You’ve probably heard of the Great American Novel. (Yes, it’s capitalized, and some people even use the acronym GAN.) With my turn coming up to suggest a few novels for our book group to choose from, I looked at books that have been thought worthy of the title.
From visiting a half-dozen websites, I learned that the GAN is not necessarily the best novel. Writer John William De Forest, who first wrote about the GAN in 1868, nominated Uncle Tom’s Cabin for reasons other than literary achievement. De Forest said the GAN should reflect its age, have significant cultural impact, and capture “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.”
De Forest’s description suggests there would be GANs representing different eras. Never agreeing on a single GAN, litterateurs have have proposed many, including these our group has already read: The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, My Antonia, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Age of Innocence, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lolita, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Catcher in the Rye.
I eliminated others because of length or difficulty and was left with three possibilities from the sites I’d consulted: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We usually give the group a choice of three, so I mentioned them all even though I wasn’t eager to read On the Road. I listed it third and included in my description that many critics find it plotless and poorly written. That should get it rejected, I figured.
I guessed wrong. Most people had read the other two and were interested in a book they hadn’t read. On the Road it was.
If you’re like me, you are nervous that your reading suggestions will be disliked. One of my suggestions already has the unofficial designation of worst book in our two-decade history: Women of Sand and Myrrh, set in a fundamentalist society in the Middle East. I found it in 500 Great Books by Women when I looked for novels about Arab countries after 9/11.
As I read On the Road, I feared that my book buddies would share my reactions. Kerouac’s self-described “spontaneous prose” is plotless and repetitive. The characters are selfish, reckless, misogynistic, and homophobic users. Their quest for the mysterious “IT” promises a revelation that is never delivered.
Book group met last Wednesday. I was relieved that others reacted more favorably than I to On the Road. “Liked” might be overstating — they shared my perceptions — but they adopted a different mindset for an unconventional novel. (Add open-mindedness to the reasons I love our book group.) They found it worthwhile to get inside the head of a writer who was not only a spokesman for the Beat generation but also a major influence on the ’60s generation that followed.
Seems like our group appreciated On the Road for the same reasons De Forest, if he were living when it was published in 1957, might have called it a Great American Novel.