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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Novel Ideas

Writer Russell Banks visits Utahto discuss the notion of “the Great American Novel.”



What is the Great American Novel? Ask 10 different people, and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Ask acclaimed novelist Russell Banks, and you won’t get an answer at all. Instead, Banks will say that the idea raises many more questions he wants to explore when he visits the Salt Lake City Public Library for his lecture “The So-Called Great American Novel.nn

In a telephone interview, Banks explained how the idea for his lecture came to him when he and many of America’s literary elite were invited by The New York Times to choose the best works of American fiction of the last 25 years. After the votes were tallied, the top 15 were compiled into a definitive list. He says the idea “implies a belief I want to examine: that there is such a thing as the Great American Novel. We’re unusual, Americans, in that there isn’t this belief in a great English novel, or a great French novel. There are many great novels, but there isn’t this idea that there is just one out there waiting to be written.nn

It’s not surprising the Times chose Banks to help select the books on its list. In his 32-year career, he’s become one of America’s top novelists with 15 books including Continental Drift, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter and The Darling. Banks calls his forthcoming novel, The Reserve, a “slightly obsessive, mad love story” set in the Adirondacks during the Great Depression. Banks’ novels The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction have also been adapted into award-winning films, and many more of his books are in development, including the Martin Scorsese production of Cloudsplitter for HBO, for which Banks will write the screenplay.


When Banks first received the Times’ invitation, he says he was hesitant to participate because he thought, “Well, this is sort of a silly thing. Who can say what the best novel of the past 25 years is anyhow?” But he reconsidered when he observed that this seemingly trivial list “can provide us with more profound insights into the nature of our culture and our obsessions and concerns.nn

So, what does Banks think a list of books can tell us about America? First, he thinks the list emphasizes the significance of race in our society. Although books by white male writers like Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, John Updike and Cormac McCarthy dominated the list, Banks wasn’t surprised when Toni Morrison’s mythic slave tale Beloved was declared the winner. He refers to a similar list compiled in 1965 where the top novel'Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man'was also about the African-American experience. Banks believes both books were selected because race is “central to our history, our psychology, our class structure. It’s something that we can’t very easily escape. We can deny it, but we can’t escape it.nn

Although Banks is a white male writer from New England, he says race has played a major role in much of his work because “it’s a central part of the American story and the American imagination. It’s difficult for me to enter that story or imagination without dealing with race.nn

According to Banks, the Times list can also tell us something about gender. Only two of the books on the list were authored by women, and Banks thinks this illustrates how the quest for the Great American Novel has been “an American male mission since Melville,” and that “women haven’t bought into that myth quite as eagerly as men.” But this lack of female representation actually speaks highly of women writers, according to Banks. He believes that their writing is often more universal because they “haven’t attempted to write those novels that you can single out from the pack as having some grand, national ambition. They aren’t bogged down in trying to write the Great American Novel but simply a great novel.nn

Ultimately, Banks says the Times list, like so many things in America, is all about the bottom line. He states, “There is always a commercial impetus behind (these lists); it’s a way of marketing.” For that reason he has “always felt skeptical and mistrustful of these kinds of rankings, especially in regards to the arts where it’s such a subjective experience.nn

Although the question of the Great American Novel may be difficult to answer, Banks says during his lecture he will examine if the idea is “a good thing or a bad thing. Has it harmed our fiction or helped our fiction? Is it merely peculiar or does it tell us something about the American idea of itself?nn

When pressed, Banks admits that he finally did make a selection for the Times list, so maybe the question isn’t so hard to answer after all. But when asked what he chose, Banks replied, “I’m not going to say now. I will reveal that at the event.” Until then, we’ll just have to reflect on why we ask the question in the first place.


Main Library Auditorium
210 E. 400 South
Saturday, Oct. 7
7:30 p.m.