1head2arms2legs at 1:06 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


I think with Oscar Wao I objected to a couple of the narrative devices in the story. I know Diaz is a D&D nerd, but his use of D&D to mark Oscar as an outcast really rubbed me the wrong way (I don't play myself, and I've certainly known some antisocial D&D players, but it seemed unfair and heavy handed). And second is an absolute pet peeve of mine and I realize is idiosyncratic, but I just loathe it when authors use sex-qua-sex as a shorthand for achieving adulthood/maturity, because that is so fucking lazy (heh, no pun intended) and lets you off the hook for actually showing the character maturing intellectually or emotionally or morally. Diaz wasn't 100% within that trope, and was playing a lot with the idea (which Yuinor and Oscar have both imbibed, Yuinor from macho culture and Oscar from SFF) that men have to have sex to be men, but the climax of Oscar's story (still no pun!) is ahieving sex and then being okay about dying because he's achieved his goal and ugggggggh it is the laziest possible coming-of-age.

I think I should reread the Grapes of Wrath, which I read in high school and enjoyed, but it didn't have a lot of immediacy for me at that age. I bet it would hit me harder now. Think I'll add Augie March to my list too.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:31 AM on January 15, 2017 [8 favorites]


No Vonnegut, Kerouac, Heller, or Salinger? I call bullshit.
posted by evilDoug at 1:44 AM on January 15, 2017 [14 favorites]


I agree with this list. Of the Great American Novel there can only be nominations, never a winner.

Pretty much. We can argue about which of Charles Portis' novels is The Great American Novel forever
posted by edeezy at 2:10 AM on January 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


Except that it's obviously The Dog of the South
posted by chavenet at 2:33 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Either Moby Dick or Beloved. Both novels are about the core of what America is/was wrapped up in writing that is a couple steps above superlative.

Invisible Man could be a hard-on-the-heels runner-up.

Because, come on, Gatsby is a beautiful thing, but it's about a bunch of white guys floating on the froth of America's americanitude. Beloved is about how and why America is what it is - it's about a country based on slavery that never ever ever stopped and said to itself, "wow, that was fucked up." and maybe - for large swaths of the country, never will.

Faulkner is definitely parts of "The Great American Novel" but as furiously rich as Absalom might be it's still like reading mud worms for the passing of a catfish. (nonsequitor intended.)

I'd like to nominate a Henry James because he's one of the mightiest writers ever to spring from America, but he wrote wholly facing Europe with America at his back. He's such an odd egg.

Moby Dick because it's such a mercantile book - it's about commerce, about wringing every last drop from natural resources and this, too, is a ur-narrative of America/ the New World.

Reflecting on the current times, I wonder where America will be in fifty years, twenty years, even, and how we will think of what America is, then.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:41 AM on January 15, 2017 [9 favorites]


Gatsby's to do list is the Great American Novel.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:47 AM on January 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Severe recency bias here. American Psycho? Infinite Jest? Nope.

I'd nominate Rechy's City of Light, Kesey (Sometimes A Great Notion more than Cuckoo's Nest) or Confederacy of Dunces.
posted by msalt at 2:54 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


The problem with choosing the Great American Novel is the dearth of Great Americans ...
posted by oheso at 3:17 AM on January 15, 2017


MetaFilter: a bunch of white guys floating on the froth of America's americanitude
posted by oheso at 3:18 AM on January 15, 2017 [17 favorites]


Severe recency bias here. American Psycho? Infinite Jest? Nope.

Sorry, you do not get my vote (at least in terms of Infinite Jest: simply one of the most sublime things ever written in the English language ... ).
posted by oheso at 3:19 AM on January 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Oscar Wao and Kavalier and Klay do not belong anywhere near this list. It's like a list of best films ever from the 1990s with Titanic first place - pure recency bias. The U.S.A trilogy is incredible, and probably the closest approximation to The Great American Novel, although many of the other books on the list are of equal quality.
posted by Svejk at 3:20 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Gee and here I thought the Great American novel was suposed to be about an middle-aged upper class writer on the Eastern Seaboard, who is trapped in a loveless marriage and banging the young women he meets. And something about the maple leaves changing color in fall.
posted by happyroach at 3:23 AM on January 15, 2017 [27 favorites]


If I had to pick one American novel to compete against the rest of the world for the title of Greatest Novel Ever Written, I guess I’d go for Moby Dick? But there are loads I haven’t read.

I think it would be lucky to get through to the quarter-finals and Proust would probably win in the end, but it’s a tough competition.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 3:36 AM on January 15, 2017


I would have added Slaughterhouse-Five and/or Catch-22 to the list. Both take place during what could be the defining event for 20th century America (indeed, maybe even our high-water mark as a nation) while highlighting the absurdities in our culture. I like the suggestion of Confederacy of Dunces as well.
posted by TedW at 3:37 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


I might add:

The Accidental Tourist
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Lathe of Heaven
Little, Big
The Maltese Falcon
posted by kyrademon at 3:56 AM on January 15, 2017 [12 favorites]


Tales of the City
The Awakening
My Antonia
The Crying of Lot 49
The House of Mirth
posted by kyrademon at 4:04 AM on January 15, 2017 [8 favorites]


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
The Color Purple
Little Women
The Red Badge of Courage
posted by kyrademon at 4:07 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


American Gods needs to be on this list.
posted by tully_monster at 4:09 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Babbitt
Show Boat
All The King's Men
Charlotte's Web
Ragtime
posted by kyrademon at 4:11 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


The Sotweed Factor
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
We Have Always Lived In The Castle

And I'll agree with those who have suggested:

Catch-22
Slaughterhouse Five
A Confederacy of Dunces
posted by kyrademon at 4:40 AM on January 15, 2017 [8 favorites]


If asked, I'll say I really don't believe in one "great American novel."

If pressed, my answer is Invisible Man, though with the same caveat.
posted by audi alteram partem at 5:18 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Little Big Man should be on the list too.
posted by Pararrayos at 5:19 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Ameen Rihani's The Book of Khalid (1911; Wikipedia) is an early attempt at a "picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence" via hyperbole and satire rather than realism. It spends only ~100 pages in the US, but its bifocal / transnational perspective is itself a norm for a significant portion of Americans. Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) and Gerald Vizenor's The Heirs of Columbus (1991) are similar--their portraits of America are worked out in sort of a mythological/allegorical mode and seem absurd rather than ordinary, but they're probably evoking an ordinary experience of America as a really big, complicated, problematic joke.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:25 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Glad Blood Meridian's in there.

“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning."

Who couldn't say the same these days?
posted by Rust Moranis at 5:25 AM on January 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


I thought the Nobel Prize Committee already decided it was "Mr Tambourine Man."
posted by No-sword at 5:33 AM on January 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


Most of the OP recommendations have merit (but American Psycho? Really?) as do most of the recommendations here. But for me, horror is the great American novel genre, created here and speaking most closely to our darkest truths. And of our horror writers Stephen King is the great American novelist, a man who gives aw-shucks-I-just-tell-stories interviews while kind of forgetting that he taught college literature before selling Carrie. And of his books, all of them from Carrie up to and including It have merit but the one that I think would earn consensus would be his "personal Vietnam," The Stand. Like some of the others here it covers a broad cross-section of American society and asks how we would react to a uniquely American shared nightmare.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:54 AM on January 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Though I know a lot of the bloom is off the rose, but I would argue for On the Road, at least for being in the discussion. Cars and roads, and constantly looking for something better than whatever it is that we have now, an eternal grass is always greener, constantly discarding the now for the myth of the maybe somewhere else.

And, as hoaky as it may be, but the book sings with the exhuberant discovery of freedom after having dutifully followed the rules. For me, the peak of the book is in the brothel in Mexico where they turn up the music as loud as they can for the first time ever in their lives. The end of the dial has always been there, the option to crank the stereo has always existed, but they never dared to push things that far before.

And yes, it's a book full of terrible people, glamourizing horrible behavior, and is entirely about a bunch of young white men so obnoxious they'd be unbearable, but really, what's more American than a bunch of white guys fetishizing minority culture? On the Road is the GAN.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:00 AM on January 15, 2017 [9 favorites]


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It was different, creative, innovative, brilliant, funny, deep, iconic, exciting, sensitive, realistic, profound -- and was completely ignored by people who pretended to know what A Great American Novel was for decades because the guy who wrote it wasn't one of them or had the acceptable pedigree.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:02 AM on January 15, 2017 [13 favorites]


I'm torn between amiably-trollsome-possibly-tiresome nose-tweakery of such lists in abstract and actually clicking/reading the FPP link. Might do that, although American Lit is one of my (many) blind spots. In the meantime though, I'd like to suggest Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, Dragonlance Chronicles and Little Brother by E L Doctorow.
posted by comealongpole at 6:13 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Dune.

