Is Anyone Really Writing the Great American Novel?

I still come across characters in books who want to write The Great American Novel, though in real life (or as real as it gets online) I don’t see people saying that. Has the desire to write The Great American Novel been superseded by the desire to write the next million-dollar bestseller? And is either goal realistic for most of us, or even worth pursuing?

Frankly, when I started writing this bloggery, I didn’t even know what The Great American Novel is, so I went trolling the Internet (so much more fun than actually sitting here writing!) to see what I could see. (Ah, the adventure of it all!)

(I don’t know why blogging brings out my desire to use parentheses — I seldom use them in my other writing, but there it is.)

Anyway, from what I gather, The Great American Novel shows the impact of American culture on the characters, shows the spirit of life in the United States at the time of publication, and is supposed to be a counterpart to the great English writers. Nothing in that definition precludes the novel being a bestseller, but it’s generally assumed that The Great American Novel is a literary novel rather than a commercial one. If the novel needs to show the spirit of life in the U.S. at the time of publication, then that means it needs to show today’s culture. Do we have a culture any more? I sure hate to think that fast food restaurants and blockbuster movies and and bestselling pap — books and music — are the only things that define us culturally. Though they certainly have had an impact on all our lives.

And why The Great American Novel? Why not the Great International Novel? The Great One-World Government Novel? The Great Earth Novel? Aren’t we supposed to be moving out of a parochial viewpoint into a global one? Either way, I am not writing an American novel, great or otherwise, even though my novels are set in Colorado. Perhaps Light Bringer, which will be published later this year can be considered a The Great Earth Novel since it strives to tell the history of humankind in a unique way. (Some people call it science fiction. Could be, I don’t know — I just told the story.)

What about you? Do you have any desire to write The Great American Novel? The Great Canadian Novel? The Great Global Novel? The next million-dollar bestseller?

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15 Responses to “Is Anyone Really Writing the Great American Novel?”

  1. Dr. Tom Bibey Says:

    I am an old Doc and I want to write the great Harvey County novel. If I get to leave behind something to show my great-grandchildren what my life was like as a country Doc I’ve done my job.

    I’ve made a little money as a writer but I’d been better off to pick up cans on the side of the road.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That makes more sense to me, to write the great regional novel — there still are regional differences. Geography alone has to affect an area. A person who grows up in the shadow of the mountains has to have different influences than one born by the sea or on the great plains. Altitude would also make a difference. I know these aren’t cultural differences, but would have to be taken into account.

  2. Cherlyn Says:

    In reading your post, I do see where the Great American novel may be more difficult to write today. Is it possible now for one voice to comprise all of America? I also thinik you have a great point about expansion. The direction of American companies has been going global. Why not the American writer? My third book that I’m working on is about a growing subset of the American culture and is comprised of characters of three different cultures. This wasn’t intentional, but rather, taken from my own world. But no, I don’t think it will be The Great American novel when completed.

  3. JaxPop Says:

    Pat – I’m with you (first on the use of parentheses) and 2nd on this whole Great American Novel – Literary Masterpiece stuff. I prefer the regional approach – have fun with it – sell some books – make some friends & spend as much time on the beach as possible. Life is good.

  4. Ken Coffman Says:

    I wrote the Great North American Sasquatch Novel. It’s called Endangered Species.

  5. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Maybe I’ll go for great small-town English…

  6. Laura Says:

    My novels are definitely regional as far as their place in America, which is Upstate New York where I was born and reside (Joyce Carol Oates country)…I’d like to believe that I’m writing within the realm of the Great American Novel, but I didn’t consciously set out to write one…I just want to tell a good story, tho’ out of all my novels, my little ghost story might be the most “American” of them all since my main character is a folksinger in the tradition of American folksingers through the years Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Utah Phillips, and Ani DiFranco (just to name a few who like to sing about the real stuff…)

    And like a folksinger…I don’t expect to make millions, especially since I’m a self-published DIY with my own company, so…I’ll just play my words and maybe someone will read ’em who needs ’em…shoot…(I think I might post this on my blog)

    BTW, I found you by way of through a reader who just added my book to her “to-read” list! I’m always curious about who they are, what they’re reading, and I’m always in search of “A Good Read”, I’ll have to add you to my list…and add your blog to my follow list too!

  7. Claire Collins Says:

    I’d love to write the Great American Novel, but I’d have to set it back at least 50 years. I think most of society has kind of lost themselves now and there’s not a lot of basis to hold us together in today’s world to be able to support a Great American Novel.

