The Great American Novel

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If you’ve been wondering what the greatest work of American fiction has been in the last 25 years, wonder no more. The New York Times Book Review has surveyed a wide swath of the literary field. Tony Morrison’s Beloved topped the charts with 15 votes and Philip Roth emerged the patriarch of the Great American Novel, having spawned 6, of the 22 finalists. The results do not surprise but they do leave you pondering the future of American writing–nearly all of the finalists were born in the 1930′s–their successors are scarcely around.

In this hour we’re inviting writers, literary bloggers and publishers to discuss American literature: past, present and future. If you ask yourself to name the greatest American novel of the last 25 years do you inadvertently think of writers from other shores, or books written from earlier eras? Are you still reading the American novel or do memoirs, and short story collections dominate your nightstand stack? Will the great American novelists of our future be outsiders– immigrants who can see our society anew? Will a new, national narrative surface in works of fiction as we begin to digest September 11, Katrina and the war in Iraq? Will a writer ever fully supplant The Catcher in the Rye or have we outgrown our adolescent angst for good? What are your criteria for the Great American Novel?

James Wood

Author and literary critic

Mark Greif

Co-Editor, n+1

Ruth Franklin

Senior Editor, The New Republic

Dennis Loy Johnson

Literary blogger, Moby Lives, publisher, Melville House

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  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    When I read the lead-in for this show, I instantly thought that Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude would be at the top of my list. Then I thought again and realized that it was published more than 25 years ago (1967). How that old river time seems to be flowing faster these days.

    Sure, he is not from the US, but I am naive enough to think that the Greatest American Novel could be penned by any writer from the Americas.

  • http://www.rockisland.com/~pmcrae/index.html peggysue

    good point sidewalker.

    And now, if you cannot stand to read anything longer than 200 words… go to your room and play with your video games.

    Most of my current reading relates specifically to my own ambition to pursue the holy grail of writing a GAN (great American novel). Now that I have confessed to such madness I can only say that it is not at all surprising to me the great American novelists tend to be senior citizens. To perfect this craft is a lifetime achievement. John Gardner says in his book On Becoming A Novelist “the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit.â€?

    As for the GAN, I agree with Scott (the NYT article), “They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.�

    Scott says in relation to Beloved as the favorite choice of the NYT survey, “that race, far from being a special or marginal concern, was a central facet of the American story�. Racism is central to my plot and I believe an integral part of the American landscape.

    Because my time period is Civil War era I read nonfiction history and Civil War novels. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is one of my favorites and one I consider a GAN. He says of his characters, “There’s a strong vein of this worldview (They were members of a small, old economy, existing in the seams between the two great incompatible powers.) in what we think of as Americana. You see bits of it in James Fenimore Cooper, a lot of it in Thoreau and Whitman and Frost. Old-time music is infused with it. Brilliant modern flashes of it in Woody Guthrie and Kerouac, though he clearly felt the end near.â€?

    http://www.salon.com/july97/colddiary970709.html

    Right now I’m reading Geraldine Brooks, March, which gives the Civil War novel a post-modern twist by taking the voice of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In Little Women papa is away, gone to war. Both of these novels give a fresh perspective to that defining period in the development of the American psyche. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for her effort.

    What I want to do is bring it all out west. While the Civil War was going on back east, here on San Juan Island we had the Pig War. The British Marines stationed here defending Hudson Bay Co. interests were fresh from sacking Canton in the Chinese Opium Wars while American settlers were defended by troops including George Pickett who later became famous for his fateful charge on behalf of the Confederacy.

    http://www.wahmee.com/pigwar.html

    http://www.nps.gov/sajh/Pig_War_new.htm

    Slavery out here had a different face. Chinese girls were sold as prostitutes in gold mining boom-towns from San Francisco to Vancouver.

    Revisiting our past in stories relates directly to post 9-11 / Katrina and Iraq War era America by acknowledging the depth and breadth of our racist history and the tragic folly and complexity of war.

