It’s no secret that I love American novels, so when I saw an article by Matthew Spencer in the Guardian searching for the Great American Novelist, I was instantly drawn to see who he might include in the mix. The two lists (one of seeded contestants, non-replaceable, and a second of equal length of which can be changed if a stronger case is made for another novelist) were strong but it niggled me somehow. I spent a while thinking about what points I thought were making me wince a little bit, and I’ve come up with a short list.
Before beginning, I have to say that this doesn’t mean I’m rubbishing the list by any means: no list would be complete without the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald and Mailer, but I just wanted to highlight some of the sticking points with creating such tournaments and why searching for the Great American Novelist could be a fruitless search.
1. What Constitutes a Great Novel?
I had a hard time working out whether each of the listed authors had four novels that could be considered equally great or, perhaps, masterpieces. Undoubtedly there are novelists that have produced good bodies of work, but most of those have one or maybe two standout novels with the rest being good, but maybe not quite as masterly as that one defining work. Everyone, for example, thinks of The Great Gatsby when they think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but fewer people have read Tender is the Night or The Beautiful and the Damned. Does that mean that Fitzgerald has created one masterpiece and a few other good works that aren’t quite up to that level?
On a similar topic, many of the novelists on the list can be said to have written ‘heavy’ works. By that I mean works that either have a heavy subject matter or are written in a complicated, serious or classical literary style. The authors of the modernist period (of which there are many on this list) are clear examples of this. Maybe that’s why we don’t see names that are synonymous with a genre that couldn’t be more American: pulp fiction. We don’t see the likes of Bret Easton Ellis, Raymond Chandler and, arguably, James Ellroy, on the list. Surely these works have something specifically American about them that perhaps sets them in a league of their own.
As a last point, where’s Jack Kerouac?
2. The one-book dilemma
An author has only written one work of fiction. Okay, according to the rules they’re off the list but… that’s not fair is it? The four-book rule means that a whole host of authors are being excluded. I say: does an extensive canon equal a quality author? I’d like to use the example of Jean Toomer here: Toomer’s only novel was Cane, an experimental mix of loosely interconnected stories interspersed with songs and poetry following the lives of African-Americans in the Deep South and Washington DC and the everyday racism and frustrations that they face. Though largely ignored at the time, it is now widely regarded as a brilliant novel filled with insight (and it’s beautifully written). Should novelists like Toomer be penalised for an unfortunate lack of work? After all, sometimes this is not the author’s fault, other issues impose upon them and they have to quit.
3. Where did all the women go?
Linked to this idea of the four-book policy… where are the women? It’s as if the competition was designed to keep Harper Lee from winning (she famously only wrote the one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s one of the most beloved books in the American canon). 1/8 of the list are women, and two of those women aren’t actually safe. But thee are a whole host of women you could add into the mix. At one end of the scale you could include Ayn Rand and her novels which were an inspiration to the likes of Silicon Valley (her books are controversial in a way, but in that way they embody the edgy spirit of American writing) and at the other you could easily shout out for some children’s literature and include Ursula Le Guin, whose books are unconventional and challenging (at least they were to me when reading them when I was about ten or eleven). It’s an interesting one to ponder: does the lack of women novelists mean a lack of ‘great American’ women novelists (i.e. the men are just better in America?) or are the rules just locking them out of the competition?
All in all, it’s one that could be debated for hours. Everyone will have a different opinion on who should win (nobody has the same taste in novels after all: I love the modernist period, but a lot of people will recoil in horror at the likes of Faulkner), so is a competition like this actually pointless? Maybe the quest to find the defining novelists, encompassing a wider variety of novelists, would be more of a worthy competition than trying to find one standout writer. Still, it’ll be interesting to see who actually wins so we can all quibble over who should’ve been the real winner…