Columns > Published on July 19th, 2016

The State of the Great American Novel

The concept of a unifying “Great American Novel” (GAN) dates back to an essay published by essayist John William De Forest in The Nation in 1868. Essentially, De Forest wanted exactly what the title says— an original novel that encompassed the heart of the American experience. 

Despite the skeptical response of critics (the term “American” being in itself rather ambiguous. Is Canada involved? Mexico?), the idea of a single novel that perfectly captures the American consciousness has remained quite persistent across the decades. 

Wild author Cheryl Strayed had some choice thoughts on the idea of the GAN in a 2015 Bookends column in the New York Times:

The idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.

A few novels that have been proffered up over time as potential GANs include Beloved, Infinite Jest, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Catcher In The Rye. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was the most recent title to be elevated to GAN status.

Perhaps rather than looking for the “great” or monumental work to fit the bill, readers looking for the next GAN should check the YA section.

But how can anyone make a statement about what constitutes such a work without a better understanding of what Americans are actually reading and why? By the sheer number of sales, Daniel Silva might make a better candidate than Franzen.

So, how does the United States stack up against the rest of the world in literary terms? Do Americans read more or less? What mediums do we prefer, how much do we publish, and how does the quality compare to what other countries are producing?

  • According to the International Publishers Association, four out of five Canadians read books regularly, with fully 23% of leisure time reportedly spent reading books. The amount of digital reading is increasing, and nearly half of Canadians report reading digitally.
  • By comparison, seven in 10 adults in the U.S. said they picked up a book in the past year, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey.
  • Via the same Pew survey, young adults ages 18 through 29 are more likely to read than people in other age groups. This group reported that 80 percent of their numbers polled had read a book in the past 12 months, at least 10 percent higher than any other age group.

If the GAN is about what E.M. Forster called “the buzz of implication,” i.e. the way we as a society live in a specific moment, it looks like the written word has connected well with the current young adult experience. Perhaps rather than looking for the “great” or monumental work to fit the bill, readers looking for the next GAN should check the YA section. 

Also, maybe something about barbecue.

What do you think? Is the GAN a myth? What would you nominate as the next GAN? Let us know in the comments!

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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