Obviously.
posted by signal at 6:25 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Not going after you, comealongpole, but Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone is by a Brit and set entirely in Britain, and Little Brother is by Cory Doctorow, who is Canadian-British.

And in reference to some that others have brought up earlier, "I, Robot" is a collection of short stories, not a novel, and Neil Gaiman is generally considered a British author, although he's lived in the U.S. for decades now so I suppose that one's not unreasonable.
posted by kyrademon at 6:25 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Babbit
Day of the Locust

Captured aspects of the American spirit so deeply ingrained, they're every bit as insightful and hard-hitting as they were in the 1920s and 1940s.
posted by panama joe at 6:28 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


We need to give Margaret Atwood honorary American citizenship. The Handmaid's Tale.

I'm surprised they skipped Alice Walker.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:32 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


I would offer up a number of reason why this not so stylistically written novel nonetheless is as great as any other great American novels:
Uncle Tom's Cabin
posted by Postroad at 7:03 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Suttree.
posted by sutt at 7:04 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Vonnegut gets left off the lists of heavies pretty regularly because he wrote simple little books, the absence of heft in which belies the depth of his thinking & the scope of his grasp of the American psyche. I turn back to Cat's Cradle frequently for the way he captures the folly of the American Experiment, with its fake religions, its vast mediocrity, & it's bumbling towards oblivion, despite his obvious love for the enterprise. It's a work of despair which feels immediate these days, & always has. America is a vainglorious place that leads towards despair a good deal of the time, & we must always press against that.

I love confederacy of Dunces as much as the next guy, but this perhaps it's too regional to really be considered a Great American Novel, in that it doesn't encapsulate the breadth of the idea, though it sure digs at a bit of its soul.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:09 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Blood Meridian.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:10 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


True Grit.
posted by Chrischris at 7:15 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


And an argument could be made for John Williams other great novel: butchers crossing.
posted by Chrischris at 7:27 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Except that it's obviously The Dog of the South

But Norwood!

As to the article, I think as soon as peoples started floating Jonathan Franzen's name around as a potential writer of the Great American Novel, I decided that the Great American Novel would definitely not be a thing I'd want to read.

That said, Absalom, Absalom is one of my all-time favorite novels, Thomas Pynchon is one of my all-time favorite writers and there are obviously some greats on this list. In a pinch, I'd probably go with Invisible Man, for all the reasons mentioned. Or I'd expand the reach of of Great American Novel to include both continents bearing the name and nominate 100 Years of Solitude.
posted by thivaia at 7:53 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


My money is also on Moby Dick: few of the novels on that list seem to be truly serious contenders to me. (Indeed, a few of the novels on the list I had never even heard of. Whatever the Great American Novel should be, it should be infamous at the very least.)

(This is not to say that I love Moby Dick: I think it's bizarre and contradictory and full of itself. But isn't America, also?)
posted by ragtag at 8:06 AM on January 15, 2017


The Cat in the Hat
posted by tilde at 8:10 AM on January 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Blood Midichlorian.
posted by grobstein at 8:31 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


If we're going with Dr. Seuss, surely The Lorax is more representative of America?
posted by Spathe Cadet at 8:35 AM on January 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Personally I am heartened by the inclusion of Huck Finn. I hope people keep reading Twain for a long time.
posted by grobstein at 8:40 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Kyrademon should have been in charge of the whole list. Because whatever the Great American Novel is, it's bigger than the fapping of white dudes.
posted by dame at 8:53 AM on January 15, 2017 [8 favorites]


Oscar Wao is kind of embarrassing -- structurally it's a mess, and Diaz's issues with women are...I mean, look, just because you wink and point at it doesn't mean it's not still a problem. In general, though, he's one of my favorite examples of how the tyranny of short story workshops in the "right" MFA programs has completely fucked the American litfic genre. You can tell it's a first or second or even third novel when you get to the saggy middle and realize they have no idea how to sustain or structure a novel length story.

Agreed Vonnegut gets the shaft because his books are short and nominally "genre." (Also short and was less readable but weirdly affecting: Thomas McGuane's Ninety-two In the Shade)

I'm afraid to read the full list because it'll probably piss me off.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:55 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Ironically I was gonna be like Marilynne Robinson? But she's been running Iowa forever, so...no one's hands are clean.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:57 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Skimmed article now. Several usual suspects, but nothing wrong with that. Isn't Upton Sinclair usually on this list? And maybe Maus? Regardless, really wishing I'd read that copy of Little Women I've got kicking around so I could second it in this thread on general principle. Will bump LMA several places up my To-Read List for my own benefit anyhow.

The few (excellent!) Vonnegut I've read felt more concerned with themselves than capital-A America. Similarly King can write about alcoholism and a certain small-town mindset till the cows come home, but so long as there's rhe odd supernatural/animatronic tree or corpse running round.... Might well be the US Dickens in 100 years if GRRM doesn't steal his thunderstones, who knows?
posted by comealongpole at 9:00 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Schadenfrau reminds me, brevity is punished these days. As I get older (read: more time-constrained) I've really learned to appreciate brevity, doubly so when re-reads are merited. I'll definitely give Notes From Underground another read before I die, but the (yes, superior! to almost everything!) Bros. Karamazov is merely a maybe. Humour is perennially perceived as a demerit too, yet e.g. Candide is (rightly) a keystone of the Western canon! From what I've read of his work Vonnegut's human/societal concerns are paired with a delivery stylistically more akin to Douglas Adams at his best than Robert Sheckley or Hugh Cook (both of whom really could legitimately be accused of vamping Voltaire-style).

Hrm, I seem to have wilfully meandered into a weak defense of favourite mezzobrow genre work rather than the topic at hand (GAN-d?). Errrr, look over there, it's Michael Chabon! *scarpers*
posted by comealongpole at 9:25 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


There was just one catch, and it was Catch 22.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:39 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


I feel like asking what a Great American Novel is supposed to do - I think that needs more fleshing out than just "it captures something about America" (or the United States, as many call us.)

Like, is it great because of its literary qualities? Lyricism, innovation in style, etc? So it's a great novel that's written by an American?

Is it epic in scope, showing us a lot of time or a lot of people or a lot of space? Can a sort of chamber novel be the Great American Novel?

Does it expand on some themes that we think are particularly relevant to the history of the US?

Does it criticize or praise? Should it criticize? Should it praise?

Does it concern itself with things that the author sees as particularly American? Does it articulate ideas about the United States directly?

How do we weigh books that are great and important but also have repugnant ideology? Or books that are great, important and whose ideology is very much of its time? Can a really misogynist book be a GAN? What about a really racist book? What about a book that is equivocal? People have a lot of feelings about how Melville writes race, for instance.

I feel like talking about Great American Novels is mostly worthwhile because the nature of the conversation pushes us to consider what we mean by the term.

Also, two things: James Baldwin's novels are IMO some of the greatest novels of Americanness. If you haven't read Another Country, for instance!

Also, also: all these lists need more GLBTQ writers - GLBTQ books often get isolated like "genre" books do just by virtue of being about GLBTQ people. This is why a dazzling book like City of Night isn't nearly as well known as other important experimental sixties books. And it manages to be way less misogynist than, say, Barthes or someone.

And a third thought for free: It's not really a book that I'd put beside James or Melville, but one of my favorite novels about Americanness and one that I think has a lot to say is Sarah Schulman's novel about AIDS activism and being a lesbian in NYC in the late eighties/early nineties, People In Trouble.
posted by Frowner at 9:39 AM on January 15, 2017 [9 favorites]


Oscar Wao is kind of embarrassing -- structurally it's a mess, and Diaz's issues with women are...I mean, look, just because you wink and point at it doesn't mean it's not still a problem. In general, though, he's one of my favorite examples of how the tyranny of short story workshops in the "right" MFA programs has completely fucked the American litfic genre. You can tell it's a first or second or even third novel when you get to the saggy middle and realize they have no idea how to sustain or structure a novel length story.

I agree that Oscar Wao gets kind of fucked in the middle -- I found it quite confusing actually. Likely there is something I just didn't get -- but still, it makes it a bit hard to endorse qua novel. Nonetheless, I think it stands as a testament of some kind of genius. I think Diaz really is that good.
posted by grobstein at 9:43 AM on January 15, 2017


While I think that Moby-Dick is a great book, I'm not sure it's a novel. Novels are supposed to be based in reality, have a coherent narrative, and main characters that undergo some sort of growth. Plus, Moby-Dick is a fishing story. A fishing story about the one that got away. So it's all bullshit. In all likely hood, Ishmael and Ahab are a couple of guys who have never left Buffalo, telling some naive farm kids about the time Ahab fell out of a row boat while trying to reel in what he thought was a brown trout, but was actually a tree stump. It's a great book, undeniably the best fishing story every written, but it doesn't belong on a list of great novels.
posted by Meeks Ormand at 9:47 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I was going to grumble about how everyone always overlooks Light in August but wow, there it is. Still don't want to read it again, though.
posted by dilettante at 9:50 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."