  • hurley

    My nomination for the Great American Novel is William Gaddis’ JR, with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow somewhere in the running. In a sentence, it is a prophetic, profound, and despairingly funny requiem for the American dream as bodied forth in the greed and corruption of our corporate and religious culture. It’s also a technical tour de force. It would be a mistake not to mention it on the show — no book on the NYT list comes close. William H. Gass, an admirer and friendly rival, might make an interesting guest. Also Alexander Theroux, who lives in Barnstable.

    Peggy Sue: Sorry not to respond to your suggestions on Guttersnipe Alley, but I will (out of town again). Re Civil War novels, George Steiner, in his blithely magisterial fashion, once wrote that the enduring mystery of American literature is the absence of any great novel about the Civil War. He’s wrong on at least two counts. Leaving aside The Red Badge of Courage, there is Joseph Stanley Pennell’s virtuoso The History of Rome Hanks. Never bettered and not to be missed.

    Finally, another great, neglected American writer, Gilbert Sorrentino, died last week. A great loss to American letters. (How about a show on Neglected American Writers — I’d be happy to help).

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    PS, I’ll put your GAN at the top of my reading list. When will it be done? Maybe you could even serialize it on ROS, perhaps in the Alley.

    Potter, wherever you are, I’m curious as to what would be your GAN? How about your Winston? [A straight up question, this time :) ]

  • http://www.rockisland.com/~pmcrae/index.html peggysue

    Thanks hurly, I’ll add Rome Hanks to my reading list.

    sidewalker, I very much appreciate your kind interest. I’m just a youthful baby [boomer] now. In our youth fixated culture I think its a good thing that some honors can still only come with the experience of age. And I’m afraid I’ll be a heck of a lot older than I am now before my first installment appears in the alley: )

  • jdyer

    I don’t believe that there is one great American novels anymore than there is one great Russian, French, English, or Spanish novel.

    There are a number of great novels and novelists:

    Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

    Henry James: The Ambassadors, The Portrait of a Lady, and the Golden Bowl

    William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom, and Light in August

    Richard Wright: Native Son, (Black Boy if read as a novel)

    Dos Passos: USA Trilogy

    Saul Bellow: Adventures of Augie March, Herzog

    Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

    William Gaddis: The Recognition

    Philip Roth: American Pastoral, Counterlife, Sabbath’s Theater, My Life as a Man

    Tony Morrison’s Beloved

    I don’t see the point of picking the greatest in the list since that would limit American which forms a great tapestry to only one of its yarns.

    PS: I make a distinction between great literature and great novels.

    Great novels need to sastisfy a number of conditions which great literature need not. For example Joyce’s Ulysses is great literature but since its esoteric texture puts it out of the reach of the common reader (in Virginia Woolf’s sense) it isn’t a great novel. The same is true for works such as Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow or Gaddis’ JR.

    Other works such as the novels of Cormac McCarthy approach greatness but its subject matter restricts itself to a narrow segment of society and doesn’t encompass the whole of it.

  • thomas

    Did you notice how retrospective and nostalgic the NY Times article was about the great American novel? I am puzzled. Maybe the idea of the great American novel is similar to the idea of the great American newspaper or the great American magazine? Maybe a follow up to this episode could be “Future of novels.”

    One idea I had was that the novelistic form is a dead form and younger writers are using different forms to communicate how the feel about America. Maria Vargas Llosa wrote in an essay back in the 60′s or 70′s, if you weren’t using an audiovisual medium your work was virtually dead. It is possible for the novel to become an extinct form much in the same way we only talk or read an epic in a nostalgic tone.

    My initial reaction from the Scott article was the idea of a great American novel being a mode for the great American generation coping with itself. Its a little absurd for me to think that the greatest fiction written in the last 25 years by an American would be from a person born in the 1930′s. It seems that fiction has become a way in which we might examine our own 20th century achievements. We have a tendency to romanticize ourselves. Maybe that’s what we are doing with the novel today.

  • http://del.icio.us/plaintext plaintext

    I would nominate Rule of the Bone by Rusell Banks. Also his Cloudsplitter is contender for Great American Civil War novel albeit from the perspective of Abolutionist John Brown (actually his brother, Owen.)

