So-called Great American Novels examine the American identity, refusing to merely entertain. Yet notably few top bestsellers’ lists. They are a small sliver of an already pressed industry fighting with TV, the Internet, movies, and our smartphones for attention and relevancy. How can the next great novel be relevant in modern America when it’s competing against the next Marvel film?
Novels can galvanize a nation, hold up a mirror and show society its values. And in their glory days, novels rattled the American consciousness. Lincoln claimed Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a catalyst of the Civil War, and The Jungle helped create the Food and Drug Administration. This introspection gave them pertinence. But now, though every literary book today claims itself a work of sublime national reflection, none leave the same lasting impact. This may be due to the subject matter of modern “masterpieces”.
Today’s exemplary of Great American Novelists is Jonathan Franzen (Purity, 2015), who has made a career of writing well-received American novels. But where The Great Gatsby challenged perceptions of the American elite, Franzen’s admittedly entertaining oeuvre myopically clings to middle class experiences, those belonging to a rapidly shrinking category of Americans. His novels are formulaic: homogenously white, family-focused, with a politically relevant topic like global warming or globalism, and a predictably kooky character added to stir the pot. Characters are white American archetypes like “Democrat,” “Republican,” or “Millennial” attempting to voice each groups’ feelings. But he can’t speak for all white Americans, nor do white Americans necessarily need a voice. As white America continues to shrink, these novels are becoming less relevant, despite Franzen’s literary ambition.
The question of relevance should be whether readers recognize their America in quality media, whether the medium is novels or something else. That craving for diversity is why Marvel produced minority-centered superhero shows like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. Novels featuring diversity may currently be financially unwise for publishers, but because Millennials are reading more and are a more diverse population than previous generations, the scope of great novels must shift: they must shine their mirror across more of the country.