The Adventures of Augie March, folks. Saul Bellow at his earliest and best. The opening paragraph speaks for itself.

Defence rests.
posted by storybored at 10:01 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I just watched the movie Genius last night, and although Thomas Wolfe is not represented here, the movie also features Fitzgerald and Hemingway a bit. It's not a great movie, but it's free on HBO Now and Jude Law's performance as Wolfe is pretty awesome. Funny that Gatsby was a complete failure at the time of publication.

Anyway, ↓↓↓ my vote is probably obvious...
posted by Huck500 at 10:08 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


If the Great American Novel is something that everyone read in high school then sure, it could be Gatsby or Mockingbird, but that seems to be a poor metric. I would argue for Twain or Vonnegut, they have similar uniquely American voices and represent the Midwest nicely.

I like seeing Adichie's Americanah on the long list. Lahiri's The Namesake would be my other recent addition.
posted by arachnidette at 10:30 AM on January 15, 2017


Gravity's Rainbow?
posted by hippybear at 10:32 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


We need to give Margaret Atwood honorary American citizenship. The Handmaid's Tale.

Nope you can't have her. She is too wholly invested in the idea of creating, recognising, funding and making visible the existence of aCanadian literature.

She is great, though, isn't she?
posted by chapps at 10:36 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


> While I think that Moby-Dick is a great book, I'm not sure it's a novel. Novels are supposed to be based in reality, have a coherent narrative, and main characters that undergo some sort of growth.

All of those things are true of Moby-Dick, though, particularly the first two.

(I also disagree with the idea that those things are required in order for something to be a novel, but if we're going to say Moby-Dick doesn't count, it should at least be disqualified on the grounds of its actual properties.)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 11:02 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I love confederacy of Dunces as much as the next guy, but this perhaps it's too regional to really be considered a Great American Novel, in that it doesn't encapsulate the breadth of the idea, though it sure digs at a bit of its soul.

Sam could be said of Sometimes A Great Notion -- I think it's a shoo-in for the Great Oregon Novel anyway.

American doesn't just mean written in America or by a resident, though, right? If we take it to mean "distilling America" then I think it needs to include migration (inside or into the US), rural vs. urban divides, the shifting mix of racial and ethinic groups, and something about what makes a character uniquely American. Hard to argue with "Invisible Man" or "Huckleberry Finn."
posted by msalt at 11:18 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


There are too many relatively new books on this list. Anything published in the past twenty years is too recent to be considered for greatness. You need the relentless sandblasting of decades to strip away the ephemeral and the merely fashionable.
posted by storybored at 11:20 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


msalt, what do they know of America who only America know?

Also while we're breaking all the rules, is there any way I can squeeze in Ballard's short "Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan" from The Atrocity Exhibition and elsewhere? Because.
posted by comealongpole at 11:28 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Deserving of consideration:

Henry Roth, Call It Sleep
Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain
posted by Lyme Drop at 12:03 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I love confederacy of Dunces as much as the next guy, but this perhaps it's too regional to really be considered a Great American Novel, in that it doesn't encapsulate the breadth of the idea, though it sure digs at a bit of its soul.

All stories are regional, just some regions are bigger than others, but even those bigger ones are a mosaic of regions. It is the quality of the story, the construction, and the creation of a different form that counts -- not just yet another story of a bunch of people from the big city bemoaning their problems. As some books are good fodder for shallow dinner parties where people brag about their fake accomplishments amid the fake laughter, this book is raw, but honest look at average life.

And ACOD was epic in scope and dealt with a lot of issues and had a big cast of characters. The protagonist was someone with a graduate degree who was not reaching his potential as one of his do-nothing professors is pulling a pay check as he lives a lie. The book dealt with the working poor, the seedy underside of a city, a policeman trying to survive in his job because his boss was a tyrant as a factory-owner is struggling with a company he ran against his will as he is in a marriage that repulses him -- these are everyday problems many, many people live through every single day.

That is real life that people try to ignore or pretend does not exist -- that their lives are stuck in a rut and they don't know how to cope, but keep trying. Just because Toole used humour doesn't make it shallow -- it was the way many people cope with their personal hells as they fight not to have their spirits broken.

It is probably one of the most fascinating books written by an American -- and one where it takes honesty and depth of character to appreciate. The way Toole weaved the stories as he showed the problems people face every day is extraordinary, and it is a shame he died before he could have had a body of work to appreciate.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 12:21 PM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


it was the way many people cope with their personal hells as they fight not to have their spirits broken.

...or their valves get the best of them
posted by thelonius at 12:53 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


This game is always played with America -- are there other great national novels? Is there a Great German Novel? a Great French Novel? And what would those be? The very quest for the Great American Novel seems itself a little idiosyncratically American.
posted by crazy with stars at 1:35 PM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


The article notes that the American obsession with The Great American Novel was kicked off by a widely-read magazine article in the wake of the Civil War, when the question of Americanness had quite a bit of urgency.

But I do ask my non-American friends this all the time -- "What do you think is The Great Dutch Novel? Which books would you call contenders for The Great Norwegian Novel?" -- and then I ask them why they'd highlight that book (reasons generally similar to reasons given in the list here), and then I go try to find it in English translation and read it. It's a lot of fun!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


crazy with stars, I think part of it, or even most of it has to do with the relative youth of America compared to other countries and cultures. If you look at America as a country formed in opposition to what it had been before, the hard part of basing your self definition as "not those guys" is then, after everyone understands that, at some point you have to figure out, if you aren't like those guys, what are you? Trying to figure out what, exactly, America, and being American means has been a question since before the founding of the country.

Or, in other words, if you asked a French person what defines Frenchness, they probably have a solid idea. If you asked a bunch of German people what they though of as the archetypal German book, I wouldn't be surprised if the answers were a lot less fractured than American answers to the same question. They've been there, being alive and active in a culture that has a much longer history and more solid identity.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:50 PM on January 15, 2017


I fear that if we're talking about what books most accurately define America, we'll have to start talking about Ayn Rand, and I don't think I can do that.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:55 PM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


To expand on my answer a little bit (now that I'm on a better keyboard), when I was about The Great X Novel, it's generally something that's thought to illuminate the national character, frequently something everyone has read in school, and often (but not always) known for its lyrical or innovative use of the vernacular language. They're often from nearish a country's independence or emergence as a world power. Sometimes they're a founding point or turning point or a particular high point in a nation's literature.

Sometimes people say, "We're not really a novelistic people" or "Novels are looked down on in our culture, the big deal is plays," and then tells me, "Everyone reads this piece of philosophy/important poet/play, that's our national literary work," and that's interesting too!

Anyway ebooks make this a much easier undertaking, you can find old 1920 translations of obscure 1889 Norwegian literature much more readily than in the past.

I do think it's a particularly interesting question, though, because when someone answers what The Great X Novel is, they tell you a bit about who they are, what they like, and how they think of their native country and their countrymen. And usually you get to learn a little bit about how literature was taught in their secondary and tertiary schools, and how literature is thought about in that country. And they tell you a little about the book and why they and/or their country in general thinks it's so important. And then you get to go read the book they told you about, and see their point! Or miss their point. But either way it's a very interesting exercise and people like to talk about their national literature and everyone has at least a few opinions. I've read a lot of things I wouldn't otherwise have read, and I get to come back a few weeks later and be like, "Okay, so I need you to explain to me why it was such a big deal when Ove went to the cow paddock ..." and they're terribly amused they get to dredge up their secondary school lit classes and explain it to me.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


"What do you think is The Great Dutch Novel? Which books would you call contenders for The Great Norwegian Novel?"

There's at least one relevant AskMe thread about that, though it's weighted toward narratives that are taken as symbols of national pride.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:12 PM on January 15, 2017




This game is always played with America -- are there other great national novels? Is there a Great German Novel? a Great French Novel? And what would those be? The very quest for the Great American Novel seems itself a little idiosyncratically American.

The Great British Novel is probably the Canterbury Tales, for what it's worth.

That's why the question is asked about America. A less disparate history.
posted by kafziel at 2:21 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I love thinking about this. I also think the "Great American Novel" should be a moving target - Edith Wharton may well have qualified at one time.

There's an over-saturated, hallucinatory quality to All the King's Men which seems especially relevant to me on the dawn of the Trump presidency. It's a ripe novel, bursting with selfishness and confusion and disgust.