  • http://del.icio.us/plaintext plaintext

    I was wondering if the regret that so few baby boomers made the list is the combined result of the pre/post war generation living and producing for so long – entrenched if you will at the top of the literary production machine; and the highly disruptive nature of technological change – forcing a widespread competition between the talented as well as the dimishing role of the novel among the few Americans who still read.

    I was going to say that he baby boomer generation has dominated the visual production machine in much the same manner but I looked up Star Wars and discovered that George Lucas was born in the 40′s and that only 4 of the 6 Star Wars movies would meet the 25 years criteria. Heck, even Spielburg was born in ’46!

  • jdyer

    “One idea I had was that the novelistic form is a dead form and younger writers are using different forms to communicate how the feel about America. Maria Vargas Llosa wrote in an essay back in the 60’s or 70’s, if you weren’t using an audiovisual medium your work was virtually dead. It is possible for the novel to become an extinct form much in the same way we only talk or read an epic in a nostalgic tone.”

    If novels are dead, current novelists are not aware of it.

    One of the interesting things about novel reading and writing these days is that as the number of readers fall the number of great novels world wide are on the rise.

    Vargas Llosa my think the novel dead, but that hasn’t stopped him from writing some of the most memorable novels around.

    I don’t believe that the visual medium will ever completely suppland the written word.

  • Dora

    I read Laura Miller’s piece about the NYT list this morning (http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2006/05/22/miller/index.html). I completely agree with her. What’s the point of ranking books this way? How _do_ you compare Pride and Prejudice and Crime and Punishment?

    The NYT list came out around the same time that this article was published in the Guardian (http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,1747927,00.html). The Guardian sought to discover men and women’s “watershed” books. As it turns out, there wasn’t a whole lot of overlap between the lists. Women generally liked books by women (the Brontes, Atwood, Austen, Eliot); men even more strongly favored books by men (Camus, Orwell, Heller). If men and women have such wildly different tastes, what does it even mean to rank books this way?

    Stephen Metcalf wrote a supremely mean-spirited review of the list’s number one book (http://www.slate.com/id/2141971/?nav=mpp). He concludes by saying “Beloved is indeed a work of genius. No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader.” He does not mean this as a compliment.

    He also wrote a rather tepid review of Roth’s Everyman in which he gently critiques the author for his tendency to conflate the fear of death and the fear diminishing virility. A mild slap on the wrist for Mr. Roth.

    I suspect that Metcalf possesses a “psychobiography” more in the Rothian than the Morrisonian vein, that’s all.

    A.O. Scott wrote: “Only two books whose authors were born just after the war received more than two votes: “Housekeeping,” by Marilynne Robinson, and “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. These are brilliant books, but they are also careful, small and precise. They do not generalize; they document.” Sounds like the same sort of inane charge leveled at Austen and just about every other female author you’d care to name. And yet, as the Guardian poll suggests, women are still reading Austen with great enthusiasm and passion. Will anyone be reading Roth and Updike 200 years from now?

    I think maybe people will be reading Marilynne Robinson. I’m reading “Gilead” now. Is it going to be called “careful, small, and precise” simply because it’s not 500 pages long? It seems to me that it tackles some big ideas.: most importantly, Which is the more moral way of countering evil—fighting it, or rejecting violence completely? On top of that, it is a poignant story about the fragility of life and the ties that bind fathers and sons.

  • thomas

    Thank you jdyer for allowing me a chance to clarify. A statement like I made in the previous post is a little bogous. Here’s another attempt.

    The novel, as I am being reminded, is a in great shape and will continue to evolve and live. But maybe what I was trying to articulate earlier is that the novel is only one mode of fiction. Fiction can take many forms. The internet, digital media, and audio visual technology allow a multitude of different means through which we can tell stories. With so many different opitons, a dispersion of brilliant storytellers out there telling great stories in a multitude of different ways.

