There is no “Great American Novel.” Never has been, and never will be. It’s simply an intangible fantasy, much like the “American Dream,” ever-changing with each new generation, achievable for fleeting moments until something or someone new comes along and redefines the criteria once again.
No, there is no “Great American Novel,” only great American novels for individual readers, and great American novels for specific cultural moments. For instance, we can appreciate The Scarlet Letter as an amazing commentary on the nation’s repressed and puritanical founding, but does Hawthorne truly define America now? Do Melville’s masculine allegories really offer meaningful discussion of the diverse cultural clashes in which we currently find ourselves? And, for that matter, does Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities–timeless as its portrait of New York might be–even begin to scratch the surface of 18th-century American social aspirations?
America is too vast a concept, too vast a culture (even if it is only 200 years old), for a single novel to achieve that sought-after label of “Great American Novel.” But we can narrow our scope. We can let each generation decide upon the “Great American” works of its era, whether they are novels or movies or albums or stage productions, whether the work simply portrays members of its generation struggling to carve out their identity, or whether the work completely changes the direction of literature. We can identify John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany as a defining work of the Baby Boom era, a novel that seems to cleanly pinpoint the potential greatness and the tragic failings of an entire generation; we might even say the same about Oliver Stone’s JFK or Wall Street, or Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, or (why not?) even Bonfire of the Vanities. We can move ahead fifteen years and make the case that Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius defines the attitudes (that odd juxtaposition of uncontainable energy and miserable apathy) of Generation X. Or perhaps Kevin Smith’s Clerks can be seen as a defining work of Gen-X, or Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides…
But these generations have had their crack at literature and cinema for nearly 15 years, now, and a new series of artists will soon emerge and make their impact. The Millennial Generation, born between (roughly) 1980 and 1995, currently hitting their late teens, graduating from college, entering the “real world.” The questions that this blog will pose are, quite simply: What will be the “Great Millennial Novel?” And how we will we define “Millennial Literature?”
In Search of the Great Millennial Novel
Millennial Literature: Film, TV, Music, and Other Media