By the same token, the white hot anger of Invisible Man is still so unbelievably potent and urgent. It's jaw dropping how little has changed in terms of racial discourse and the book has so much staying power because of it. Also its voice is one that's not heard enough.

I really enjoy Faulkner, but Absalom Absalom isn't even his most universal book and his vision is so particular I just can't make a case that the book - or any of his books - should qualify as the great American novel.

Same goes for Gatsby - it's one of my absolute favourite novels but it's part of its milieu and its experience is too circumscribed.

I love these discussions (and PS about about Oscar Wao, really didn't get what the fuss was about with that one...)
posted by smoke at 3:00 PM on January 15, 2017



That is real life that people try to ignore or pretend does not exist -- that their lives are stuck in a rut and they don't know how to cope, but keep trying. Just because Toole used humour doesn't make it shallow -- it was the way many people cope with their personal hells as they fight not to have their spirits broken.


This is a valid assessment, that I find myself making when I'm talking to people who don't get The Big Lebowski. Although it's regional to LA, it's humanity-wide in the scope of its perspective, and I can see that in ACOD. Which I unabashedly love.

On the surface, it seems so specific to New Orleans, but I suppose upon reflection, that it could have been written in Chicago by someone who knew Chicago well & still make the same points. I've always thought it should've been a Coen Bros movie & and am disappointed that John Goodman is too old to play the part of Ignatius J. Reilly, as I've always thought he would've been perfect for the role.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:05 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm going to throw my hand in with those recommending Catch-22. War, crony capitalism, sex and longing, and the realization that everything is rigged against you.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:41 PM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


"By the same token, the white hot anger of Invisible Man is still so unbelievably potent and urgent. It's jaw dropping how little has changed in terms of racial discourse and the book has so much staying power because of it. Also its voice is one that's not heard enough."

I think it's also the jazziest expression of the English language in novel form ... I mean Ellison manages to somehow render jazz and its syncopation, its swing, its forward motion, its improvisation, its innovation, its overlapping voices, its repeating choruses, its borrowing from many cultures, all in the American vernacular language. I think that artistically really interesting (and innovative in terms of language), and to me really increases its claim as The Great American Novel (because jazz is The American Music (OG)) ... in addition to its scope and subject matter and the power and poetry of its language.

That's one of those classics I read pretty late -- not until I was 30 or so -- and WOW did I love it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Indeed Eyebrows, and I must confess I usually hate flashy prose (see: Oscar Wao), but when it works (Warren, Faulkner, Ellison), by gum it works well.

Ellison pulls off something that many try, and few succeed in doing. And it looks so effortless.
posted by smoke at 5:01 PM on January 15, 2017


oo oo oo

Dispatches, Michael Herr
posted by Sebmojo at 5:09 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Recency bias is at least understandable; nominating American Psycho is just taking the piss, and not even doing very well at that. It's a fraction as good as the movie made from it, and I wouldn't nominate that as the Great American Movie (the choice for which is staggeringly obvious). The whole question of the Great American Novel really seems geared toward "which book can we all agree that the high school freshmen should read", and for that I'd put forward The Great Gatsby, if for no other reason than that it's quite short.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:24 PM on January 15, 2017


I do think it is important to reach beyond regionalism for the Great American Novel. Which to me disqualifies anything inherently Eastern or Southern — as a born Westerner it seems ridiculous to pretend either is the scope of America. I think that's how you get Steinbeck very far up the list; the journey from back East to West is reaching a bit beyond regionalism. And you need something that is about melding, I think. That's where Gatsby shines, being all about never fitting in no matter how much you have on the outside. But the scope is still to small. That's why I think you might need an epic — more generations, more stories. If more people had read The Brothers K I might suggest that. It has men and women and weird religion and a good family, and even some of the perils of racism, though all the main characters are white.
posted by dame at 6:40 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have a huge soft spot for Kavalier and Clay and am thrilled to see it on this list, but if we're talking Great American Novel, my vote goes to Beloved. If I could only teach one book for the rest of my career, that would be the one.

And I am still annoyed with myself for reading all 562 pages of Freedom.
posted by come_back_breathing at 6:44 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I wish in our discussions about what makes a book a contender for the Great American Title we would talk more about the reader. Who is the audience for this book? Why are people picking it up for the first? The second time? Is it simply something you were forced to read in high school or is it something that you found on your own and loved?

And with that -- what connects the reader to the piece? What holds the interest? Is it simply the joy of reading well-written prose? Is it a character's story that holds your attention? Or both? Is it the questions the novel raises for you?

And specifically -- how universal of a reading experience is it? So much of the reading experience is determined by what you bring in your own life to your reading of any given work.

As a teenager, I found The Great Gatsby to be a very well written book that left me completely cold. I simply didn't care. That same 16 year old me read A Farewell to Arms that same month (on my own -- whereas Gatsby was assigned to me) and I sobbed reading the ending. This is a bit hazy now as that was half a lifetime ago, but how much of that was because I couldn't connect with Daisy while I could with Catherine? How does our empathy for specific characters influence our reactions to things? How much of it was because I chose to read A Farewell to Arms whereas I had to read The Great Gatsby in order to pass American lit? And how much of it was even then I just want to read stories where women actually matter?

Maybe emotional connection shouldn't a requirement along with craft in what makes something a Great American Novel. But I'm just a non-profit worker now, not a student anymore -- I read things because I want to. And I find that the further I get from schooling, the less I want to read things because I should have read them and more because I want to read them. In some cases -- these books are hailed great novels. I've read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Bleak House, Lolita, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for the first time in the past five years and was really happy that I read them. (I'm bucking a trend here. I loved Oscar Wao. I did listen to it on audiobook, so I wonder if that contributed. It was a glorious listen.) However, in that same time period, I tried reading War and Peace. There was a point in a war section where one of the characters was going on and on and on and on and on and on about how glorious the czar and all I could think about was "Is it 1917 yet?" That's when I told myself -- you're an adult now. If you don't to read War and Peace, you don't have to.

I love well-crafted prose, but I find I don't want to read it at the expense of emotional connection.

Which brings me back to my original question -- who is reading these books and why? How are they connecting with their audience? What does their audience actually take away from them? And why isn't the connection between novel and reader talked about more in these discussions?

However, despite the very long comment saying that I'm grumpy about these things, I would say the American novel that has resonated with me the most on multiple levels (emotional connection, quality of prose, asking big questions about American-ness) would be Beloved. My second choice would be The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:59 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]




Four novels by women on this list of 24 books. The blurb about the last one breaks my heart:
The Flamethrowers is mold-breaking, not only because it is written by a woman but also because its central character is a woman. In the books most often cited as candidates for the Great American Novel, male characters—Jay Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Ahab—have played that role, representatives, presumably, of the American experience. But (and do I really even need to say it at this stage?), the notion that a female figure might serve the same purpose undermines the very concept of the Great American Novel. Men are allowed to stand for the entirety of a national identity or for humanity itself, but women are only supposed to stand for womanhood, if in various flavors.
There are lots of American novels that could be "The Great American Novel" written by women and about women that are not on this list. Where is A Thousand Acres by Joyce Carol Oates? Where is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club? Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior? Louisa May Alcott's Little Women? Instead, we get American Psycho (because the word American is in the title?) and Freedom (because freedom is a central American concept?), which -- like the bulk of the books on this list -- are both actively hateful towards women.

We can do better.
posted by sockermom at 7:46 PM on January 15, 2017 [10 favorites]


The Great British Novel is probably the Canterbury Tales, for what it's worth.

Wouldn't that be the great English novel? Great Britain didn't exist until centuries after. Also, isn't it a collection of separate tales? Or is the title misleading?
posted by 1head2arms2legs at 7:58 PM on January 15, 2017


Amen, sockermom.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:04 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Great British Novel is probably the Canterbury Tales, for what it's worth.
I agree that the Canterbury Tales couldn't be the great British novel--as 1head2arms2legs suggests, it is neither truly British nor truly a novel. I'd argue for Zadie Smith's White Teeth instead, but as I'm not actually British, I'd be presuming.

However, I dare anyone to dispute that Ulysses is the Great Irish Novel. Nothing else even comes close.
posted by tully_monster at 8:22 PM on January 15, 2017


There are lots of American novels that could be "The Great American Novel" written by women and about women that are not on this list. Where is A Thousand Acres by Joyce Carol Oates? Where is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club? Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior? Louisa May Alcott's Little Women? Instead, we get American Psycho (because the word American is in the title?) and Freedom (because freedom is a central American concept?), which -- like the bulk of the books on this list -- are both actively hateful towards women.
Agreed about all of this, although I think you meant Jane Smiley, not Joyce Carol Oates. But JCO is one of the great American novelists. them, Because It is Bitter and Because It is My Heart, Black Water--all contenders, and that's just scratching the surface.