    I am suggesting that a younger generation may not be as preoccupied with creating the “Great American Novel” and that even the ideal of the “Great American Novel” might be a sentimental one, with evidence stemming from the retrospective tone of the Scott article, our nostalgic reverence for older writers and our inability to name resonant works from the last 25 years from inside our borders.

    Check out wikipedia’s definition as it relates to this topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_American_Novel

  • jdyer

    “The novel, as I am being reminded, is a in great shape and will continue to evolve and live. But maybe what I was trying to articulate earlier is that the novel is only one mode of fiction. Fiction can take many forms. The internet, digital media, and audio visual technology allow a multitude of different means through which we can tell stories. With so many different opitons, a dispersion of brilliant storytellers out there telling great stories in a multitude of different ways.”

    But Thomas, novels have always been only one form of story telling:

    The novel is a late comer to the story telling enterprise. Before novels there were stories told orally, and even there one can distinguish between folk tales, epics, fairy tales, etc.

    Then there is story telling in other mediums, such as theater, paintings, puppetry, shadow theater (in Indonesia) etc.

    After the printing press came into being most stories were written in the non novelistic romance mode.

    The novel proper came inton being with Cervantes in the 16th century but didn’t take off till the mid 18th century.

    What is amazing that this type of storytelling has lasted so long and is still thriving.

    With the advent of the visual media an archaic form of storytelling has been reinvented.

    This form too, I think, will only spur on novelistic invention and make it new.

    There is a world of difference between Cervantes, Joyce, and Proust but each writer translated the new medium of story telling of its day into new forms.

  • jdyer

    What a great array of guest. I suscribe to both n=1 and to The New Republic.

    Besides, James Wood is one of the very best fiction critics writing today.

  • jdyer

    “What’s the point of ranking books this way? How _do_ you compare Pride and Prejudice and Crime and Punishment?”

    I agree Dora that the NY Times articel wasn’t very interesting. The author Mr. Scott is actually a film critic and I found the tone of his comments a little patronising.

    However, asking over a hundred writers, critics, and scholars which was their favorite novel of the last 25 years is instructive.

    And, yes, one can compare Pride and Prejudice to Crime and Punishment. Neither of the novels is as great, say as Middlemarch, but each novel is excellent. I would have to say that Dostoyevski’s novel is slightly stronger because the author deals with more and different kinds of human experience than does Jane Austen.

    I found the Guardian article pretty weak. The number of people it asked about literature was very small and circumscribed to the managerial class.

    On the other hand, I agree with Stephen Metcalf’s comments about Everyman. I liked the novella, but as James Wood said it was a work of parts which weren’t well integrated.

    For example the scene at the graveyard was brilliant but nothing in the novella led up to it.

    The language Roth used, on the other had, was scintillating which I am afraid wasn’t appropriate to the tone the story wanted to convey.

  • JoeR

    Why when with a discussion of ‘great’ American novels of the last 25 years do we hear almost entirely of fiction published earlier or not American?

    How long after Moby Dick did Moby Dick become ‘Great’?

    What about “Infinte Jest”?

  • mjgodzilla

    This question of “How long after Moby Dick did Moby Dick become ‘Great’?” is an interesting one… What is the definition of ‘great’ when it comes to literature? I have always thought of it as meaning transcending time, speaking to all ages.

    Admittedly, I have not read many of the works which made NY Times’ list–and thus cannot comment on the specific merits of those books–but I think we need to ask ourselves whether 25 years is enough time to measure greatness when it comes to literature?

    Is greatness apparent immediately, or does a work need some time to marinate in the culture, before it can be called great. If the latter, how much time is appropriate? Are we ready to add Beloved to the Great Books series after only 19 years? What are the advantages and risks of doing so?

    I ‘spose it’s obvious that I have many more questions than answers here, but it’s an interesting topic nonetheless…

  • avecfrites

    I used to devour novels. But in recent years my hunger has been sated by popular history books instead. The past is an undiscovered country, for most of us, as much as is the world created in a novel. And popular history is easier to read, easier to read in bite-sized pieces, and full of truthy good-for-you fiber as well.

