This question haunted serious writers in the early 20th century, when critics sought a product that measured up to the European standard. Now it is dead, and the underlying notion is in ICU. What happened?
Well, the idea itself was never a very good one. It had breathtakingly hazy contours. It ignored the work of authors like Melville, Hawthorne, Wharton, and Twain. And it seemed to assume that a single novel could sum up this vast and complex nation. I'd like to think its disappearance reflects these problems.
But technology also helped shelve the question. As media proliferated, literature grew less central. If the Great American Novel appeared tomorrow, how many people would actually read it? My guess: Most would wait for the movie.
DANIEL McNEILL is the author of The Face, and principal author of the best-selling Fuzzy Logic, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology, and was a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year".