The Great American Novel

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“The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected.”
Somerset Maugham (also attributed to Frank Dane)

“We have often wondered that the people who raise the outcry for the “Great American Novel” did not see that, so far from being of any assistance to our fellow-countryman who is trying to win fame by writing fiction, they have rather stood in his way by setting up before him a false aim for his art, and by giving the critical reader a defective standard by which to judge his work.”
T. S. Perry in the North American Review in 1873 (possibly the first mention of the term)

“Great American Novel” =”doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man.”
Lionel Shriver: ‘Let’s up our game, not exclude men’ (Independent, 18 November, 2010)

The one where the white male American literature/history professor has a midlife crisis and sleeps with a student he despises, thus ending the marriage to the wife he despises and obliging him to move in with the mother he despises. I think it’s called The Great American Novel. (Sarah Moss)

So what is the Great American Novel? Firstly, it must, of course, be a good literary novel. But any good literary novel cannot qualify. It must also be quintessentially American which means it must cover at least one of the three things that make America American, namely killing, money and sexual hypocrisy. It would help if it were an epic, though that is not necessary. It would also help if it were a tragedy, though that is also not necessary. It should probably deal with more than one ethnic group, at least if it is post 1850. It should probably be aware of American history. And, as Lionel Shriver so rightly points out, it will almost certainly be written by a man. Here is what John William DeForest, who popularised the term, thought.

The obvious choices

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March (according to Martin Amis)
William Burroughs: The Naked Lunch
Don DeLillo: Underworld
John Dos Passos: U.S.A.
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury
F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Jonathan Franzen: Freedom
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Joseph Heller: Catch 22
Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea
Jack Kerouac: On the Road
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ross Lockridge: Raintree County
Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead
Herman Melville: The Confidence Man (see this suggestion)
Herman Melville: Moby Dick
Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind
Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow
J D Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn
Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

The less than obvious choices

Martin Amis: Money
John Barth: The Sot-Weed Factor
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Robert Coover: The Public Burning
Philip K Dick: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
J P Donleavy: The Ginger Man
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy
Leon Forrest: Divine Days
Jonathan Franzen: Freedom
William Gaddis: J R
William Gaddis: The Recognitions
Ellen Glasgow: Virginia Comedy series
Alex Haley: Roots
Sinclair Lewis: Main Street
James Purdy: Cabot Wright Begins
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Donna Tartt: The Secret History
John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces
William T Vollmann: You Bright and Risen Angels
David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest

Books called the Great American Novel (though none of them is)

Alex Abella: The Great American: A Novel
Ronnie G. Andersin: The Great American Novel
Tiago Bonacho: The Great American Novel
Thomas A. Brewster: The Great American Novel
Clyde Brion Davis: The Great American Novel
Bob Dern: The Great American Novel
George Francis Dickman: The Great American Novel (Short Twisted Tales Book 3)
Daniel Donatelli: The Great Anti-American Novel
Richard Stanley Dunlop: Breaking My Leg: The Great American Community-Theatre Novel
James Fritzhand: Son of the Great American Novel
Milt Gross: He Done Her Wrong; the Great American Novel and not a Word in it-no Music, too
Fannie Hurst: Lummox/a Great American Novel
Genevieve Knapp: Le Grand Roman Américain, Finalement Écrit
Bailey Millard: The Great American Novel, Being an Amiable Literary Quest
Dave Morice et al.: The Great American Fortune Cookie Novel
Porkchop Pan: The Great American Novel: A Cynic’s Trip Through God Knows Where
Philip Roth: The Great American Novel
Mike Shearer: The Great American Gay Porno Novel
Eliot Stafford: The Great American Novel or Random Start
William Carlos Williams: The Great American Novel

Serious suggestions

The Great American Novel Never Will Come (written in 1916)
Will Great American Novel Come from South? (written in 1915)
A History of the Great American Novel
The First Great American Novel
Great American Novels
Great American Novels
What is The Great American Novel?
A late Great American Novel
The Great American Novel
The Great American Novel
The Great American Novels
Turns Out The Great American Novel…Isn’t American
What’s Greater than Gatsby?
What is the Greatest American Book?
Can the Great American Novel survive?
The Great American Novel
Cooper Revises the First Great American Novel
Great American Novel Contenders
The Great American Novel and Jack Kerouac
Is Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ the Great American Novel?
Hate, Love, and the Great American Novel
The Last Great American Novel
The real great American Novel: ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ Faulkner
The Great American Novel was written by:
10 Great American Novel Contenders From the Past Decade
The Great American Novel tournament
A Brief Survey of the Great American Novel(s)
A Spanish perspective (in Spanish)

