It’s the dream of every American writer: the siren song of writing “the next great American novel”. A novel that, as Lena Dunham (and, admittedly, many others) have put it: acts as the voice of a generation. Dozens of novels have been given the informal, though coveted, title — from James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans, (though, to be accurate, the term “Great American Novel” wasn’t actually coined until 1868) all the way to, most-recently, Jonathan Franzen's 2010 title, Freedom. The honor, interestingly enough, has even been given to writers who weren’t, themselves, American. (I’m looking at you, Vladimir Nabokov — who joined the ranks of Great American Novel-writers for his 1955 title, Lolita.)
But for anyone who isn't utterly enthralled by the allure of penning the next great American novel themselves, Great American Novels can get a bad rap; most notably for being written by white American men of privilege and/or only telling stories of white American boys and men. And sure, while the list of Great American Novel-writing novelists could stand to be a lot more diverse, it’s actually not the MOST patriarchy-driven, whitewashed book list I’ve ever seen. But still, we could do better.
So in the spirit of reading more diverse books, here are 15 books that have been called ‘the next great American novel’ — and what to read instead. (Or, you know, in addition to.)
Instead Of 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Read 'The Color Purple' By Alice Walker
Published in 1850 and 1982, respectively, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Color Purple by Alice Walker are set in strikingly different time periods (a 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony and rural Georgia in the early 1900s) but both deal with the grave ramifications of women’s bodies being treated as the property of others, and what happens when women venture outside social norms in order to take agency of their lives.
Instead Of 'Moby-Dick' by Herman Melville, Read 'Ahab's Wife' by Sena Jeter Naslund
Most adventure stories, from The Odyssey to Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, feature epic journeys taken by men. Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund, on the other hand, reimagines the great white whale story from the perspective of Captain Ahab’s wife, Una — a woman who was given but one brief passage in Melville’s novel, but for whom Naslund constructs an epic and adventure-filled life of risk, romance, heartbreak, and resilience.
Instead Of 'This Side of Paradise' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Read 'Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist' by Sunil Yapa
The debut novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, examines the impulses, motivations, values, and lives of America’s post-World War I youth through the character of Amory Blaine, a privileged Princeton University student who writes really bad poetry. In timely contrast, Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of a Fist tackles the American Millennial spirit through Victor, a traveler and emerging activist whose life is changed when he attends the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle.
Instead of 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Read 'The House Of Mirth' by Edith Wharton
As one of only three writers to land themselves in the “Great American Novel” hall of fame not once, but twice, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s next novel, The Great Gatsby, also makes the cut. Consider Edith Wharton’s heroine in The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, something of a female Jay Gatsby. Both novels deal with the pressures of privilege and social climbing, and have been called cautionary tales of the American dream. And the fact that Edith Wharton has never been credited with penning a Great American novel is kind of wild.
Instead of 'Absalom, Absalom!' by William Faulkner, Read 'The Joy Luck Club' by Amy Tan
Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is an intergenerational novel that tells the stories of three families adjusting to the cultural shifts of the American South before, during, and after the Civil War: their loves and losses, strengths and weaknesses, and economic and social self-destruction. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is a similarly intergenerational novel about families — in this case, four Chinese-American immigrant families — displaced by war, marriage, and circumstance, and adapting to the different ages and cultures in which they’ve lived.
Instead of 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck, Read 'The Book of Unknown Americans' by Cristina Henríquez
Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath really might be THE Great American novel — were there only one. But this American classic about the tenant farming Joad family who are driven from their lives over and over again by drought, economic hardship, and a changing agricultural industry should definitely be shelved alongside novels like Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, which tells the more contemporary story of undocumented and first-generation Americans trying to find work and build stable homes for themselves and their families in the United States.
Instead of 'The Catcher In The Rye' by J.D. Salinger, Read 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has actually been called the sister novel to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye — both dealing with teenage angst and coming-of-age identity crises, youth who feel alienated from their generation, and characters of privilege who feel suffocated by the expectations society has placed upon them.
Instead of 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, Read 'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
While both of these novels belong near the top of your TBR pile, Ifemelu of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is far less invisible than Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator in Invisible Man. Both novels tell stories of race and identity, and the unique struggles of being a person of color in the United States, no matter what generation you are living in.
Instead of 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov, Read 'Bastard Out Of Carolina' by Dorothy Allison
Oddly enough, this book by a Russian novelist has made the list of “Great American Novels” as well. But while the unreliable narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita only serves to blur the lines between victim and perpetrator, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina leaves no room for question when it comes to the unthinkable abuse inflicted upon the novel's young heroine, Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright, and paints a starting portrait of issues of gender, class, race, and sexuality in the 1950s American South.
Instead of 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac, Read 'Behold The Dreamers' by Imbolo Mbue
There’s no doubt that Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is a classic novel of wanderlust and the pursuit of the American Dream. But while Kerouac’s characters hit the road in search of fun and adventure, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers takes a decidedly different look at what the pursuit of the American Dream asks of far more families today. Mbue tells the story of a young Cameroonian couple living in New York, undocumented and trying to make a life for themselves, just as the 2008 recession hits.
Instead of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' by Hunter S. Thompson, Read 'The Flamethrowers' by Rachel Kushner
Drugs, debauchery, and desert racing feature prominently in Hunter S. Thompson’s original work of “gonzo” journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And readers return to Nevada-desert racing in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers — an equally absurd and unbelievable story of art and adventure and violence and 1970s political upheaval.
Instead of 'Bright Lights, Big City' by Jay McInerney, Read 'Beneath A Meth Moon' by Jacqueline Woodson
Set in 1980s New York, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City charts the addiction of a 24-year-old writer dealing with the loss of his wife and the death of his mother, all while losing his dream career in the process. In Jacqueline Woodson’s YA novel, Beneath a Meth Moon, Laurel Daneau is dealing with similar loss — the deaths of her mother and her grandmother in Hurricane Katrina — and turns to crystal meth to deal with her pain, destroying her façade of a perfect life (cheerleader, football team captain’s girlfriend) in the process.
Instead of 'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis, Read 'The Girls' by Emma Cline
An epic critique of consumer culture, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis tells the story of Wall Street businessman-turned-serial killer Patrick Bateman, and the grisly murders he commits. Featuring characters plagued by similar psychological breaks, Emma Cline’s The Girls was inspired by the true story of the Manson Family cult and the Manson murders that haunted California during the summer of 1969.
Instead of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace, Read 'The Book of Joan' by Lidia Yuknavitch
Set in a future world where North America has become a corporate-run superstate, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is a massive novel that has been called post-modern, hysterical realism, and tragicomedy, and borders on a dystopian satire. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, on the other hand, is ALL dystopian — fierce and feminist, set in a post-apocalyptic, above-earth space station ruled by dictatorship, where a Joan of Arc-styled character leads her people in an epic rebellion.
Instead of 'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen, Read 'An American Marriage' by Tayari Jones
The newest title to make the “Great American Novel” list, Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom, tells the story of the Berglund family: urban, moderately liberal, parents whose past coming-of-age struggles transfer to their own children, and a marriage that is “on the rocks” in a way that seems uniquely American. Published just earlier this year, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones takes a more nuanced view of marriage in America — Celestial and Roy are the quintessential newlyweds who seem to have it all, until Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and their bonds of love and commitment are tested in a way they never could have expected.