Not enough Black women (or Black men) on this list, either. Where's Alice Walker (The Color Purple)? Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God)? Toni Cade Bambara (Those Bones Are Not My Child)?

To be fair, some American women writers were more brilliant in the medium of the short story, like Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty or Shirley Jackson. To me, writing the Great American Short Story is a much greater achievement, because so much is encapsulated in such a brief space. But then, I tend to roll my eyes at the whole notion of the Great American Novel. There's something so arrogantly masculine about the notion, and it's a setup for failure (*cough* Jonathan Franzen *cough*).
posted by tully_monster at 9:01 PM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


"the Great American Movie (the choice for which is staggeringly obvious). "

Okay now you have to tell us what it is.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:13 PM on January 15, 2017


Nightmare On Elm Street
posted by hippybear at 9:26 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Great Japanese Novel is probably Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro. I should read more Japanese novels, though.
posted by Quonab at 9:47 PM on January 15, 2017


Leaving out Steinbeck and Hemingway is pretty odd
posted by gt2 at 9:56 PM on January 15, 2017


The Grapes of Wrath is on there. I noticed because I thought, "Oh look, another book that I feel I should enjoy a lot more than I actually do."
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 10:49 PM on January 15, 2017


>the Great American Movie (the choice for which is staggeringly obvious). "
>Okay now you have> to tell us what it is.


Porky's. Duh.
posted by msalt at 11:15 PM on January 15, 2017


msalt, what do they know of America who only America know?

I don't understand.
posted by msalt at 11:16 PM on January 15, 2017


Which books would you call contenders for The Great Norwegian Novel?"

The Great Norwegian Novel is probably "Growth of the Soil" by Knut Hamsun, despite his problematic later politics. It won the 1920 Nobel Prize.
posted by msalt at 11:25 PM on January 15, 2017


I'll go along with The Grapes of Wrath.

First, the American century is the 20th Century and as important as Moby Dick, Huck Finn, etc are, the Great American Novel must take place in the 20th Century.

Second, The Great American Novel should be a story of people on the move to build a better life. Criticize the ways people compromise their principles all you want, the story of America is driven by people who are sacrificing familiarity for blind hope that things will be better by taking action.

Third, the Great American Novel should include elements of The Man holding the little guy down. For all our belief in the idea of individualism, our history is also about subjugation and the power of money to disenfranchise those who have nothing.

The fact that The Grapes of Wrath was published at a time that the displacement of people due to economics and environmental devastation was still going on, while the popular media and the government was barely paying attention to it, makes it all the more a uniquely American tale of independence and free will pitted against moneyed interests. And in the end, although we know which side is right, we don't know who wins.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:43 PM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


msalt, it's a play on a quotable bit in a poem by Kipling, “The English Flag”: And what should they know of England who only England know?

More info on the background notes page:

"it calls on the street-bred people of England to remember that their great empire had been won at a price. The four winds of the cardinal points bear witness to the expansion of British hegemony overseas, each calling in turn for the English people to 'Go forth and do their bit'."

This my TIL. :)
posted by taz at 11:46 PM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


"The Great Norwegian Novel is probably "Growth of the Soil" by Knut Hamsun, despite his problematic later politics. "

Surely it's Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, fight me! (1928 Nobel ... although, yeah, I guess it depends how you feel about historical novels being "The" Great X Novel.)

(While we're touring the Nordic countries, may I stan for The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist, which remains one of my favorite things I've ever read? I suppose it's not quintessentially Swedish enough to be THE Swedish novel (I've been told "The Emigrants" but I haven't read it yet, which, ironically for this thread maybe, is about Swedes emigrating to the US), but I adore it and not nearly enough English-speakers read it so everyone go get on that. Review your Machiavelli first, then read The Dwarf. It's so good.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:00 AM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm late to the party but can I throw out Philip Roth's aptly titled Great American Novel? I am only about 75% joking here. I know the ironic racism is difficult to bear, but his parody of the GAN might be exactly what we need. I mean what is America if not a parody of what it claims to be?
posted by Literaryhero at 2:02 AM on January 16, 2017


"the Great American Movie (the choice for which is staggeringly obvious). "

Okay now you have to tell us what it is.


Citizen Kane. Whether or not it is the best movie ever made, it qualifies, I think.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:40 AM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


It's really got to be The Catcher in the Rye. I mean, it's not in my top ten books personally, but it is the great American novel. It seems super weird that it's not on the list.
posted by 256 at 7:15 AM on January 16, 2017


Here's a question: Should great American novels be enjoyable, and if so in what way? Also, does a Great American Novel need to be basically pessimistic in its opinions of the human condition and the United States? (Moby Dick isn't a pessimistic novel, for instance - even asking "is this a pessimistic or an optimistic novel" seems weird. But Carson McCullers is pretty pessimistic.)

Part of my lack of enjoyment of mid-century US "great" writing (broadly construed - let's say from 1920 - 1980) no doubt comes from being force-marched through it in school. Part of it is probably temperamental. Part of it is the psychoanalytic logic that underpins a lot of those, of "I the reader can see things about this character that they will never see about themselves, also all their introspection is wrong, if they are even introspective at all".

But then I think about novels (and we'll exclude SF and other genre writing, kind of unfairly, because Dhalgren is as good as (and IMO was probably influenced by) City of Night and there are a bunch of other interesting SF and fantasy novels from that range) from that long period that I adore - City of Night, anything by James Baldwin, "women's novels" by Marge Piercy. I'd say that those are not optimistic, per se, but they seem to hold out a lot more hope for self-knowledge and change than most mid-century GAN candidates. Is this because they are basically dumber, at least some of them? More middle brow? Because none of them are by white straight men? Because they're all "movement" books in some way?

I mean, when I think of "Great American Novel of the 20th Century" I get a feeling of great boredom, because I have learned to associate that phrase with realistic novels that seem sort of small, somehow, and that seem to pity or condescend to their subjects. Moby Dick, now, that's a wild novel, but then it's from the 19th century. It's about working class people, but it's big and sprawling and weird and exciting.

I think you can read a lot of books that tell you about the United States in its meanness, racism and babbitry, but I'd like great novels that do more than that.
posted by Frowner at 7:45 AM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]


In my opinion, the Great American Novel should:

1) Be a great book,
2) Be written by an American, and
3) Have as a central theme or themes quintessentially American topics, which might include (but are not limited to):
-- The optimism of starting over someplace new
-- The soul-destroying nature of unrestrained capitalist ambition
-- The American experience in any generation-defining historic event (the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War)
-- The ubiquitous grind of racial injustice
-- Ordinary family life in the U.S. at any particular point in time
-- The rootlessness of a culture divorced from its origin points, or the difficulty of maintaining a cultural identity in a melting pot
-- Guns
-- Drugs
-- Crime
-- The overwhelming influence of a hegemonic popular culture
-- The eternal rebellion of youth against age
-- Class inequality as determined by either wealth or in some cases type of wealth
-- The pioneer spirit
-- The straightlaced morality of puritanism
-- Evangelical religion
-- Nihilistic pessimism about a country destroying its future
-- Disconnectedness and alienation
-- The search for spiritual renewal
-- Rock and Roll, Jazz, Ragtime, Musical Theater, Pop Music, Chautauquas, or other forms of entertainment associated with the U.S.
-- And so on.
posted by kyrademon at 8:39 AM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


How is Chuck Tingle's latest book Domald Tromp Pounded In The Butt By The Handsome Russian T-Rex Who Also Peed On His Butt And Then Blackmailed Him With The Videos Of His Butt Getting Peed On not even in the running? (Previously)

Seriously, though, ignoring Vonnegut's output seems odd, although Slaughterhouse Five would probably be the only considered work, which is more about Germany than America.

For whatever reason, I thought of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson for the great American novel. It's really not in the running, and probably shouldn't be. Yet, it ticks a lot of check marks for the current time.

1. 800+ pages (because all great novels must be long, right?)
2. Excellent tech info which the geeks will enjoy, but the non-geeks will be able to gloss over. (I see this as the biggest selling point, since so many people I know are either geeks who are paid to think about this stuff or non-geeks who want to gloss over and just do their job.)
3. I forgot #3.

As far as On the Road goes, I started reading it while I was in college just a bit north of where it started and it just didn't hold my attention. I blame having too many other things going on.

I'll also throw out Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson as something that I would consider uniquely American.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 8:44 AM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


Defined as usual, and by the usual suspects, it probably has to be the great white spouting Dick.

