I think that's a good standard for making a list of novels. He talked a lot about the folly of making end of the year lists and best novels of the century and such things. But he did come up with a list of five things that good novels must tell us:
- Who we are
- Where we came from
- The names and powers of our gods
- Who our enemies are
- How to protect ourselves from enemies
He said the Great American Novel is a mythical creature, like a hippogrif. He said it is a book that is still being written. I think it is almost an impossible task, at this point in our national history. Can one novel encompass everything? Isn't it rather presumptuous to believe that one novel can speak to the many aspects of what it means to be American?
I don't know, but I think I would have to have voted like Banks, choosing a novel I just liked or wished I had written, rather than trying to decide which was "most significant." For the most part I find "important" novels boring. Middlesex and The Corrections come to mind as novels that try to be important and The Great American Novel at the outset. I liked Middlesex, but I preferred the narrator's story to the larger immigrant story. I couldn't read The Corrections. I read about ten pages and thought if I had to read one more description of magazines piled around the house, I was going to scream.
Just thinking about it now, I'd have to say that the novels that come to mind as my favorites are not American, but British or Canadian. And if I had to pick just one novel? Just one American novel? Aargh! I can't do it!
But just for the record, of the novels nominated in the NYTimes poll, I loved Underworld, but I wonder if it will age well. It seems so much of our time. I do love Beloved, but I loved it less the second and third times I read it. I haven't read any Roth since Goodbye, Columbus. I just can't stand that much discussion of masturbation. Banks said last night that John Irving voted for himself.
Actually, thinking about it just now, I have to wonder why Sherman Alexie didn't get any nods. If there is one aspect of American culture that needs illumination, I think it is Native American culture. I loved Reservation Blues and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Middlebrow suggested to me that maybe it's a problem of genre: my favorite American writers are short story writers. Ron Carlson, for example, is one of the best. Jesus's Son by Denis Johnson and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien both received some votes in the poll. The other book I might have voted for is All The Pretty Horses, though again, it pales upon revisitation. Notice another problem with all these titles? Yep. All men. The other book I thought of was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which Middlebrow mentions is really a novella.
Which leads me to the question, is the Great American Novel a masculine conceit? Do women's novels, because they tend to (gross overgeneralization) focus on more intimate portraits, automatically fail to be a Great American Novel? I think maybe so. I think our conception of the Great American Novel excludes many fine novels by women, just by virtue of the definition of the GAN.
So maybe I would make a protest vote: Break it Down by Lydia Davis. It's a book I wish I had written. It's short stories.
So what about you? Cast your vote and be counted!