    And then we have blogs, online newspapers, netflix… I just don’t get to novels the way I used to. Maybe when the kids are grown and out.

  • joshua hendrickson

    It seems to me that literature lovers snub their noses at genre fiction at their own peril. Novels or series, such as Gene Wolfe’s “Sun” books, or even Dave Sim’s (very) long graphic novel “Cerebus”, can provide as much insight, elegance, and genius as the very greatest non-genre literature. To be sure, not all or even most genre is worthy of note like this, but it does exist.

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  • doctorjudy

    I have been lisstening with interest to this show and I have a BIG question: Why is no one talking about any female writers except Toni Morrison? Surely there are many fine female authors. I see this as a serious (and perhaps biased?) omission . Generally I greatly enjoy this program and listen whenever I can. Thanks.

  • http://naomigurtlind.net Naomi

    I’m surprised there has been no mention of Richard Powers, who seems to turn out a GAN contender every two years.

  • LC

    “The Fortress of Solitude” is, as far as I’m concerned, a great American novel, and one of the greatest novels I’ve yet read. Lethem is the Flaubert of Brooklyn. I don’t know how this book could escape mention. It’s a stunner.

    How can anyone say that there isn’t great work being written by newer writers? Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, Monica Ali (OK, not American, but who cares), to name a few, are writing some of the most exciting stuff out there. Lynda Barry’s “Cruddy” also springs to mind.

    And, “The Things They Carried” isn’t a significant book about Vietnam?

    What do people want? Big bloviating egos, or good stories well-told? Because there are plenty of the latter going around these days.

    As for the great American graphic novel, that’s easy: “Love & Rockets”. Book Twelve alone (“Poison River”) is a Great American Novel. And it ain’t genre just because it’s got pictures.

  • babu

    LC in Brooklyn:

    I ‘lived’ in’ Lethem’s ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ for many many weeks after I read it. It is the only book I ever remember reacting to that way. I couldn’t bear to emerge from it. Humane, loving, uniquely american, noir-ish, freakish, in rollicking language; I couldn’t get enough.

  • LC

    Yeah, that book is so fantastic! Everything you say, and more. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    “Fortress of Solitude” hit me deeply because I grew up in New York in the 70′s and 80′s too, though I’m a bit younger than Dylan Ebdus. I recognized so much in that book with a deep shock that quickly turned to gratitude. He really captured the feeling of the city in that time period, and of being a child in that time and place – every aching moment of it, in painstaking detail, with the soundtrack. That book is a major accomplishment.

    And then he even went and used a quote from the Brian Eno diary, as if I couldn’t love it enough already.

    I also think Kate Atkinson is one of the best out there, but she’s not American, she’s a Brit. “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” was her first, and that and everything after it have been impossible to put down. I don’t know how to describe her writing. I just wish more people read her books.

    Oh – and how could I forget Susan Choi’s “American Woman”? Now *that’s* an American novel – a hard look at the fallout of 60′s radicalism, through the eyes of one very strong character.

    Do Canadians count here? Because Margaret Atwood is a master.

  • rsamstag

    Why is no author of the GAN of the last 25 years under 70? The answer is obvious. What happened in 1980? That was the year we ushered in a dark period of rule by idiots. The GAN of the last 25 years is the latest piece of trash by Tom Clancy! Our fiction has become completely debased. Why would anyone with a shred of intelligence read the intellectual children of Ronald Reagon when we could be reading Augustine, the Digha Nikaya, or Lugwig Wittgenstein? The great writers of the last 25 years are not American and they may not be writing novels. The GAN? Who cares?

  • http://www.goldscribe.com Joe Gold

    No great works of late? Look at the publishers: their need to feed the bottom line results in “safe” choices that don’t stretch boundaries. This contradictory generation olf mine that was going to change the world with peace, love and understanding and brought us instead SUVs and politics in plastic wrap. But the publishers need the plastic wrap novel too. Plastic wrap doesn’t often cover a breakout novel. How many fascinating ideas needing polish died without a publisher? How many raw talents never developed because success never came?

