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Making it long: Men, women, and the great american novel now

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[opening]‘There comes a time in the mid-life of every male American writer when he feels compelled to make his big statement about the state of the union.’ Thus the conventional wisdom goes. This particular formulation is by Tim Adams, reviewing Ethan Canin’s America America in 2008. Adams argues that by choosing such a ‘hubristic’ title for his ‘fat’ novel Canin was announcing a ‘self-conscious’ connection to the long-standing tradition of the Great American Novel (GAN). It was a move that demonstrated ‘undeniable guts’, Adams suggests, for it invited reviewers like him to measure the novel against the canon of ‘big ones’; and some of those reviewers inevitably concluded that it didn’t ‘quite earn its grand double-barrelled title’. That verdict – not quite a GAN but ‘a Very Good American Novel’ – was, of course, also conventional. Since its initial formulation in the 1860s, the GAN idea has always been more about inspiration than achievement; the very fact that it has been attempted but remains ‘unwritten’ providing a spur to future engagement with both nation and national literature. The partial failure of a novel like America America was therefore nothing to be ashamed of, but rather a testimony to its author’s effort, ambition, and assumption of authority. It is those qualities, pointed out Katha Pollitt, that are usually ‘coded male’ and that glean rewards, both financial and in the ‘economy of prestige’.



Great American Novel, domestic fiction, family, AM Homes, May We Be Forgiven, post-utopianism, Richard Nixon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Dana Spiotta: Rachel Kushner

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Informa UK Limited