I’ve just read an article written by Ursula K. Le Guin, entitled, “Who Cares About the Great American Novel,” in which she argues against it as “a uselessly competitive, hopelessly gendered concept,” a concept useful only to and promoted only by public relations people to sell books.
Though I think her connecting it to gender is a bit narrow, I do agree with her statement: “‘Great’ and ‘Novel’ are fine enough. But ‘the’ is needlessly exclusionary, and ‘American’ is unfortunately parochial.” It is the parochial frame of thought in the label that most disturbs me (as well, of course, as the suggestion that there can only be one great American novel).
I have always thought that the “great American novel” was meant to apply not simply to the author being American–though that would be part of it–but as applying to a novel that captures what it is to be American. However, there is no one quintessential American, only many different Americans. Thus, Henry James and Edith Wharton capture one kind, Mark Twain and Don Marquis another, John Steinbeck yet another, Jonathan Cheever another, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor yet others, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry and Zora Neale Hurston and Walter Moseley yet others, and so on and so on. It’s like the blind men and the elephant, each writer portraying a portion of what is America. In which case, there can be as many great American novels as there are kinds of Americans.
For myself, although I like to read these many different novels, writing a “novel of America” does not appeal. Rather, I would like to write a broader novel, a novel of humanity, placed in any nation or environment I choose, and reflective of the humanity we all have in common. Maybe that is what Sci Fi/Fantasy writers are trying to do when they place their stories in other worlds–address the commonalities and conflicts of our humanity in a broader way by removing them from the particulars of the nations or tribes to which we on this earth belong .
[To read the Ursula k. Le Guin article, see Lit Hub Daily.]