But is it the presumption that the novel is the center of literature? I think you get closer to the goal by locating Dickinson and Whitman at the molten core of American writing.
posted by pracowity at 9:57 AM on January 16, 2017 [5 favorites]


The answer to this question is always Huckleberry Finn.

Trump reminds me of Gatsby.
Although Trump is an even bigger asshole.

Catch-22 seems more about humanity and war to me than about uniquely American.

The Great British Novel is London Fields.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:18 AM on January 16, 2017


Just want to say that I am so glad that bookworm extraordinaire Emily Temple has found a new home at LitHub! I love, love, LOVE her lists from Flavorwire. So many great recommendations and additions to my never-ending reading list!
posted by zeusianfog at 1:13 PM on January 16, 2017


And my nominee for Great American Novel is the relatively recent The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, which is itself in conversation with The Last of the Mohicans.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:17 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


Ooh, ooh! And Swamplandia!
posted by tully_monster at 6:30 PM on January 16, 2017


The Secret History by Donna Tartt needs to be on this list.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:56 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


Great American Novel? How about the Book of Mormon? The founding of civilization in this hemisphere. The separation of good people from bad people based on the color of their skin. The subjugation of women. The justification of patriarchy. And though written in the early 19th century it still is read as totally relevant in the 21st century.


(On a differently serious note, I cast my vote for Barth's Sot Weed Factor too, and throw in his Giles Goat Boy. )
posted by njohnson23 at 9:18 PM on January 16, 2017


Oh, man, this thread is so favorited.
posted by zardoz at 9:19 PM on January 16, 2017


Gatsby isn't an asshole at all; he's a tragic figure. Tom Buchanan is an asshole.
posted by holborne at 9:44 PM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


(On a differently serious note, I cast my vote for Barth's Sot Weed Factor too, and throw in his Giles Goat Boy. )

Though it should be noted that both this and Catch 22 would catch literal fire in the hands of the averagely woke 2017 reader. Catch 22 spends about half its pages talking about whores, and The Sot Weed Factor is like 68% rape by volume.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:23 AM on January 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


What's the Great American Science Fiction Novel? It's tougher to pick one than it is for the Brits. It's probably Dune, but it probably shouldn't be.
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 9:19 AM on January 17, 2017


Need to get in a plug for Dreiser (Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy) and London (Call of the Wild).
posted by e1c at 9:23 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Excuse delayed response msalt, I'm a terror for fire-and-forget commenting. taz nailed the source and edumacated me a bit into the bargain. Meant it by way of agreeing/restating your point.

Glad people are naming Knut Hamsen as author of the Great Norwegian Novel since he's the only Norwegian author I think I've read (you all already guessed which book).

Per Sebmojo Sot-Weed Factor just got bumped a bit further down my mental To-Read list.

Right. Fired, forgot. Ha!
posted by comealongpole at 11:07 AM on January 17, 2017


Also, if anyone wants to point me at public domain English translations of other Norwegian novels, indeed any other worthwhile free foreign-language translations off the beaten path, then that would be a Fine Thing.
posted by comealongpole at 11:11 AM on January 17, 2017


What's the Great American Science Fiction Novel?

If it's supposed to be about the (future) American condition, more likely picks would be Neuromancer or The Man in the High Castle.
posted by Bringer Tom at 11:45 AM on January 17, 2017


I don't think the Great American Sci Fi Novel should be based on how prophetic it is (that's really only a very small part of the point of science fiction, if it's part of the point at all). But if that's your metric, it's hard to beat John Brunner's classic 1969 novel "Stand on Zanzibar".

Set in 2010 during the administration of U.S. President Obomi (!), it depicts, among other things, an increase in terrorist threats, school shootings, a sixfold rise in prices due to inflation from 1969 to 2010, economic rivalry between the U.S. and China, the European Union, a decrease in marriage rates among younger people, pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance and their commonplace acceptance, laser printers, increasing decriminalization of marijuana, the collapse of Detroit, wide acceptance of gay rights, satellite TV, TiVo, and electric cars.

Neuromancer really doesn't compare in terms of predictive power.
posted by kyrademon at 12:30 PM on January 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


Surely it's Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, fight me! (1928 Nobel ... although, yeah, I guess it depends how you feel about historical novels being "The" Great X Novel.)

Great call though yeah, was the 14th century setting Norway yet? Maybe the escape back into the glorious past IS the quintessentially Norwegian part.

if anyone wants to point me at public domain English translations of other Norwegian novels...
Growth of the Soil - Kristin Lavransdatter
posted by msalt at 12:55 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Cryptonomicon

I'm not even sure that's a good novel, much less a great novel. I think the sex scene is possibly the worst (or most myopically male) erotic passage ever written in a non-self-published book.

However, I would entertain Snowcrash as a nominee. It doesn't even really take place in the U.S. for the most part, but its audacity and ability to shrug off the inertia of history seems very very American.

Tangent: the term American covers the entire Western hemisphere but I don't have the energy to come up with the perfect woke Pan American novel.
posted by msalt at 1:02 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


(Incidentally, if you think your current dystopia is a cyberpunk one, Brunner predicted computer viruses, and in fact is credited with coining the term "worm", in 1975's The Shockwave Rider. If you think environmental issues are what's going to kill us all, 1972's The Sheep Look Up has that covered for you in a nice, terrifying way. Oh, and 1969's The Jagged Orbit, with its depiction of a United States dominated by weapons proliferation and interracial violence, seems horrifyingly relevant right now, too. It's kind of amazing.)

(Of course, he was British, which by my own arbitrary rules prevents him from writing the Great American Sci Fi Novel, even though the books in question are set in the U.S.)
posted by kyrademon at 5:18 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


My thinking was that, while other books are better objectively, Neuromancer was both a mostly American story about a future America, and it kickstarted the entire cyberpunk genre. It's hard to think of another book that's as American in setting, American in authorship, and has had such a profound influence on SF as a genre. Sure I'd rank Cryptonomicon higher on a lot of metrics, but it's really a WWII novel set in all the Allied nations, and in many ways more Britain than the US.

Of course I think popularity has to be a component of the Great * Novel, which is why I advocated for The Stand upthread; I think it's silly to consider something nobody reads any more unless forced like Moby Dick for such a consideration. The era is coming to a close but for a few decades there America was a nation of very hungry novel devourers, and I think you'd really have to consider the "great American novel" to be something those people actually willingly read.

In SF there are many great novels that simply can't be the Great American SF Novel because of where they are set or who wrote them. Iain M. Banks is out because he's not American, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are out because despite their popularity they're hacks. Alfred Bester was a better writer than Gibson but never anywhere near as popular. I would say the only phenomenon that really challenges Gibson in both quality and popularity is the entire canon of Philip K. Dick once they started making movies out of his stuff. I really don't think you can make a case for Golden Age stuff like Foundation, and Arthur C. Clarke isn't American. So where else do you go that's American, popular, and enduringly good?

PS: I don't think predictiveness is important, which is why I mentioned The Man in the High Castle. It's more about the sense of wonder informing the American experience.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:35 PM on January 17, 2017


Brunner was so creepily accurate with what he wrote vs. where we are now that if it turned out he had invented time travel, I wouldn't be shocked. Of the four novels, Stand on Zanzibar has always been the best to me, but The Sheep Look Up has always seemed the most probable. The other two didn't seem to work as well for me, though Shockwave Rider might have been the most prescient.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:05 PM on January 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


msalt: "Tangent: the term American covers the entire Western hemisphere but I don't have the energy to come up with the perfect woke Pan American novel."

I'm sorry, have you heard of a little known book called 100 Years of Solitude? Do you even García Márquez, bro?
posted by signal at 7:19 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Neuromancer was both a mostly American story about a future America, and it kickstarted the entire cyberpunk genre. It's hard to think of another book that's as American in setting, American in authorship, and has had such a profound influence on SF as a genre.

late to all of this, and I haven't read the entire thread, but you do realize that Gibson wrote Neuromancer in Vancouver, Canada, and that he had been based in Canada since 1967 (to avoid the Vietnam draft), and that he speaks of much of Neuromancer's "street vibe" coming from the Vancouver underground/counterculture* of the late 70s, early 80s. It's true that the setting of Neuromancer is very much US of A, but the America it comes from is North America.

* I have a good friend who was a neighbor of his at the time, living in the same rundown warehouse. Not that he saw much of Gibson. He was just the tall guy with the southern drawl who'd hammer on his door every now and request that he cease playing the same Ramones album over and over and over again.
posted by philip-random at 7:36 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Gibson has also said that he deliberately wrote the book in such a way that it's impossible to tell whether the USA still exists. (Also, only a couple of chapters are actually set in North America.) But negating America is like the quintessential cyberpunk gesture toward the whole Matter of America, so I'd say it's a legit nominee.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:51 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Or maybe the Great (Post-)American Novel.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:54 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


For Great American Sci Fi Novel, what about Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward from 1888? It's about a young man who time-travels from 1887 to 2000 in the US, where the US has become a technological, communist utopia. Hugely influential in the politics and literature of its own time (turned Eugene Debs into a socialist, even, and helped kick off the Pullman strike), one of the earliest American examples of sci fi, and continues to affect both genre and general American lit today.

