The Human Condition:

Writing the Great American Novel – May 27, 2012

Anyone who has announced, either shyly or boldly, to family and friends that he or she either plans to write, or has started to write, a novel hears some form of this comment: “Going to write the Great American Novel, are you?” It may be said with a smile. It may be meant kindly. But the underlying message always contains just a touch of condescension: “What? Little you? Going off to capture the Great White Whale with your itty-bitty hook and line?”

The Great American Novel is, of course, a myth and a put-down in itself. The idea goes back at least to the 19th century, when British writers held the keys to English letters and America was a distant place full of brash Yankees, drunken cowboys, painted savages, and hopeful fools. No one could capture that much absurdity between two covers. There is no Great American Novel, except in the imaginations of those for whom America is a strange and somehow unreal place that can, they believe, be safely dismissed.

But capturing the spirit of a country or an age is not really the first job of a writer. The only tool any writer has is a lamp against the darkness. It might be a floodlight or a pencil-beam flashlight. But it’s how the writer finds and illuminates what he or she knows, or supposes to be true, or wishes were so. Any novel is a mixture of one part observed reality, one part imagined reality or fantasy, and one part a reflection of the novelist’s own personality, biases, hopes, and fears.

Over the years many great writers have written what, for their time and the place, could be called a Great American Novel—often a couple of them, standing side-by-side in his or her oeuvre. Nathaniel Hawthorne portrayed life along the frontier in the 18th century. Henry James captured a certain style of East Coast upper-class life in the late 19th century, just as Mark Twain described the Midwest middle- to lower-class life of about the same time. Thomas Wolfe caught the New South in the early 20th Century; John Cheever portrayed the East Coast again at mid-century; and the other Tom Wolfe defined the fragmentation of American culture late in the 20th century. Anyone could name a handful of others who accurately depicted their times and places—Ernest Hemingway and the fragmentation of a world between two great wars, for example—but this handful contains my favorites and to some extent my influences.

All of these writers capture an aspect of America and her roots, but none of them does so definitively. They can’t. Henry James’s Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady does not even exist in the same universe as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and his eponymous Adventures. And yet both are true aspects of America’s many storied past.

To suggest, even jokingly, that a young writer should try to capture some universal essence from the American experience does that young spark a disservice. Universality is not the goal of a writer. With time and patience—and many books in the rear-view mirror—a universal viewpoint may come in some fractured form, as it did for James and Twain and my handful of others. But the new writer does best to focus on a single time and place, a type of character, a particular point of view—and try to do it justice.

Another suggestion that young or beginning writers hear is: “Write what you know.” That works just fine if you’re an Ernest Hemingway who had traveled the world, survived participation in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, was on intimate terms with exotic sports like big game hunting and bull fighting, and a connoisseur of great whiskies. For most of us, however, what we know is the backyard—ground that Emily Dickinson covered pretty thoroughly; our home town—ditto Thomas Wolfe and Thornton Wilder; our years in high school and college, and one or two not very interesting jobs.1

The admonition to “write what you know” is an invitation to delay the actual writing process and go off to get yourself nearly killed by poking into war zones, attempting all sorts of dodgy transactions and trades, and engaging in romantic affairs. Then you, too, can write just like a Hemingway. Except that—as no one stops to think—that job was already taken. Ernest Hemingway did it brilliantly, and the current crop of foreign correspondents working for the cable news channels are already planning to mine the world’s existing troubles for their own books.

The better suggestion should be: “Write what fascinates you.” Every writer has an abiding interest.2 If you turn your lamp on that, you will have a built-in edge on other writers and a leg up on acquiring the knowledge and level of detail that will make your writing authoritative—not to mention pleasing to like-minded readers. Your knowledge will expand easily, almost effortlessly, as your cycle of work grows. And if you are very lucky and very skilled, you will be able to entice new readers who know little or nothing about your subject—and then you can expand their awareness and maybe even spark their own interest.

The reality is that readers don’t look for some kind of grand “summing up” of a nation or an age when they buy a book. They look for a good read, a new experience, and insight into some subject that has always kind-of attracted them. A few new facts, the answers to some nagging questions, and a bright and hopeful attitude are always welcome. But, at heart, they want to be entertained.

It’s called a novel for a reason. The book is something new—at least to the reader who has just picked it up. What the reader wants is not the familiar ground of “my backyard,” or “life on the Mississippi,” or “life among the ruins”—or rather, not only that. They want you to take them someplace they can recognize, yes—that part of your writing which is based on accessible reality. But they also want you to take them someplace new and strange—the part which comes from your (and their) wishing things were so.

Simply take them to that place, and you will indeed write a great novel.

1. Actually, I had some pretty interesting jobs. The early years as a book editor were a good grounding in my craft and how it fits into the mechanics of publishing. But then I took my writing and editing “out into the field,” as it were: working for an engineering and construction company, an electricity and gas public utility, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical company, and a maker of biotech instruments and reagents. In addition to learning a lot about business, I learned how most of the technical side of the 20th century and modern civilization was put together. That’s useful knowledge to mine for book settings in my later career as a novelist.

2. Mine has always been technology. That comes from being the son of a mechanical engineer and grandson of a civil engineer. (My mother was a landscape architect, however, and her father a lawyer and judge; so I do have a softer, more natural, if no less analytical side.) My first toy was a pressboard box my father made for me that interlinked patterns of three or four colored lights and switches. I don’t remember what it did exactly, other than flash the lights when you flipped the switches, but that was enough for a three-year-old. Although I never had a head for math and so could not follow in my father’s profession, I remained fascinated by things that move and do stuff. And, true to that box, I’m fascinated to this day by computers and smart phones, anything with a keyboard that takes inputs and a display that gives outputs. As a writer, my day job has always gravitated toward technical subjects like steam engines, engineering and construction, energy generation and distribution, and finally biotechnology and biology. Of course, my early reading included a lot of science fiction and when I started writing, it was the “hard” kind of science fiction—no fantasy or magic, please.