The death of the Great American Novel

Photo by Casey Gomez

A few years back, a very troubling commercial began making the rounds on major networks. I don’t remember exactly what was being advertised, but a series of children appeared on screen proclaiming what they wanted to do when they grew up.

“I want to be the first woman on the moon!” one girl exclaimed. This was a fine enough start; Jane Fonda’s 1968 disasterpiece “Barbarella” notwithstanding, having more women in space is something anyone can get behind.

“I want to run for office!” another boy said, sporting the same awful bowlcut that plagued my elementary school yearbook photos. This one was a little more dicey given his hair, but if a Holocaust denier can run for a House seat, so can little Lloyd Christmas.

“I want to write the next Great American Novel!” a third child screamed loudly.

This is the point where the commercial really started to go off the rails. Women can go to the moon, and someone with a garish fashion sense can hold public office. But the sheer audacity of this boy, the unmitigated gall he showed in claiming to be able to write the next Great American Novel, led me to turn off the television in disgust. The Great American Novel has a lot in common with the multitude of pets this boy had probably tried to raise in his short eight years on this Earth: While he may think they are alive and well, maybe on a farm somewhere, the reality is that they are all completely and unequivocally dead.

For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of the Great American Novel, think “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Tom Sawyer.” These books maintain their relevance today by providing engrossing and colorful tales of what American life was like at a particular point in time.

They were also mostly written at a time when the general populace entertained itself by trying not to catch polio and an acre of land cost a nickel. The written word had long reigned as the dominant form of media, leading the nation’s best creative minds to commit their ideas to the page.

Today, books are mainly used as home decor by people parading themselves as cultured intellectuals. Young adult fantasy, sometimes referred to as “literary diarrhea,” almost universally tops bestseller lists, along with self-help books and romance novels.

Books are now meant to purely entertain; no longer can the zeitgeist of American life be bound in 500 pages. If “To Kill a Mockingbird” was released today, it would be a drop in the bucket of a dying industry, relegated to obscurity within a matter of weeks. Trying to write the Great American Novel is like trying to create a successful radio drama. The audience simply does not exist anymore.

How, then, can America celebrate its national identity and speak to the current condition of its society?

The answer lies in your local movie theater, a magical place that shows snapshots of contemporary American life for — currently — $12 a pop.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As much as older generations love to claim that our society has “dumbed down,” films are able to depict modern life in ways novels could never even attempt.

Last year’s “Lady Bird,” for example, creates a robust and culturally relevant narrative set in the perceived mundanity of everyday life in the modern era. In 30 years, we will be able to look back and say “Ah, that’s what life was like in 2017.” We will certainly not be able to say the same for whatever drivel a bored Indiana housewife is currently self-publishing.

There is still value in books, and great writers can still certainly produce great works. Just don’t expect your great-grandchildren to read them in English class.

So kid, wherever you find yourself these days, please don’t quit your day job.