Nobody carries umbrellas because we've installed roll-out awnings over all the sidewalks as a communal project to protect everyone from the rain equally instead of each man for himself with his own umbrella. (He's like literally the anti-Rand.) He also predicts home telephones, and radios for mass entertainment.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:52 AM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think the "great science fiction novel" question actually lays bare some of the problems with the whole GAN discussion. We're basically talking about novels that a lot of mainstream opinion-makers have read and that means leaving out significant novels that are either central to non-mainstream social formations or are good and smart and influential but relatively hidden.

So, for example, for "Great American Science Fiction Novel":

1. It de facto can't be one of the classics of feminist SF, because although women SF fans have read those and they're important and influential, very few men have read them. So no matter how much The Female Man deals with a set of important American experiences and no matter how brilliantly it's written, for instance, it will never be a GAN. Women's experiences are generally not interesting to men, so women's books rarely become canonical, so they can't be GANs. Consider how few and recent the books-by-women in GAN lists tend to be, and how they rarely demonstrate any deep knowledge of American women's writing, and that goes double for SF.

2. Until comparatively recently (let's say the mid-late nineties), there were fewer SF writers of color generally than women SF writers (who were mostly white), so there are fewer great books by SF writers of color to be ignored by the mainstream. None the less, if there is a candidate for Great American Science Fiction Novel, I think that Octavia Butler's slavery-and-time-travel novel Kindred is probably it.

It is a spare, well-constructed, tense novel - not lyrically beautiful but extraordinarily effective as science fiction. It's stood the test of time - continuously in print since 1979, as far as I know. It's a set text in at least some high schools, especially high schools that are integrated or majority POC. It deals with an outsider's experience - the narrator is an outsider to her immediate family and community because she is a working class intellectual and writer and because she is a Black woman married to a white man; she's marginalized in American society generally because of her race, gender and class status and because of her intellectual interests; she is forced to make extraordinarily hard choices because of historical forces that she does not control and cannot alter; she is forced to submit to social violence; she resists with all the tools at her disposal but her resistance is limited; and though she wins a kind of victory, it is a bitter one which scars her.

(One of the things about American SF that always strikes me is that while it's been an overwhelmingly white genre - with, again, meaningful changes since the late nineties and especially in the past ten years - Black SF writers (and later other POC writers) have had an influence that far exceeds their numbers. Like, would we even have modern SF without Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler? If you had to list the ten most important SF writers since 1960, they'd both be on the list, no question.)

And while we're on the subject of great American science fiction novels, I would nominate these two: Delany's Dhalgren, for its ambition, writerly qualities, generally dealing-with-Americanness themes, and how it writes race, gender and sexuality; it's also a fantastic novel about cities, which I think is important given that a lot of GANnish novels root authenticity in the rural; and Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home, which is a far-future novel that is a critique of anthropology and which posits a future-utopia-satire-dreamworld where the American present has obliterated itself and turns out to have been only an interruption in the long, long story of indigenous lives in the Americas.

A science fiction novel that I think is flawed but important is Orson Scott Card's (yes, I said it!) novel Red Prophet. In a lot of ways it's a crap depiction of Native people but it is a science fiction novel by a white writer which posits that the genocide of Native people is something that white people are all complicit in and which white society can never escape, and which always overdetermines the place of white people on this continent. And it came out in 1988, which is not when you'd expect that kind of book to appear and be a big seller.

Another contender for Great American Science Fiction Novel would be Terry Bisson's alternate history Fire On The Mountain, republished by PM Press a few years ago. I think it's not well-known enough and it's not as innovative or tightly written as other candidates, but it deals with American experience, Americanness and the utopian strain really well - it interweaves a present-day-ish story from an alternate US where a successful Mars mission is in process with letters from the present-day protagonist's great grandfather, who was a child and a slave who was part of John Brown's successful uprising. That uprising - led by Harriet Tubman and supported by Frederick Douglas- sparked a civil war from the left, led by ex-slaves, which transformed this country. It's an extraordinary novel and probably a good one for these bad times.
posted by Frowner at 6:18 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


(To clarify - I don't think Red Prophet is any kind of great American novel, because its depiction of Native people is crappy (although in fairness, in line with typical OSC crappiness of depiction) ETA: And because it centers white experiences but it is an unusual SF novel in that it centers the genocide of Native people and firmly blames whites. If I were teaching a class about themes of Americanness in 20th century US SF, I'd want to use a section of it, albeit with critical commentary.

Or maybe I'm just biased - Red Prophet was huge for me as a kid in Reagan/Bush American precisely because it said what I'd always suspected and never been able to articulate - that you couldn't just forget or handwave away genocide and it wasn't a historical inevitability (which was the line at the time), and that if you didn't actively oppose it, it was your fault too.)
posted by Frowner at 6:30 AM on January 18, 2017


I think it's silly to consider something nobody reads any more unless forced like Moby Dick for such a consideration. The era is coming to a close but for a few decades there America was a nation of very hungry novel devourers, and I think you'd really have to consider the "great American novel" to be something those people actually willingly read.

haha what the fuck
posted by edeezy at 7:07 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


> "So no matter how much The Female Man deals with a set of important American experiences and no matter how brilliantly it's written, for instance, it will never be a GAN."

Well, Russ, Le Guin, Butler, Cherryh, and possibly Tiptree and Wilhelm would show up on any GASFN list I would make, and if we're including fantasy also McKillip, McKinley, and probably Norton, but that's me, not The World, so your general point still stands.
posted by kyrademon at 9:41 AM on January 18, 2017


I just noticed this at the end of the piece:

So now, to this not exhaustive but certainly long list, I say: what about Hanya Yanagihara’s "A Little Life?"

Uh yeah no. That book is about as far from the Great American Novel as you get, and doesn't even belong in the same breath as any book on the list, in my opinion. Not even close.
posted by holborne at 10:18 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


think it's silly to consider something nobody reads any more unless forced like Moby Dick for such a consideration.

Yeah, pardon the pile-on, & I offer this respectfully & anecdotally.

I graduated from high school with a C minus average & never spent a full day in college. I managed to utterly miss having Moby Dick as assigned reading, so maybe that's the difference here, BUT.

I have read it 3 times because I love it, & I keep a copy in iBooks on my phone so I can read passages here & there when I'm bored, like in line at the grocery store. & I'm not even a really big reader compered to a lot of mefites. I have a few IRL friends who admire it as well.

Maybe I'm a weirdo, but I don't think there's any real consensus that Moby Dick is a dead work, at this point.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:46 PM on January 18, 2017


What I found myself wondering about A Little Life was, "What is it about gay male suffering that straight women writers find so irresistable?" And also, "if I'm going to read this kind of thing, I'll read fanfic on Ao3 because at least it's not supposed to be a realistic depiction of gay male lives". Before I saw an in-depth plot summary, I assumed that "Hanya" was a guy's name, but as soon as I saw the whole thing I thought "I bet this is a straight female writer". It's really disappointing to see this book get so much press when books by actual gay men about gay lives get so little recognition.
posted by Frowner at 12:46 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


>The term American covers the entire Western hemisphere but I don't have the energy to come up with the perfect woke Pan American novel.
>>I'm sorry, have you heard of a little known book called 100 Years of Solitude? Do you even García Márquez, bro?
I enjoyed that book a lot, though I preferred Love in the Time of Cholera. Solitude may very well be the Great Colombian Novel, but if we want to honor the the word "American" in its broadest sense you will want an epic that includes North and South (and Central) America, American and Spanish imperialism, death squads and communist insurgents, Indios and mestizaje and Maroon settlements, independence, German and Lebanese and Chinese immigrants, etc.
posted by msalt at 1:18 PM on January 18, 2017


What I found myself wondering about A Little Life was, "What is it about gay male suffering that straight women writers find so irresistable?"

I dunno. I've been asking yaoi fanfic writers that question for years, and I've never gotten a good answer. They also tend to get really defensive.
posted by happyroach at 2:18 PM on January 18, 2017


On reflection I realize I am an idiot, and while Neuromancer was very popular and influential it isn't the perfect fit.

The Great American Science Fiction Novel is A Canticle for Liebowitz. Full stop.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:54 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


I have read it [Moby Dick] 3 times because I love it

OK I can respect this; it takes all kinds, & etc. But it doesn't take much of a web search to find that a lot of people find it a really, really terrible story, which violates all kinds of objective and standard well-accepted rules about How To Tell A Story.

