A couple of weeks ago a Smarty-Pants Norwegian dismissed American writers as too insular and narrow in their points of view to have much chance of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am sorry to say that I think he is right.
The quest to write the Great American Novel--and there can be only one Great American Novel--seems largely abandoned by writers. Why this is so is something of a puzzle since more than 7,000 novels are published every year. By the law of averages alone we might expect at least one of these writers to stumble into greatness. Yet, serendipitous stumbling aside, the hopes of readers and booksellers have been dashed by the failure of their books to capture the cultural distinctiveness and identity of America in the way that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, and Moby Dick succeeded at doing.
Those three novels, by the way, are the only three the literary establishment says warrant consideration as the one. And while I don't disagree, I admit that I would rather fix a water leak in the crawl space under our house than read Moby Dick again. To give boring old Herman his due, there is no other novel quite like it and "Call me Ishmael" is as signatory as any line in American Literature, never mind that that first splendid paragraph is followed by 615 pages of excruciating detail about how to boil whale blubber.
Booksellers particularly lust after a new novel that might make the grade, and not just because it will sell well. Our bookstores are repositories of culture, knowledge, and moral reasoning, and while we admittedly junk them up with best selling fads of the minute, we instinctively aspire to be and have something better. That's why every proper bookstore shelves Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and John Steinbeck while James Waller's backlist props up broken furniture in the storage room.
The Bridges of Madison County, Waller's one hit wonder, sold 3,000,000 copies and made a boatload of money for Waller, his publisher, and booksellers everywhere. And we are grateful for these best selling mackerels, so-named because they "shine and stink like a dead fish in the moonlight:" More to the point they pay the rent and buy shoes for baby, but they are not "great" novels, nor are they particularly concerned with capturing the broader aspects of American consciousness. Instead, late 20th and 21st century American writers have more intimate concerns, are less transformative in their aims, and more consistently view the world through the prism of identity. In short, their view and aim is more near that of European writers who, necessarily, write about self, identity, and group affiliation because their national histories are frankly exhausted, and their national and personal futures utterly entwined with the European Union rather than with the shape and destiny of the country in which they are born. Booksellers are among the first to ask if American culture and American writers are becoming similarly exhausted and weary.
None of this is to say that the novels published today are bad books, or that they lack literary merit or entertainment value. Even The Bridges of Madison County was made into a pretty good movie, and the novel had a certain middle-aged sweetness. I mean simply that working writers (and, obviously publishers) aren't producing novels that concern big ideas, big themes, or broadly consequential political or social motifs.
But to repeat, still again: we remain hopeful, and still we argue about worthy challengers to Grapes, Finn and Moby. Among the more serious contenders has been The Great Gatsby, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, Main Street, and most recently, Lonesome Dove. Ultimately each has failed, either for critical reasons, or because theme and motif have been too narrow or private.
"Tomorrow is another day," said Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (for a brief moment a contender). Be assured that we have shelf space reserved for the next great hope. And let it be soon, please, if simply for the pleasure of telling a certain Norwegian critic to go to hell.