Insecure Writers Support Group meets on the first Wednesday of every month (except that one).
The book I've been reading, an advance copy of Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves, has gotten me thinking about the Great American Novel. I wonder how many writers even still think about such a thing. I've been trying to figure out why Thomas's book has such incredible hype surrounding it, because it's really not very good, and the only thing I can figure is, because writers in general don't really think about the Great American Novel anymore.
We've become a niche generation. A hundred years ago this would have been unthinkable. Of course, a hundred years ago writers were busy laying the foundation for exactly what we've become, but they approached it differently. They approached the idea of genre as a lens by which to view the real world. I think we cracked that lens a long time ago. I think we have no concept that the lens ever existed at all.
So we have generations of writers, especially the current one, where all they think about is storytelling that has no real interest in talking about things that matter. When someone like Thomas comes along, a new voice (because so many of our esteemed writers are old voices), and he tackles the real world, the literary community gets carried away with itself. I think that explains Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, too. Because that's not a very good book, either. It's the same thing the Academy Awards try to do every year when they award Best Picture, find the movie that speaks to what we're thinking of ourselves now, a commentary that defines our times.
In other words, the whole idea of the Great American Novel. The idea that we can reach beyond ourselves, our own petty interests, and be expansive, be grand, be great. Not just write for the sake of writing, but try and say something, express something.
I've stumbled around with this in my own writing. Pale Moonlight was my first real attempt to tackle it, and so I guess that's another reason I'm especially sensitive about it. When I wrote In the Land of Pangaea, I embraced the challenge a little more directly. Some of the projects I have lined up will try to be even more direct about it.
I have no idea what the Great American Novel actually is. I think it's an ideal, one we hardly recognize even when it happens. Something like We Are Not Ourselves comes along, and critics fall all over themselves to embrace it, laud it, exaggerate its worth. Because it's one of the central conceits of being an American, that at our best we write the best. But it seldom seems to actually happen.
Just something to consider.