Sun 23 Jun 2013
Why am I the last to know these things?
There seems to be a 10-step plan for everything these days, but somehow, I thought the eternal quest for writing the Great American Novel was above and beyond all that. Not so, according to a new piece from Huffpo by Ester Bloom, entitled: “Write the Great American Novel in 10 Easy Steps.”
And they’re EASY steps? Geez! Just think of all the time I’ve been wasting behind my keyboard. Worse- think of all that stress and strain on my wee, already-stressed and strained brain. Come on Ms. Bloom – give a girl a clue, why don’t you? OH, that’s right – she just did.
Let’s see – step one is to be a dead dude like Mark Twain, William Faulkner or Nathaniel Hawthorne. Well, that doesn’t sound so easy. It sounds pretty impossible. Wait – there is a sub-choice! If I’m not a dead dude, it’ll work if I’m Toni Morrison, a one-book wonder like Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee, or a privileged, white drunk like Fitzgerald or Hemingway. Well, I’m white – but I’m pretty much out of luck on the other qualifications for the first step.
I have more luck with step 2. Reclusive I can do. I can’t do masculine seclusion but feminine seclusion – that’s my natural state. So I can be the female Pynchon or Salinger.
Step 3 is to tell a violent story set in rural America’s Southern or Western regions. Well, most of my contemporary romances are set along the coast of South Carolina and this is a pretty darned rural area. And love is the ultimate violence, isn’t it? Besides, in most of my contemporaries someone dies – which is a double whammy for violence. I guess that equates me with Penn Warren, McCarthy and McMurtry.
Then I’m supposed to center my tale around a white male hero who wrestles with diversity – preferably involving brown people – while he travels. Well, in “A Magical Forever” the hero has to overcome his prejudices against love and magic and he takes a trip that’s literally out of this world. I’ll count that.
Next, I have to title my book something with particular keywords like “Great,” “Wrath,” “Love,” “Fury” or “Death.” Woah, Nelly – Eden is on the list. Hot dog – “The Duke of Eden” fits that one. We’re making progress!
Uh Oh – there are questions.
I have to THINK. How is that an easy step, I ask you? Well, I’ll give it a shot. First, I should ask myself about the body count in my book and whether my characters suffer enough. You’ve got to give it to me on that one – all the heroes in my books suffer greatly before they take that great, bottomless, forever fall into love.
After that, I must ponder the breadth and scope of my work. (Ms. Bloom – how is easy defined in your dictionary?) Do I comment on the war, peace, poverty and wealth? No, but I surely do meet a couple of others on the list – all my love stories are about the “human condition” and anyone who has read any one of my books knows that male virility features prominently – and in the contemporaries, the virile men are mostly Americans! (My Greek Billionaire in “Dangerous Relations – Seducing the Billionaire is a notable exception.” But, that one does talk about wealth so it meets a different notch.
Why – we’re boogeling right along here!
The last item asks if anyone reads Norman Mailer anymore. Well, I don’t read Mr. Mailer’s work any less than I used to – does that count? I think it counts.
So, if you add it all up – I’ve ALREADY written the Great American Novel – several times over. Maybe I should add that to my blurbs at Amazon?
Naturally enough, Ms. Bloom’s tongue was firmly in her cheek throughout her piece, which was inspired by one of Laura Miller’s, also for Huffpo, about whether Rachel Kushner’s new novel scares male critics. Ms. Bloom’s piece is fun and Ms. Miller’s is well worth a thoughtful read and thorough consideration. Here’s how Ms. Miller’s article begins:
In 1963, Esquire magazine’s July issue was about the American literary scene, and featured an essay by Norman Mailer. Titled “Some Children of the Goddess: Further Evaluations of the Talent in the Room,” the piece was a repeat of a survey of his “rivals” that appeared in “Advertisements for Myself.” Few American novelists have ever been more invested than Mailer in the mystique of the Great American Novel, and it’s no coincidence that his list of the authors likely to produce such a work (William Styron, James Jones, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and Saul Bellow) consisted of exactly zero women.
The deliberate pursuit of the Great American Novel has always been a peculiarly masculine endeavor. It is a book, in Mailer’s words, designed to “seize the temper of the time and turn it.” To attempt to write the Great American Novel is to surmise that you can speak on behalf of an entire, fractious nation. Plus, by all appearances, we’re talking about a game of King of the Mountain: Only one winner allowed, and the competition is bruising. The photograph accompanying Mailer’s piece showed him standing in a boxing ring, poised to deliver his punches.
The presumption and the belligerence embodied in this ideal have put off many American women writers. They weren’t going to be allowed into the Room to begin with, but exclusion gave them the opportunity to discover something important: There’s more than just one room. There are, in fact, an awful lot of rooms in American fiction, rooms in which Mailer contemporaries as brilliant and varied as Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, Ursula K. Le Guin and Paule Marshall found ways to flourish creatively and reach many readers, albeit without the prestige accorded to the guys in the Room.
Often the debate about bias against women writers — now regularly revived by the annual VIDA survey and its dismaying figures on the gender breakdown of book reviewers and authors reviewed in prominent literary publications — focuses on genre. Why are some themes (courtship, family life) or forms (the short story) typically regarded as less significant than others (war, adventure, the epic novel)? How is it that purportedly lightweight themes suddenly become momentous in critics’ eyes when the novelist who takes them up is a man (Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides)?
Quite a lot of food for thought, isn’t it? As both Ms. Miller and Ms. Bloom point out – there are many women whose books certainly qualify for inclusion on any one’s list of Great American Novels. And yes – two of those are Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell. However, I’d agree with Ms. Miller’s point that most women aren’t interested in writing the great American novel. Women don’t have either the time or the inclination to chase snipes.
I also think that most women consider a novel – American or otherwise – “Great” if it’s one they enjoy. A book doesn’t have to speak to all women on all issues in order to qualify for the title. A book is great if it speaks to the reader who spent her hard-earned money for it.
Speaking of which — let’s get back to the important stuff – Ms. Bloom’s list. If I’ve wrangled my way through meeting most of the criteria, my sales at Amazon should be SOARING. Maybe, once people read this, and understand the true nature of the greatness of my writing, they flock over to Amazon and compete to see who can push the buy button for one of my books the fastest.
I better get over there and check sales – AGAIN….