how I gave up the idea of the great American novel and finally wrote a book

how I gave up the idea of the great American novel and finally wrote a book



I always knew I would write a book. I just didn’t know it would take me so long to get around to it. Some of that is of course my own doing. (Move to Paris to write a novel, drink lots of red wine, smoke Dunhills, fill notebooks with meaningful and important notes, lose them while drunk on the Metro. Move to New York to write a novel, go to lots of cool clubs, work in PR, never even buy a notebook. Move to Washington to get married. Have kids. Buy notebooks for kids. Read novels in between carpooling to kids’ sporting events.) However, I place some of the blame for my late blooming on the Great American Novel, or at the very least, the Important American Novel. (The Literary British Novel as well. Perhaps more so – I mean they didn’t even let Americans compete for the Mann Booker Prize until this year. That’s another whole level of novelistic hubris.) These are the books that get golden seals, statuettes, silver pens and, if not immortality, at least more than thirty days on the front shelves at Barnes & Noble before being moved into the Bargain section. These are the books that Michiko Kakutani reviews, passing judgment in lyrical prose. (For those who are not review obsessed, New York Times book reviewer who is the literary equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. Her word is law.) When you’re armed with a degree in English or Comparative literature, as my co-author Andrea Leidolf and I are, you feel that if you’re going to write something, it had better be something Important. Something that changes or advances the course of literature. Yeah, well, try sitting down at a typewriter/computer/laptop with that monkey on your back. You end up fleeing to Facebook or typing meaningless crap that makes Jack Nicholson’s novel in The Shining look comprehensible. That’s because not everyone was meant to write Infinite Jest or The Corrections, in part because most readers cannot live on elite literature alone. It’s like subsisting on a diet of raw sea urchin. It’s great and all that, but every now and then you want a hamburger. That’s where writers like us come in. Let’s get one thing straight: we are not defending bad writing. We just believe fervently that good writing can be found in a plain old good book as well as a literary marvel (and a whole lot of bad writing can be found in wannabe literary marvels). Lately, there’s been a bit of a war, with lots of Twitter sniping, between Important Novelists, like Franzen, and “regular” authors, like Jennifer Weiner (Good In Bed and other witty, wonderful books for women). Unnecessary, much like the “book or Kindle” debate. Why can’t you have it all? Cuddle up with iQ84 one night and Bridget Jones’ Diary the next. Who is stopping you? Hell, throw in a classic Woman in White as well, and some great true crime. Reread your favorite Nancy Drews. There is no shame in wanting to read a good book driven by great characters and a definable beginning, middle and end. And as for Michiko Kakutani – if she ever feels like sitting down to the literary equivalent of a really great hamburger and fries, we have the book for her.

Melanie Howard is co-author, with Andrea Leidolf, of Queen of the Court (link follows). Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, SELF, Glamour and other major magazines.


2 thoughts on “how I gave up the idea of the great American novel and finally wrote a book

  1. Pingback: how I gave up the idea of the great American novel and finally wrote a book | novel musings

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