Sometimes I get asked for advice about being a writer.* Usually it's a general question such as, "How can I become a writer?" or "What should I write about?" The answer to the first is easy: you either are or you aren't, and deep down you know. But that second question is a tricky one. Conventional wisdom says "write what you know," but since I know nothing about being a sword jockey in a mythological world or a vampire in 1975 Memphis, I can't really get behind that answer. But I do have an answer. Sort of.
In the liner notes for his 1995 Greatest Hits compilation, Bruce Springsteen calls the song "Born to Run":
"My shot at the title. A 24 yr. old kid aimin' at 'the greatest rock 'n roll record ever.'"
In a 2003 interview, he elaborated:
"With that one I was shooting for the moon. I said, 'I don't want to make a good record, I want to make The Greatest Record Somebody's Ever Heard.' I was filled with arrogance and thought, I can do that, y'know?"
When I was a kid, the cliche was that anyone who wanted to be a writer presumably also wanted to write The Great American Novel. I never knew what that was exactly, but I assumed it was some sort of book that encapsulated the American experience in such a universal way that anyone who read it would immediately connect with it. There were contenders presented in English classes: The Grapes of Wrath and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were the two most common. But neither connected with me. Either I was un-American, or the definition was essentially meaningless. Which it was, and is.
But it serves a purpose. Like "the greatest rock 'n roll record ever," it's a goal that we should have the arrogance to shoot for. Yet we don't. If anything, we're taught not to attempt it.
What passes for "serious" literature nowadays is often the result of multiple generations of writers going through MFA programs, publishing first novels of thinly-disguised coming-of-age autobiography, returning to academia as teachers and showing the next generation how to write and publish first novels of thinly-disguised coming-of-age autobiography. It's a recipe for institutionalized boredom that goes a long way toward explaining why you don't see so many bookstores anymore (and explains why something like David Foster Wallace'sThe Pale King, a novel literally about boredom, can gain such critical acclaim). The Great American Novel will never be produced by someone whose entire life consists of such limited experience.
Genre fiction, at least, is still popular (and believe me, I'm hugely grateful for that), but will never overcome the stigma attached to it (after all, it's "merely" science fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.). And that's okay: we'll be happily serving our readers while the rest of the literary world wonders why no one reads anymore.
So where will the Great American Novel come from, then?
Beats me, but I do know one thing about it.
It will come from someone with the arrogance to shoot for the title.
So take your shot, man. Have the arrogance. Swing for the fence.
That's my advice.
*and that's especially funny since I've been writing all my life and my first novel didn't come out until I was over forty. Perhaps they'd be better served asking one of those hot young things with a best-seller at 25. But hey, people do ask me.