Now I think one of the reasons we take this long-winded thing seriously is that, in 1851, the only way to write such a thing was in longhand, and writing an 800 page book in longhand is an amazingly difficult physical marathon, and so there aren't a lot of stories of this weight and detail from that period. Editing such a book is almost unthinkable, which is why Moby Dick is so pretty obviously unedited. And Moby Dick could easily pack its entire plot -- not a summary, the whole plot -- into the Cliff's Notes; the rest of the book is excursions and details and ruminations on whaling and colors and anything else Melville found interesting.

There are a lot of potentially interesting descriptions and turns of phrase and quotable passages buried in there if you have the endurance to find them. But if you're looking for a story, it's like looking for a sugar cube dissolved in 5 gallons of water.

Anyway the sheer physical endurance problem of writing in longhand means there just aren't a lot of stories to consider from before the invention of the typewriter, which created a major uptick in the number of people willing to pound out a 60,000+ word story (generally the lower limit for what was traditionally considered a "novel") and even more importantly the willingness to edit, retype, and finesse those stories.

Incidentally, my significant other weighed in that her pick would be Don DeLillo's Libra, although she admits from DeLillo's canon most people would probably pick Underworld instead. DeLillo is notable because he made a point of typing each paragraph on a separate page, so that he could shuffle and replace them with a minimum of effort. This made some of his manuscripts 4,000 pages long.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:09 PM on January 18, 2017


Three volume novels, three books of three hundred pages, were typical of the Victorian period and Moby Dick is only a couple of thousand words over one of those. One might as well say that novels became so short in the 20th century because typewriter keys would jam and writers were too poor to get them fixed.

It doesn't take much of a web search to find readers who love Moby Dick and who would happily vote for their homoerotic whale encyclopedia to be anointed GAN.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:38 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


"Now I think one of the reasons we take this long-winded thing seriously is that, in 1851, the only way to write such a thing was in longhand, and writing an 800 page book in longhand is an amazingly difficult physical marathon, and so there aren't a lot of stories of this weight and detail from that period. Editing such a book is almost unthinkable, which is why Moby Dick is so pretty obviously unedited. And Moby Dick could easily pack its entire plot -- not a summary, the whole plot -- into the Cliff's Notes; the rest of the book is excursions and details and ruminations on whaling and colors and anything else Melville found interesting."

Whaaaaaat? I feel like you're reading Moby Dick wrong. I read it just for fun, no notes or anything, and pretty clearly all those discursive parts are about the nature of truth/reality/knowledge, and the ways those can fail. None of that is pointless and "merely" discursive, it's crucial to the story! In the end all the forms of knowing fail, all the types of truth fail, and it's one man alone on a coffin in the ocean, fully as adrift as he's always been, after 800 pages of knowledge.

It was fascinatingly hard to put down to sleep at night for the first 80% if you're interested in humanity and truth and knowledge; and the last 20% is a rip-roaring adventure story that you simply CAN'T put down!

It's one of the most entertaining and cohesive things I've ever read! And I put off reading it for 37 years, thinking it would not be!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:51 PM on January 18, 2017 [5 favorites]


And Moby Dick could easily pack its entire plot -- not a summary, the whole plot -- into the Cliff's Notes; the rest of the book is excursions and details and ruminations on whaling and colors and anything else Melville found interesting.

this kind of thing is often what makes good novels great
posted by edeezy at 8:01 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


If we're going to talk about the Great American Sci-Fi Novel... I'd like to also detour into other genre versions. What is the Great American Mystery novel? The Great American Fantasy Novel? The Great American Romance Novel? The Great American Children's Book?
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 9:57 PM on January 18, 2017


I feel like you're reading Moby Dick wrong

Well, that's undoubtably my problem with Infinite Jest too :-)
posted by Bringer Tom at 2:59 PM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Great American Fantasy Novel?

I enthusiastically nominate The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for a variety of reasons.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:02 PM on January 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


Great American Mystery novel?

I think Farewell, My Lovely seems like an okay starting point.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:37 PM on January 19, 2017


Bringer Tom: Your ideas are intriguing to me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by hippybear at 4:28 AM on January 20, 2017


The Great American Fantasy Novel?

I enthusiastically nominate The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant for a variety of reasons.


A guy rapes a woman, and then the rest of the novel is spent talking about his agonized feelings? Yeah, after today, I'd say that is a pretty good candidate for the American Fantasy Novel.

Though you might want to cut out the pretense and just go for Gor.
posted by happyroach at 11:14 AM on January 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


Though you might want to cut out the pretense and just go for Gor.

Now I think that is entirely unfair to John Norman. He at least made it obvious that he was writing a sexual fantasy. I still haven't figured out just what Steve Donaldson thought he was doing when he opened his epic-scale series with that rape scene. But it does seem like exactly the sort of thing President Pussygrabber might do, so appropriate for our time.
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:31 PM on January 20, 2017


I still haven't figured out just what Steve Donaldson thought he was doing when he opened his epic-scale series with that rape scene.

A man who had been rendered utterly impotent in his daily life suddenly finds himself a paragon of power and he uses it in the entirely wrong way, with consequences that ripple literally across millennia (if you include the second and third Covenant series) and he spends most of the rest of his life trying to make up for his inexcusable trespass.

It's a horrible scene and it feels wrong because it is wrong. But it, at its core, is the basis of everything else that happens across the remaining 9 books, and I've always taken it to be an acting out of the danger of suddenly discovering you have agency and how bad choices have deep consequences.
posted by hippybear at 8:05 AM on January 21, 2017


A man who had been rendered utterly impotent in his daily life suddenly finds himself a paragon of powerv

I am an actual sadist. This is not theoretical for me. Sex is not interesting unless it involves certain themes most people would consider unpleasant. I don't know why I am this way and at this point I don't care; it just is.

I do know that I have to observe a certain, shall we way, covenant with the civilization around me. Consent is a valuable thing. There are limits to be observed.

The rape scene in Lord Foul's Bane offended me deeply. I have been impotent, and then restored to sexual prowess thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. And I didn't feel the need to grab the nearest pussy available. My reaction to that scene was that this is a person I would never trust, that I certainly didn't want to be, and whose story I didn't care about. I have actually been in something like that situation and I would never, ever have done what Thomas did. I really can't understand why anybody else ever read past it. I did not, obviously.
posted by Bringer Tom at 8:41 PM on January 21, 2017 [2 favorites]


Wow. Thanks for sharing that.
posted by msalt at 2:58 PM on January 22, 2017


It's good that you wouldn't do what Covenant did. That's part of the point, really, about that moment in the books. The books are really great, and much of what follows across the series stems from that one really bad action by the central character, and that's also part of the point. Anyway, I don't want to continue this derail, I'll just say that there is worth in reading the series beyond that moment, but I understand why others stopped reading there.
posted by hippybear at 3:15 PM on January 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


Well my problem with Covenant is kind of a two-parter. It's not just that his doing the rape under the circumstances and in the way he did made him a totally toxic and unsympathetic character for me. The flipside of that is the thing people kept pestering me about when I made that evaluation, that this single act was so fucking important that it had reverberations that would be felt millennia later.

That, too, is bullshit. 13 years ago I had occasion to visit the traveling exhibit of medieval torture devices which makes the museum rounds when I was in San Diego. I spent four hours in that gallery, basically pinching myself and asking myself whether I was really human or not. There was an undeniable attraction to some of the exhibits but also the reality of how they were actually used, not on willing masochists exploring their possible feelings but on innocent random people who died horribly.

What Covenant did was horrible and stupid and evil and asking me to empathize with him is a bit beyond the pale, but on the other hand what he did was rape a girl, which is a terrible thing to do, but when you sort the long, long list of terrible things people have done to other people in the last thousand years it's pretty far down from the top. Asking me to believe that this one act is somehow the fulcrum on which a thousand years of history will pivot? Sorry, but my Auschwitz detectors are not even ticking at that. It's not just evil, it's mundane. The girl wasn't killed and will go on with her life, maybe with some substance abuse and relationship problems. Covenant will probably get a slap on the wrist because White (gold wielder?) Privilege. And it will all happen again tomorrow, and it won't matter then either, because humans.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:42 PM on January 22, 2017


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It was different, creative, innovative, brilliant, funny, deep, iconic, exciting, sensitive, realistic, profound -- and was completely ignored by people who pretended to know what A Great American Novel was for decades because the guy who wrote it wasn't one of them or had the acceptable pedigree.

btw is "completely ignored" code for "Pulitzer Prize-winning novel"?
posted by edeezy at 3:16 AM on January 29, 2017


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