  8. Sia McKye Says:

    Not really. I’ve never thought in those terms. I just want to tell stories people want to read. Stories that captured my imagination enough to build the stories. I’ve always thought of writing as taking others on a journey or an adventure. I want people to connect with my characters emotionally and feel good when they’re finished.

    I like the sound of Light Bringer. 🙂

  9. Kathryn Says:

    What an interesting topic of conversation! I never particularly thought about the regional aspect discussed by others here but it makes sense. What I’ve noticed, personally, is that specific cultures in this country have been the ones in recent years to truly to capture their aspect of America. For example, there are a lot of great books that try to define / describe what it means to be Latin American in America.

    As for me, I’m much more interested in the personal story – memoirs, etc., that capture a slice of life for one individual. It doesn’t have to be about the country so much as about the experience of life in general.

  10. joylene Says:

    I want to write the great Canadian Novel. In fact, I want to write on the level of Margaret Laurence. I don’t know what TGCN would be about, but I’d hope it would stay with readers well after they read the last word. I think I want to make them stop and think something like, “Wow, that was incredible.”

  11. Khanh Ha Says:

    Good thought, Pat!

    Frankly, a great novel can be set in any locality, like yours, or in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County from which William Faulkner created his fictional worlds. Even more frankly, a great novel has to be literary. I never know any great novels in the genre of Sci-Fi, Romance, YA, or that sort. Do you? Why literary? Because literary fiction deals with characterization more deeply, intensely. Not to mention its power of description of moods, scenes, and human characterization. Don’t yawn! Read The Sound and The Fury, especially the first two chapters on Benjy and Quentin, where human minds verging on insanity were skillfully wrought to the point of surrealism. Read Paris Trout by Pete Dexter. I don’t know about you but I felt a tingling in my spine just following this Trout character around. If you’re taken over by such a villain in a novel, like Trout, or Lester Ballard in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, then that novel must be a literary novel.

    I don’t think any writer would intend to write the ‘great American novel’ when he conceives the thought of writing. Any writer who says ‘I want to write the great such and such novel’ is illusionary. A novel that can examine human flaws, humiliation, racial bigotry usually transcends any locality it’s set in and becomes a global recognition in the literary world. It could be set in Pago-Pago like in Rain by W. Somerset Maugham, but it rises above it to become a short-story classic.

    But to write it, a writer must be extraordinarily skilled.

    So, do I want to write the great American novel? No. Just write!

  12. Irma Fritz Says:

    Hey Pat, My GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, IRRETRIEVABLY BROKEN, is Americana viewed through the eyes of a 3-generational German immigrant family as they take a cross-country road trip. I published all 500 pages of it last Oct on amazon. No, I would not mind if it hit the bestseller lists, but foremost I wanted to write a literary novel, not a Dan Brown imitation. While it’s not on the NY Times bestseller list, it hit #1 in a few categories very briefly one glorious hour in July on amazon’s e-reader Kindle where I’ve placed it on a summer sale (Kindle only) for 99 cents. My normal Kindle price is $3.95. BTW, currently, many of the classics (Anna Karenina, Treasure Island, Pride & Prejudice, The Iliad, etc) are FREE on Kindle, and even Dan Brown sell his Kindle editions for under $10. As everyone comparison shops these days, I figure that a reader might take a chance on a book by an unknown Indie author (ME!) if the price is right. What are you thoughts? BTW, loved the sex fountains & GTG see em!

  13. Kathryn Meyer Griffith Says:

    I’m brand new here but couldn’t resist putting in my two cents on the Great American novel…I’ve been writing (horror, romance and murder mysteries) for 37 years now; published 12 novels and 6 short stories in the last 25 and I could actually write a novel on that strange adventure, let me tell you! But for a while now, as my grandparents and parents and old friends have started to die off and the years have added up I’ve been thinking of writing the novel (the story) of my childhood and family. I was born in 1950 and had six brothers and sisters. We were poor, lived in small Illinois towns but always had a lot of love and hope. I was a child in the 50’s, a teenager in the 60’s, a young adult in the 70 and 80’s…and I’ve always wove those stories into my books in bits and pieces like a growing tapestry. The ups and downs, the heartaches and losses; the joy. Now I want to write the whole thing. I’m writing book #15 and 16 for my agent now (vampire and a witch book) but think I’ll really try to write my great American family story after that. I’m almost 60 and I think it’s finally time. Gonna call it The Seven Of Us. Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Kathryn, sounds like a great idea, and I think your title is wonderful. Oddly enough, someone just suggested to me yesterday that I write a novel (though not necessarily The Great American Novel) about my early years. Your early years sound more interesting than mine! I hope the book does well.

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