    The next great American novel probably drowned in a slush pile.

    My own nomination: Ruishdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.”

  • zeke

    I believe that it was on the recent ROS poetry show that one of the guests distinguished “great” poetry from “good, bad poetry” saying something like: Bad poetry tells us what we already know or feel; good poetry makes you imagine things in a new way.

    Might this not also apply to fiction?

    I am also struck by the characteristic American notions that there might be “THE” single great American novel. And also that somehow “greatness” is the value to be prized.

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  • acleach

    The next great American novel will have to be composed from the ashes of a fallen America, a country which is now lost in egotism and the thrust of these grandiose ideas of “freedom” and “democracy.” Previous great American novels attacked these esoteric esteems (think The Great Gatsby and Huck Finn.) We are in a period of Americanism, in which there is no need for the great American novel because American culture as a whole does NOT allow a permeating of these global dictums.

  • hurley

    I’ve checked several times to see when this segment (The Great American Novel) would be broadcast online, and just now clicked on the link to find a discussion on Presidential Signing Statements. You might be right.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com farreDV

    I second Joshua above. Next to William Trevor and Alice Munro, I can’t think of an American writer who writes more beautiful prose than Gene Wolfe.

    Not interested in genre? No problem, his novel Peace (1977) is a gem of American fiction about a rich old man who lives in a mansion built of rooms to match those of his haunted childhood. Imagine 100 Rooms of Solitude rather than 100 Years, and you’ll get the idea.

  • avecfrites

    acleach:

    Very interesting thought. Here’s my take on it:

    It seems that most of the recent great novels suggested by people are about previous or imaginary times or places. But I tend to think that the novels that last are those that tell us about their own snapshot in time (think Augie March, Gatsby, Tom Wolfe’s novels, e.g.). Maybe “Great” in this context doesn’t just mean “Very Good”, but instead means something more like “Seminal” or “Timely” or “Landmark”.

    So maybe a Great novel written today would have to take a position on the meaning of today, and then be proven correct in that position by history.

    Aside from 9/11, what do we grab onto today that defines the current time? What does or will set us on a new course (like the Roaring 20′s, the post-war suburban boom, the 60′s, e.g.) going forward? I hope it’s not perpetual war and loss of civil protections… perhaps it will be the new lifestyle imposed on us by the fight against global warming.

  • zeke317

    With all due respect –and in agreement that she is a super writer– I believe that Alice Munroe is Canadian.

  • ian kester

    Your iTunes podcast downloads a file that plays the signing statement episode and not the novel one. It is not good to force listeners to track down the site, sign-up and misc just to get one show that ought to have been done by iTunes.

  • jdyer

    Alice Munroe is in a class of her own. She is one of the finest short story writers ever. She is the company of such world class writers as Hawthorne, Isaab Babel, Borges. She is among the best of the best.

  • jdyer

    “The next great American novel will have to be composed from the ashes of a fallen America, a country which is now lost in egotism and the thrust of these grandiose ideas of “freedomâ€? and “democracy.â€? Previous great American novels attacked these esoteric esteems (think The Great Gatsby and Huck Finn.) We are in a period of Americanism, in which there is no need for the great American novel because American culture as a whole does NOT allow a permeating of these global dictums.” acleach

    Well, periods of chauvanism, selfishness and even repression has rarely an impediment to great writing. Think Soviet Russia and the great literature it had spawned. The age of dictators in Latin American has also been the age fo great novelists.

    Don’t think we can just blame the poltical climate for the lack of a great contemporary literature. I blame the education system as well as the culture of political correctness.

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  • http://www.dalekeiger.com Dale Keiger

    On my way to work this morning, I listened to the podcast of the show. One of the guests voiced his suspicion that the writers who were polled may well have named not the book they would most want to reread, but the book they felt should be regarded as significant.

