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Ursula K. Le Guin: Who Cares About the Great American Novel?

Ursula K. Le Guin

A question from the New York Times’ Bookends, “Where is the great American novel by a woman?,” got an interesting answer from the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid.

. . . Bear with me as I advocate the death of the Great American Novel.

The problem is in the phrase itself. “Great” and “Novel” are fine enough. But “the” is needlessly exclusionary, and “American” is unfortunately parochial. The whole, capitalized, seems to speak to a deep and abiding insecurity, perhaps a colonial legacy. How odd it would be to call Homer’s “Iliad” or Rumi’s “Masnavi” “the Great Eastern Mediterranean Poem.”

I like this very much.

But there’s something coy and coercive about the question itself that made me want to charge into the bullring, head down and horns forward. I’d answer it with a question: Where is the great American novel by anybody? And I’d answer that: Who cares?

I think this is pretty much what Mr. Hamid says more politely, when he says that art is bigger than notions of black or white, male or female, American or non. Human beings don’t necessarily exist inside of (or correspond to) the neat racial, gendered, or national boxes into which we often unthinkingly place them. It’s a mistake to ask literature to reinforce such structures. Literature tends to crack them. Literature is where we free ourselves.

Three cheers and Amen to that.

But I want to add this note: To me, the keystone of the phrase “the great American novel” is not the word American but the word great.

Greatness, in the sense of outstanding or unique accomplishment, is a cryptogendered word. In ordinary usage and common understanding, “a great American” means a great American man, “a great writer” means a great male writer. To regender the word, it must modify a feminine noun (“a great American woman,” “a great woman writer”). To degender it, it must be used in a locution such as “great Americans/writers, both men and women . . .” Greatness in the abstract, in general, is still thought of as the province of men.

The writer who sets out to write the great American novel must see himself as a free citizen of that province, competing on equal ground with other writers, living and dead, for a glittering prize, a unique honor. His career is a contest, a battle, with victory over other men as its goal. (He is unlikely to think much about women as competitors.) Only in this view of the writer as a fully privileged male, a warrior, literature as a tournament, greatness as the defeat of others, can the idea of “the” great American novel exist.

That’s a good deal to swallow, these days, for most writers over 14. I’ll bet the whole notion of “the great American novel” is nothing like as common and meaningful an idea among authors as it is among readers, fans, PR people, reviewers, those who don’t read but know authors by name as celebrities, and people who need something to blog about.

Now this may get me told off by women who value competitiveness and feel the problem with women is that they think they shouldn’t or can’t compete, but I’ll say it all the same. It makes perfect sense to me that I’ve never heard a woman writer say she intended, or wanted, to write the great American novel.

“Only in this view of the writer as a fully privileged male, a warrior, literature as a tournament, greatness as the defeat of others, can the idea of ‘the’ great American novel exist.”

Tell you true, I’ve never heard a woman writer say the phrase “the great American novel” without a sort of snort.

Whatever the virtues of competitiveness, women are still deeply trained by society to be cautious about laying claim to greatness greater than the greatness of men. As you know, Jim, a woman who competes successfully with men in a field men consider theirs by right risks being punished for it. Literature is a field a great many men consider theirs by right. Virginia Woolf committed successful competition in that field. She barely escaped the first and most effective punishment—omission from the literary canon after her death. Yet 80 or 90 years later charges of snobbery and invalidism are still used to discredit and diminish her. Marcel Proust’s limitations and his neuroticism were at least as notable as hers. But that Proust needed not only a room of his own but a cork-lined one is taken as proof he was a genius. That Woolf heard the birds singing in Greek shows only that she was a sick woman.

So as long as men need to “be reflected at twice their natural size,” a woman writer knows that open competition with them is dangerous. Even if she wants to write the, or a, great American novel, she’s unlikely to announce (as male writers do from time to time) that she plans to or has written it. And if she feels she deserves a Pulitzer or Booker or Nobel, or anyhow wouldn’t mind having one, she knows most literary awards are weighted so heavily in favor of men that the social efforts involved in most major awards, the networking and careful self-presentation, are a great expense for an unlikely return.

But risk avoidance isn’t all there is to it. Because competition for primacy, for literary supremacy, doesn’t seem as glamorously possible for women as it does for men, the whole idea of singular greatness—of there being one great anything—may not have the hold on a woman’s imagination that it has on a man’s. The knights in the lists have to believe the prize can be won and is worth winning. Those relegated to the preliminary jousts and the sidelines can see more clearly how arbitrary the judgment of championship is, and can question the value of the glittering prize.

Who wants “The” Great American Novel, anyhow? PR people. People who believe that bestsellers are better than other books because they sell better than other books and that the prizewinning book is the best book because it won the prize. Tired teachers, timid teachers, lazy students who’d like one text to read instead of the many, many great and greatly complex books that make up literature.

Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics. The hell with The Great American Novel. We have all the great novels we need right now—and right now some man or woman is writing a new one we won’t know we needed till we read it.


From No Time to Spare: Thinking About What MattersUsed with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2017 by Ursula K. Le Guin.

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