The death of Norman Mailer leads John Walsh in the Independent to consider the demise of the Great American Novel. Or at least, the pursuit of same by American novelists. Perhaps that species of fiction is extinct, the hunters having defoliated everything else in the immediate eco-system.
One can over-sentimentalise the idea of the novelist as passionate adventurer, whose prose is inspired or sharpened by some dark experience (such as war.) It’s mostly a foolish dream. But one can feel a lowering of the spirits when confronted by the spectacle of the descendants of Bellow and Roth, Updike and Mailer – the creative-department students whose impulse to write derives mostly from feeding off other books, who would rather fashion a short story, good though it may be, rather than attempt a balls-out epic novel. “The originators, the exuberant men, are gone,” wrote Evelyn Waugh about the English novel in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, “and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes, a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance.” The older generation of great American scribes, the exuberant men and women, are going at alarming speed; and with them goes the dream of the Great American Novel that focused and energised them all.
A typical oversight from Mr. Walsh’s history of GAN candidates: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Mr. Walsh, interestingly enough, also brings in the fallout (and literary fizzles) from 9/11. In fact, one could make the related argument — as I did on my book/daddy blog with the “Great 9/11 Novel” — that “in part, it was the growing self-consciousness of American culture and American authors after World War II, our assumption of world leadership in politics and the arts, the perceived need to explain and advance our values against the Soviets” — all of that led to this peculiar and unexamined expectation, especially on the part of critics, that novels are a kind of ‘wiser, long-form journalism.’ We now regularly anticipate that major authors, like competing news networks, will eventually weigh in on significant events, to extrapolate, to pronounce, to tell us why they’re significant.”
After all, it’s only after World War II — with the boom in academic culture from the GI Bill — that novels like Moby-Dick even began to be considered as possible “Great American Novels.” While Mr. Walsh (along with fellow Brit crit, James Wood) attempts to pin literary self-consciousness as a weakness on the generations after Mailer’s, it was the “Greatest Generation” that first went after the Great White Whale armed with a pen and a library.