Not the Great American Novel

The Great American Novel
The Great American Novel by Crysty & Margaret
The Great American Novel
Keith Malley (unpublished but purchasable Great American Novel)
The Great American Nerd Novel
The Great American Sports Novel
The Great American (office) Novel?
The Great American Bankruptcy Novel, Maybe
In Search of the Great American Hockey Novel
“The Wire” Is”The Great American Novel”
“Ask me about my Great American Novel”
The Fantastic Four (1961-89) was The Great American Novel
The Great American Internet Novel Is Here: Inside ‘Book of Numbers’
Letzte Nacht (by a band called The Great American Novel)
How I Gave Up On The Great American Novel And Got A Book Deal (one man tries to write the GAN but given that his influences were Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Denis Johnson and Bob Shacochis, he was never going to. Though the Neil Young (a Canadian) influence might have helped.)

Commentary on the Great American Novel

The Great American Novel
The Great American Novel
The Great American Novel
Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel?
Can a Woman Be a “Great American Novelist”?
Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel?
Did a Woman Write “The Great American Novel”?
HowTo: Write the Great American Novel
Whatever Happened to the Great American Novel?
What the Publishers Won’t Admit About the Demise of the Great American Novel
The Curse of the Great American Novel
On Writing the Great American Novel
Has the internet killed the Great American Novel?
Can the Great American Novel survive?
What is the Great American Novel?
The Great American Novel. Did Norman Mailer live it instead?
Ursula K. Le Guin: Who Cares About The Great American Novel?

Books about the Great American Novel

Lawrence Buell: The Rise &”Fall” of the Great American Novel
Anne Skillion (ed): Introducing The Great American Novel
Lawrence R. Rodgers: Canaan Bound: The African-American Great Migration Novel

Other “Great” novels

Murray Gray: The Great Australian Novel
Harry J.Boyle: The Great Canadian Novel
Rago Debuff: Great Canadian Novel
Eddie DeVille: Growing Down, The Great (Canadian) Novel
The Great D.C. Novel
The Great Illinois Novel
The Great Michigan Novel
The Great California Novel
The Great Florida Novel
Who Wrote the Great New Jersey Novel?
The Great Louisiana Novel (also mentions the Great Alabama Novel, the Great Mississippi Novel and the Great New York Novel)
The Great New York City Novel
The Great New York Novel?
The Greatest New York Novel
The great North Dakota novel
White Palace: The Great St. Louis Novel?
The Great Oregon Novel
The Great Texas Novel
The Great Texas Novel 2
The Great Tar Heel Novel
On”How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”
The Great Irish-American Novel
Tiger, Tiger: The Hunt for the Great Irish Novel
Is ‘Strumpet City’ the great Irish novel?
The Great Asian American Novel
The Great Canadian Graphic Novel
What’s the Great Australian Novel?
In search of the Great Australian Graphic Novel
Shashi Tharoor: The Great Indian Novel
Why we should never give up our quest to find (or write) the Great Indian Novel
Looking for the great Indian novel
Which is the Great Pakistani Novel?
The Great Canadian Novel – Synopsis
The Great British Novel
In search of the Great British Novel
Synopsis of the Great Welsh Novel
David Johnston: The Great Ulster Novel
George Adams: The Great Hong Kong Sex Novel
The Great European Novel
The Great Ilonggo Novel
The Great Indonesian Novel
Yes, there is a great Singaporean novel
The Great Italian Novel
Finding the Great Malaysian Novel
The Great Indonesian Novel
The Great Mexican Chilean Spanish Novel
The Great Venezuelan Novel
The Great Jewish Novel Is Relic of the 50’s
The Great African Novel
Der beste Roman aller Zeiten [The Best Novel of All Time] (in German)
La gran novela latinoamericana [The Great Latin American Novel] (in Spanish)