My writing buddy, Soloist, and I met last night to talk about, what else? Writing. During the course of our conversation, a half-formed thought about the idea of The Great American Novel niggled at me. I asked Soloist if she ever thought about the book she is writing as The Great American Novel. She said that she does. I asked her how she would define The Great American Novel. She said that The Great American Novel is a book that shows American society to itself – that it points out things about our society that are there, but not readily acknowledged – deeper stuff. As examples, she cited Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. By coincidence, I found another Great American Novel named in a newsletter I got at work this morning – Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.
Somehow, whenever I have heard the term The Great American Novel, I assumed that it was a generality, that it had no greater meaning than, “I’m an American and I’ve got a book to write.” (Do Japanese writers aspire to writing The Great Japanese Novel?)
Ironically, for as milquetoast as my definition was, I never considered it as something that applied to me. Maybe I subconsciously knew the more comprehensive definition Soloist had and figured that what I write simply doesn’t fall into that category.
You see, I tend to concentrate on the little things in life and that’s what I write about. An observation here, a character trait there, an interesting turn of phrase, how words sound together. They aren’t as big and complex and sweeping as I imagine The Great American Novel to be.
Soloist, now, the novel she’s working on I would characterize as The Great American Novel. It’s ambitious and covers some really huge topics, like seed saving and factory farming and the treatment of the mentally ill. If you bop on over to her blog, you can read a draft of her first chapter, The Nature of Kale. (Isn’t that a great title?)