Of course I would hate to be saddled with this behemoth of an anti-accomplishment while still fresh in my grave, but to be fair, Mailer brought it on himself. As this piece in the Independent observes:
Mailer believed in it utterly. He called it "the big one" and dreamed of bagging it one day, as game hunters go after "the big five" of elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard. From the start he nursed Tolstoyan ambitions – or, given his interest in writing about psychological states under extreme pressure, Dostoevskyan ambitions.
The consensus seems to be, of course, that Mailer never wrote it. Of course, he wrote a lot of big American books--so what precisely is the GAN supposed to be? The Independent cited the results of a 2006 poll on the subject and came up with this description:
The Great American Novel should be a consideration of an historical event with grave resonances for the modern age; it will be centrally concerned with outrages against human rights, or the suspicion that beneath the smooth surface of American life, dangerous impulses still lurk unseen. It will be obsessed with death and, perhaps in consequence, display few traces of humour. And its author will be someone born no later than 1940.
There is something a tad tongue-in-cheek about this of course, and its implication seems to be that the whole idea is something of a sham. I must admit I'm sympathetic to this critique. The GAN was invented by Mailer's generation (of, need I even say it?, male writers) for selfish purposes--it was the idealized actualization of their own aesthetic, a fantastic vehicle for self-important achievement.
Sounds like I'm knocking those guys, but really I'm not. Every novel is envisioned as the ultimate expression of its writer's own aesthetic. The writing of any novel is an act of epic self-absorption. The difference with the GAN was that Mailer promoted the hell out of it, until it became a category independent of his advocacy. And ever since, the rest of us have been asked to wear this gaudy, ill-fitting vestment, and have generally been found lacking.
The ideal American novel is as protean as America itself. It changes its shape as America does. And what greater American value is there than independence, than the liberty of the individual? The real Great American Novel is whatever I say it is, whenever I happen to say it. It's whatever any of us are writing at any given time. In other words, as a concept, it's essentially meaningless. I can't help but write an American novel, frankly, and as for greatness, a guy can only try. Personally, I will take the workaday obsessions of Nicholson Baker--his minutae-obsessed escalator ride remains a high-water mark of American consciousness, in my mind--over Mailer's broad brush any day. I'll take the interior over the exterior, the hilarious over the grim (though if I have a choice, I'll take both at once), the apparently meaningless over the obviously important.
I once drew (horribly) a cartoon: the caption was "Charting The Interior Landscape." The picture was of a guy picking his nose. That's me, working on the Great American Novel. You got a problem with that?