When Tom Wolfe died, men took to Twitter crying, “The Great American Novelist has died!” They wrung their hands (metaphorically, I assume) and wailed about the future of literature. It was really very dramatic and overwrought.
Then Philip Roth died eight days later (presumably after a brief ailment whose symptoms included being utterly forgotten by Twitter) and they said the exact same things. I watched with bemusement and annoyance.
Something interesting happened in response to the responses to both deaths: people stood up on their (again, metaphorical, probably) chairs and cried out, “The Great American Novelist is Toni Morrison, and she lives on!”
Please don’t misunderstand me: Toni Morrison is amazing. She is everything good that anyone has ever said about her. You should read her novels. I should read more of her novels. We all should read Toni Morrison.
But there is no such thing as the Great American Novelist, just as there is no such thing as the Great American Novel.
No one person can or should fill that position. It’s nonsense to say that one person can write one novel (or multiple novels) that can represent one whole nation. It wasn’t Steinbeck or Hemingway. It wasn’t Wolfe or Roth. It isn’t Morrison. The concept is not one that a human person can fill. Even a human person who writes wonderful prose.
We want there to be such a thing as a Great American Novel. We want there to be such a person as the Great American Novelist. I am not sure why we want these things, but we cannot have them. Art is subjective and writing is art and no one person can represent what all of us want from that novel.
Hell, if you ask me, the Great American Novel of the 20th century is probably Geek Love. But Katherine Dunn isn’t my Great American Novelist; Shirley Jackson is. Or, wait, maybe it’s Willa Cather. You see how complex this is?
I propose this solution: we should create a position for the American Novelist Laureate, just as we have a Poet Laureate. You get a year to be the Great American Novelist; then it’s someone else’s turn. And yes, Toni Morrison can be first.