In an interactive feature published right after the 2016 election, the New York Times visualized this stark contrast by mapping “two Americas” and the result was striking. A conservative America is a land of many lakes; a liberal America is an archipelago with islands surrounding an ocean. A generous majority of novels published in American come from writers based in those islands, or about 15% of the country’s landmass.
If New York novel has had a great impact on American literature, it is as the progenitor of the Great American “City” novel — the great mass of novels set in that 15%—where generations of youth are most commonly immortalized. But youth have a habit of coming to the city by escaping more small town origins where progressive ideas don’t jive with more traditional merit, including highfalutin prose. In her introduction to the Library of America edition of Faulkner’s Light in August, Kentucky novelist C.E. Morgan (whose recent Sport of Kings is one of the few recent Great American Novels to be set in the 85%) all but channels DeForest as she scrutinizes contemporary attempts by writers, now largely trained in MFAs and living in cities, at attempting the Great American Novel:
“Rarely neat and carefully ordered, they are neither quickly read nor readily comprehended in their full complexity…they are intellectually ambitious but imperfect, expansive in their vision, often shocking with their unwelcome insights and the intensity of their language. These novels are storehouses of information regarding the human in a specifically American context, but not in the fulsomely empty manner of so many contemporary novels, where linguistic abundance is too often a reflection of authorial egotism while purporting to be a commentary on culture…And these novels bear something else in common: a wildness, even madness…as a result, these works can seem almost unmanageable.”
And yet, to simplify a narrative for the masses — to quell its music — is to enter dicey territory. It would be inconceivable for a novel such as To Kill a Mockingbird, largely considered to be the seminal literary portrait of race in 20th-century America, to get published now without being taken to task for cultural appropriation and white saviorism. While it is more culturally acceptable to consider the uphill battle that is being black in America, it is less appropriate for non-black novelists to narrate those struggles. If To Kill a Mockingbird were to be published today, it would likely receive as many lambasts as laudations.
But while such constraints should now concern the contemporary novelist, the novel as nationwide allegory can also feel incapable in portraying country now collaged together by many issues — race, immigration, gun control, cultural values, political beliefs, etc — rather than a single abysmal division. It’s not like these issues don’t affect New Yorkers, but rather, they don’t divide New Yorkers the way they do the many other parts of the country. And it’s these divisions that an American Novel would need to address in order to approach “greatness.”
And that’s by no means an easy task. Consider the difficulty reporters have had with profiling figures on the alt-right. The New York Times, for instance, recently published a controversial profile of a Nazi sympathizing American that sparked backlash with its readership. In responding to his inability to discern why his subject necessitated a seemingly humanistic portrait, the journalist Richard Fausset stated how he sought to learn what caused an “intelligent, socially adroit [man], raised middle class amid the relatively well-integrated environments of United States military bases — [to] gravitate toward the furthest extremes of American political discourse? His answer spooled out from an album title by The Minutemen What Makes a Man Start Fires?:
“To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods. Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both reader and writer…”
I considered this when thinking of mass shooters such as Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter, Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, or Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter. In all cases, the motives for such atrocious acts remain unknown. Bringing voice or narrative to sociopaths opens a new chest of moralistic problems, yet these crimes, which have too often shocked the nation, recede almost too quickly into memory. There are few better memorialists than a writer, so why does it seem like so few are stepping up to the task?