The Great American Novel

Monday an editorial by Diana E. Sheets appeared in my newspaper entitled “The demise of the great American novel.” The premise of the piece is that the great American novel in the tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls or Absalom, Absalom! is dead.

Why? As a starter, according to Sheets, the top five trade publishers in the US are subsidiaries of conglomerates, most of which are foreign. Consequently, publishing has become a global enterprise and profit rules all.

Sheets goes on to say, “Innovative novels presenting the American story have all but died. They have been replaced almost entirely with feminized ‘virtue’ or sanctimonious multiculturalism devoid of truth or excellence. As a consequence, literary fiction has become entirely derivative and resistant to telling our story. Given this ‘literary tofu’ that is bloodless and devoid of realism, the reader loses interest. Consequently, publishers have substituted a steady diet of sensationalized ‘pulp’ where once great fiction held sway.”

So it’s not just Christian fiction that is struggling to be relevant.

The scary thing, to me anyway, is connected with what I discussed yesterday. Christian fiction seems stuck in copycat mode, but what we are copying is “pulp.” And we seem to do so gleefully, pounding our chests or patting ourselves on the back, pleased with the strides we have made.

Don’t get me wrong. Christian fiction has undergone remarkable growth, and not just in numbers of authors or books sold. The quality of writing has matured, and the types of stories have expanded. And continues to do so.

But who among us is aspiring to write the Great American Novel?

I’m just wondering. Have we set our sights too low, satisfied with imitation pulp?

And at this point I have to check myself, because I don’t want to say what I’m not saying. I know there is a place for stories that are fun and little more. When all around us we see a sinful, dying world, it is more than tempting to seek a reprieve, an escape.

After all, the American story used to be one of hope and help and hard work mixed with struggle and tragedy. And what is it now, beyond greed and selfishness and despair?

OK, I’m sounding more cynical than I feel, truly. But I’m saying, I understand the temptation to escape the uncontrollable dirtiness of our world.

But maybe, instead of escaping, we should face it head on, really look at this world from a Christian worldview, and write that story.

By the way, I don’t want to imply I think all Christian fiction should be contemporary. Far from it. As a fantasy writer, I tend to believe fantasy is the best vehicle for conveying truth about our world, about God, about … you name it.

These musings aren’t about genre but about aspirations, and first and foremost, my own. Perhaps we should be a little less content with what we’ve accomplished and a little more ambitious in our aims. Perhaps.

Published in: on February 13, 2008 at 11:40 am  Comments (10)  
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  1. Hm. So maybe I should be re-thinking my Amish-Lit proposal…


  2. “In modern usage, the term is often figurative and represents a Holy Grail of writing, an ideal to strive towards, and is a source of inspiration. It is, presumably, the greatest American book ever written, or which could ever be written. Thus, “Great American Novel” is a metaphor for identity, a Platonic ideal that is not achieved in any specific texts, but whose aim writers strive to mirror in their work.” Wikipedia

    If I were to put a few nominees in from CBA, they would be Redeeming Love, This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness, The Oath, and a few more. Interesting that these novels are several years old . . . Unforgettable and inspirational and oh so American while having a universal message.

    “Though the term is singular, many novels have been given this title over time. In fact, few will claim there is one single Great American Novel. Two of the earliest contenders for this title are Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Other important and often cited novels include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy[1], Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Wikipedia

    My personal desire is to touch lives so deeply for the Lord as to be unforgettable in inspiring a closer relationship with Him.


  3. I sure am glad we writers are not dead.
    I see us putting out some pretty good stuff.


  4. Rebecca,

    Some interesting ideas you have here. Thank you for giving serious consideration to my Op-Ed. I believe great literature transcends all categories and genres. The effort on the part of Christian writers to tell the American story–and other stories that bring meaning to our global civilization–are welcomed. Readers–all readers–are starved for want of great literature.

    My essays can be read on my website, Late next week I’ll post the first of a three-part series examining Norman Mailer’s attempt in his “nonfiction novels” to present the American story.

    Wishing you continued success in your efforts to publish your stories.

    Diana Sheets


  5. Becky, I don’t know a lot of writers who are pounding their chests and patting themselves on the back after finishing a story. I’m sure there are some, but not in my circle of writing buddies. Most of us are on our knees, thanking God we completed another project and hoping that we heard him correctly in the process. My personal aspirations include doing the best I can at this time in my life. My job is to try, and to pray, and to listen to “good counsel” along the way, and to have the courage to write despite criticism–or even lavish praise (because if we’re not careful, too much of that can distort the call, you know?)

    Keep writing and moving forward, Beck!


  6. Well, Julie, I don’t know about the Amish lit proposal. 😉

    And I fear I did end up saying what I wasn’t saying. I don’t think any Christian writer that I know of is doing any chest pounding or back thumping. But perhaps collectively we are. Whenever there’s a discussion about the quality of Christian fiction, someone, and quite often that someone is me, will mention the vast change in the last five years.

    Just this week I found through my Google Alert a message board ripping, I mean ripping a particular Christian fantasy. They posted an excerpt and proceeded to go on and on about how contemptible it and all Christian (that published by ECPA houses) fiction is.

    If I wouldn’t have had to register and join their whatever to post a comment, I would have given a clear defense of the books coming under that heading.

    I guess I’m saying, and really only to myself, I don’t want to be satisfied with being better than I was. But then, read today’s post to see what that kind of thinking inevitable does to me! 😮



  7. Terry, perhaps I should have addressed the last comment to you as well. By no means did I intend to imply there isn’t “some pretty good stuff” in the Christian fiction category. And yet where are our Pulitzers? That’s all I’m saying. Obviously we aren’t all going to win a Pulitzer, but I’d hope some Christian, published by an ECPA house, would someday.

    But of course, I have new thoughts on the subject, so you may want to read today’s post. At any rate, thanks for the feedback.



  8. Nicole, you said My personal desire is to touch lives so deeply for the Lord as to be unforgettable in inspiring a closer relationship with Him.

    Mine too. I almost brought up the idea of the Great American Christian novel, but thought better of it. Because, really, I think much Christian fiction can be “consumed” by anyone. Some, to be sure, is aimed at Christians, with the intent to challenge or edify, but those still have enduring themes.

    Thanks for sharing your research.



  9. Diana, thanks so much for stopping by. I read your article again, the expanded version you have at your web site. You make a strong argument.

    I believe great literature transcends all categories and genres. Great line, and I agree.

    I’ll look forward to your future posts.



  10. Too often, the “Great American Novel” isn’t recognized on the first go-round. I’d argue that Tosca Lee’s “Demon: A Memoir” ranks off the charts in CBA or ABA or anywhere else for that matter. It is most certainly an American story. If it is a pulp, it is a transcendent one, and I’d argue that it isn’t.

    I’ve written before about it, but it is certainly the finest literature I’ve read in the 21st century, and Lee can write circles around Hemmingway.

    There are fifteen levels of strange in “Demon” and yet the plot arc is taut and straightforward. Lee is F. Scott Fitzgerald, drunk on the Spirit. If Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis had a baby, her name would be Tosca Lee.

    Anyone who thinks (like I did, before reading it) that the Great American Novel can’t be written anymore needs to pick up a copy of Demon, and read it as a memoir. [Clue: It isn’t the demon’s memoir, but someone else’s.]


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