What is The Great American Novel?

The Great American Novel: A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and its troubled conscience, its individual voices and strivings, our loves and losses. If some of the classic examples – “Moby-Dick,” “The Great Gatsby” – are as much about failure as success, the arc of those narratives is always anchored in hope. For Independence Day, nine of our Critics at Large pick their Great American Novels, and it’s a complex and delightful mix of titles that show just how expansive – and expanding – the American story is.

What is the Great American Novel? Our critics say:

John Scalzi: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

“It needs to address some unique aspect of the American experience, usually either our faults or our aspirations as a nation, with recognizable moral force.”


Viet Thanh Nguyen: “The Woman Warrior” and “China Men” by Maxine Hong Kingston

“One of the unspoken silences of the Great American Novel is the assumption that it can only be written by white men.”


Laila Lalami's Great American Novel: 'Song of Solomon' by Toni Morrison

“To ask about The Great American Novel is to invite a debate about every portion of the phrase.”


Rigoberto González: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz

“When I finally picked up ‘Oscar Wao,’ I knew I held something special in my hands. This was a book of the Américas. This was the Great Américas Novel. ”


Rebecca Carroll: “Sula” by Toni Morrison

“In ‘Sula,’ Toni Morrison rewrites the very act of writing — making it seem like a new phenomenon, a secret blasted open and gifted to you.”


Adriana E. Ramírez: “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman

“By writing only the ‘good parts,’ Goldman enters into a very postmodern American sensibility.”


Susan Straight: “Fools Crow” by James Welch and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” by Ernest J. Gaines

“Is the great American novel one you love so much you keep it secret, as a talisman, or the book you love so much you give it to everyone for years?”


David Kipen: The works of Thomas Pynchon

“After Twain and Fitzgerald, there’s Thomas Pynchon and there’s everybody else.”


Marlon James: None (with a “American Tabloid” by James Ellroy asterisk)

“There is no such thing as the Great American Novel. Nor the great Russian, Swedish, Irish or great Papua New Guinean novel for that matter.”


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