I like lists as much as the next person. They’re fun to corroborate or argue with, letting our own personal prejudices run free (any list that slams Philip Roth or John Updike is a list I will probably frame and hang on a wall if I was the kind of guy who (a) framed things; (b) had a hammer ; (c) knew where the hammer was that I’m pretty sure we bought when we bought the house because I thought, “I’m probably going to be hammering all the time!”; (d) hung framed things from a hammered nail in a wall) while also providing the extra reach with which to pat our own backs.
My argument, though, is with this constant competition for the Great American Novel.
This is a terrible game to play. It feels, to me, as if the assumption is: there’s just one American story to tell and once we’ve identified it we can finally be DONE, you guys. That’s often how we treat women and minorities in the arts: once a slot is filled, whether it’s a woman-centric television show or a show with a minority family, Those With the Power in entertainment tend to not want to pursue other voices from those communities (but God forbid we don’t examine MINUTELY the inner lives of men of a certain age and the challenges they face in a world that they helped shape but boy were they not expecting to see two guys getting married! “How many shows do we have starring gruff white men in their 50s?” “We just had to fire Alec Baldwin.” “Then double the number of shows and send him a muffin basket.”). Instead, their response is, “No thanks! We’ve got [“Girls,” or “Sex in the City,” or “The Cosby Show” which, by the way, was 20+ years ago and “Scandal” is a terrific TV series with a strong black female lead but when’s the last time you saw a Cherokee family settle in to all-you-can-eat breadsticks and salad at the local Olive Garden? This has been Consciousness Raising with Mike Bevel, and I’d like to turn the floor over to some of our spoken-word poets before we break for some gluten-free vegan desserts in the Let’s Just Shoot Ourselves in the Face Hall here at the Unitarian church]!”
Where was I?
Oh, yeah: the Great American Novel. Stop looking for it. There are a great number of great American novels and the only thing they all have in common is none of them have the words “Rabbit” or “Portnoy” in the title. Another trap these lists sometimes fall into is the Overachieving Olympics, where the Great American Novel isn’t so much Great, but Hard — and I’m not being lazy and I’m not suggesting I don’t like a challenge because I sat through a performance of a capella choral arts atonal music so how dare you. But I feel like if you’re a novel that’s going to strive to be the Great American Novel, then you have to be a novel that speaks to a great portion of Americans and I’m sorry, “The Ambassadors,” by Henry James, you are too interested in yourself (which, ironically, is how most Americans navigate the world: being too interested in themselves and super-sizing things) and don’t pay back the close attention that a Great American Novel should if I even believed in the Great American Novel, which I don’t, so why are we even HAVING this conversation?
I guess the point is — and I do have one — read good novels not because they tell great American stories but because they tell great Human stories and while we all may not share a neighborhood or a cholesterol count, we share humanity; and art — specifically novels in this meandering argument and god bless you if you made it this far — is a safe place to explore what makes us human and why it matters.