It’s no wonder nobody has written the Great American Novel yet.
Great novels are serious.
Americans are not.
Remember a while back when North Korea started causing a lot of controversy? (Which controversy? Pick one.) I didn’t see too many people fretting, but I did see a lot of “Haha, look at Kim Jong-un’s hair!” memes.
This seems to happen whenever something is going on in the world. There are the serious discussions, and then there’s the reaction of “how can I irreverently mock this?”
I’ve read a lot of the world’s Great Novels. I read Les Miserables. I read Don Quixote. I even read War and Peace, which is like the great-grandpa of Great Novels. It even includes reminiscing about the good old days and modern politics and those darn kids. (Fun fact: Tolstoy apparently hated historians. There are like fifteen rants in the novel about how they don’t do their jobs right.)
I made a point of bookmarking the Great Novels with a dried rose petal, for effect.
The thing about all these huge old books is that they focus on big-picture, society-altering changes, and for the most part do so with respect. (Don Quixote can be rather silly, but when it deals with the degradation of chivalry, it assumes a more somber tone.)
In the United States, and in the internet generation as a whole, we don’t seem to do the whole “reverence” thing very well. When something makes us uncomfortable, we find a way to point and laugh at it. Almost nothing is beyond mockery. Parody and satire are art forms.
This rather undercuts the effectiveness of a Very Serious Novel. Even if somebody wrote the Great American Novel, there’d be a crowd on the sidelines going, “Haha, that character’s name is Dick!”
So…is this a bad thing?
I’m going to say no. I think the culture of satire demands a level of authenticity and down-to-earthedness from the creators of fiction. You don’t want to get too pretentious, because you know the snarky people are going to point it out.
The ability for everyone to have an opinion about everything via social media and the internet has taken away the mystique of Great Literature. We can read a Great Novel in school and then go online to see how many other people thought the protagonist was a moron and needed to play more Angry Birds. There is no aura of authority, no insurmountable giantness of any given book, film, or person. We, the non-giants, have realized that we outnumber the giants, and our voices are louder.
Does this stifle creativity? Probably. Does it mean we’ll never see the Great American Novel? Probably. Am I aware of the irony that I’m writing pretentiously about how society doesn’t allow pretension? Oh yes. Snarky replies in the comments, please.
We’re all familiar with the dark side of this – cyber bullying, stifling of creative people, fear of failure, etc. We all know we need to try and be more polite online and listen to others without automatically labeling them an evil idiot because we didn’t like something they said. This is a problem our society will have to address.
However, I like to look at the positives in social changes, too. We may not have the reverence and Great Novels of past generations, but we do have the ability to share our thoughts and find other people who think the same way. When this power of communication uncovers something we like, we can all rally around it and propel it to awesome-status without an authority figure needing to tell us it’s good enough. (See: all the popular internet celebrities, indie films, and anything that goes viral) We don’t have to wait for Teacher Grumpiface to tell us a novel is a Great Novel; we and the rest of the world can decide for ourselves.
We may never see the Great American Novel as envisioned in past decades.
Instead, I think we’ve seen many Great Novels, Great Films, and Great Other Things that society declared Great of its own accord.
With the sharing of more voices comes the sharing of more hate. More snarkiness. More mockery.
But it also brings more Greats.
I think I’m okay with that tradeoff.