So I sat down to write the Great American Novel. And like with all improbable tasks, it’s helpful to map out potential issues to spare yourself from a career-ending catastrophe (and to provide excuses to wax poetic to your friends when you ultimately leave a manuscript incomplete).
First, it’s helpful to take a cursory survey of the current literary landscape: writing about my time in China, Thailand, or Taiwan will launch the entire Berkeley creative writing class into chants of ‘exoticism’ and cause a Slate writer to prematurely return from a gulag LARPing weekend to pen a 1,200-word thinkpiece on literature as colonialism.
Reading the room, I’m going to stay close to home. New York is usually a safe bet so long as I stay on Staten Island, downtown Manhattan, or in the parts of Brooklyn where they sell artisanal mayonnaise — lots of people have been to New York and therefore it’ll be relatable or at least aspirational.
We’re going straight to central casting for a diverse milieu of characters (yes, casting — novels are pseudo-scripts serving as soft tryouts for a Netflix or HBO show). And not just diversity but near-perfect diversity. To avoid a J.K. Rowling problem, I will forthrightly make the protagonist’s best friend a gay character, though I’ll need to enlist a focus group to ensure my character doesn’t run afoul of whatever criteria Pete Buttigieg seems to lack in the eyes of the gay community, and I’ll need the character to be flexible enough to afford me cover for explanation should I craft him (or her! You’re right — it should be a her) in a way that strays into impermissive expression of gay culture down the road or lead me into a common troposphere. A balancing act indeed.
The rest of the characters will hail from all walks of life, people of every color, creed, religion and sect I have known throughout my life, but switch up genders and personalities to avoid anyone identifying too closely with their literary doppelgänger. I will be careful not to dig too deeply into their backstory and leave them but husks of fully formed or developed storylines since I don’t want to impute my experiences into the space of people with different backgrounds — that’s a recipe for falling out of Oprah’s good graces quicker than American Dirt.
And the dialogue — that will be tricky. I need to make a note to put a stopwatch on myself reading the lines of my male and female characters to make sure there is parity or that female characters speak more, but not too much more. I don’t want to appear as if I am making them too chatty or into a manic Pixie Dream Girl. I also need to be careful that the male characters don’t gaslight, obfuscate, verbally abuse, streetlight, or mansplain anything to my female characters, or if they do, they are swiftly and justifiably murdered like the toxic scoundrels they are. Still too risky especially with so many characters from so many walks of life — better just to cut out dialogue altogether. Brilliant — and might help me sell as a work of art that really pushes the form.
And speaking of selling well, I need (a) an edgy sex scene that isn’t heteronormative and (b) heavily lean into some political hot button of the day. I’ll be careful not to comment too extensively on a non-hetero encounter while at the same time drawing a rough, sketched outline around such sexual razzle-dazzle or rendezvous as proclivities might require in order to leave adequate space for those types of sex I am not inclined or permitted to explore (I promise, mom, I am quite vanilla and chaste). Oh, my, it seems I have created a chalk outline of a pair of bodies.
A murder! Ah, the game’s afoot. Now if only I can tie in a subtle political message to hook Upper East Side book clubs in a way that will make them eager to read the novel but not put upon enough where they feel obligated to donate to charity, but maybe they’ll be spurred to organize an Instagrammable outrage performance march to show their support. There could be large signs featuring the book cover seen throughout the crowd as a harbinger of the conversation.
Yes, the key is that I will need to be predictive about my victim. The character to murder right now may be obvious but 18 months from now, when my novel is gracing bookshelves — I might very well look ridiculous. I could have a menagerie of murders really tying in all groups around my work so that book clubs and beach readers are united in their outrage (and I won’t have to mention the president once!) — boy am I clever. Sensitive too!
Perhaps the publishing industry just needs to adopt a gimmicky start-up mentality, like every pair of shoes sold or every pair of glasses prescribed equaling one reciprocal pair donated to a child in need. Since writing is so lucrative, and NGOs definitely aren’t crippling the local markets they seek to help, why wouldn’t a dollar to a charity (that definitely isn’t run by corrupt opportunists) for every book sold be a win-win for everybody? Though I will need to splice that dollar to a hundred different charities to hit as many interest groups as I can. That’s a marketing home run.
I suppose it’s 2020 and I am writing the great American novel, I could just write about finding ways to pass the time and live out the American dream of taking on credit card debt as I buy more stuff. I could very well be the writer to examine the ills of social media the way David Foster Wallace elucidated the travesty of television; I didn’t get this MFA for nothing! Or I could just write a tale about lusty witches and wizards. But lest I presume fiction to entail the exercise of imagination or writing expansively about the universal nature and conditions of humanity, no, no, it seems the only safe bet is to stick to what I know: a story about a hetero, white, cis, male struggling with ennui. There just aren’t enough of those stories on the market already.