    Significant? I would argue, to my personal chagrin, that the most significant novel of the last 25 years was any one (take your pick) of the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. I have not read them and have every reason to believe that as literature they are awful. But they have disseminated, in a vivid way, the end-times worldview of apocalyptic Christian fundamentalism to millions of the most politcally active people in America, people intent on turning my republic into something I would not want to live in. If you want to talk significance, there’s where you have to look, I’m afraid.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com farreDV

    Zeke–I realize Alice Munro is Candian. I’m thinking big picture as in North America. In that sense, I think she can squeak by. Plus, all of her stories are published by the New Yorker.

    :)

    (for that matter, Wolfe and Trevor have been published in the New Yorker as well).

  • glw

    Franzen’s Corrections belongs on the list. As Sven Birkerts wrote:

    “The Corrections transcends its many wonderful moments to become that rarest thing, a contemporary novel that will endure.”

  • http://myspace.com/deranludd Deran Ludd

    The whole NYT list was awash in tedious old farts (Roth, Updike, Delio, etc) that haven’t had anything to say since I don’t know when, if ever.

    The best novel in the last 25 years was either Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Dennis Cooper’s Closer.

  • zeke

    farreDV– Got it. Good point. Speaking of short stories, I just finished Last Night by another author who deserves consideration for second level “greatness”: James Salter. He is right up there with Munroe. He’s also a novelist and memoirist from the same generation as Updike, etc. Magnificent stuff.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com farreDV

    James Salter. Thanks for the tip, Zeke. I’ll check him out!

  • http://runmystic.jankowskis.net Bill Jankowski

    I’m suprised that no-one mentioned anything about science fiction. Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” had everything the panelists were ooking for – good writing, biting social commentary, forward looking.

    Similarly, Cory Doctorow’s work (he’s Canadian, though) meets the wickets of current, visionary, etc.

    The books and authors mentioned are all products of the literary establishment, whereas the greats of the past came from areas that were in flux – journalists, travelers, etc. In the adolescence of the internet, the great books are no longer straight fiction – those problems have been done.

  • zeke317

    farreDV–Someone mentioned Richard Powers earlier. He is a very worthy writer. Unlike Munroe or Salter, who write exquisite short stories about people and manners, I consider Powers a “big” writer of ideas. Having checked out your website, I think you might really like his work (if you haven’t seen it already) because he writes about physics and cosmology and, in the book I just finished, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, the metaphysics of photography. My favorite is The Time of Our Singing.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com farreDV

    Thanks, Zeke. I have heard of Powers, so I’ll keep him in mind. Bill J–you’re right about Stephenson. I basically forgot about him for a while because I’ve found his Cryptonomicon over-written–and am not that interested in his current cycle. But I thought Diamond Age was magnificent.

  • darwhin

    i wonder whats the average age of the buyers of such novels anyways. because certainly the only time i felt a need to read such “great books” was when i was forced to in school. generally the “greatness” is lost on most of us. its the same with films. have you watched any of those “great” films at the top of critics lists and felt nothing? lists are just opinions, and labels such as “great american novel” are granted by a very narrow group of people.

    the need for novels is less. we have huge amount of entertainment mediums that did not exist until recently. we have world news that is instant, communications around the world that is instant. we have incredible amounts of information to assimilate. i’m sure the past was filled with empty leisure time and wide spread ignorance that drove people to novels. but that doesn’t mean its some how superior because it has snob appeal.

  • thisuser

    Hi All. Just heard the program and I can’t believe no has mentioned this: Sampling Error. The reason that the NY times list didn’t include any baby boomers is that the poll was done on on a group that likely had a lot of baby boomers in them who were grew up on the previous generation’s work. Another way of saying this is that if the group being polled didn’t read it, how would they know about it?

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  • carolyn rhea drapes

    just discovered the photo link. thank you for choosing my image on flickr.com. chacal, el paso, texas.

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  • http://www.abconlinepharmacy.com Liza Hockaday

    hurley …”My nomination for the Great American Novel is William Gaddis’ JR, with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow somewhere in the running.” I also agree with you on your nomination. I mean, there is a reason why Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction supported Gravity’s Rainbow for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1974 if I remember that correctly. However catcher in the rye is up there in my list as well.