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The Greatest of the Great American Novels According to The Atlantic

How many of these novels have you read? Which do you think are missing?
Tertulia staff •
Mar 15th, 2024

This week, The Atlantic released the results of a project that has been long in the making behind the scenes: a list of the Great American Novels published during the past 100 years. Declaring the new American canon is fraught with questions about the criteria for “greatness” and the subjectivity of the panelists defining it. How do we define American? Do we have enough critical distance to identify the greatest literary contributions published over the past few years?

But the debate around these questions, and the contention around which novels should be in or out is a big part of what makes projects like these so important—and fun. From snarky criticism, to alternative lists popping up as a clapback to The Atlantic, to resounding applause for the ambition of taking on this project, the social media discourse around this list makes for an entertaining respite from the news of the day.

The Atlantic’s senior editor, Gilad Edelman summed it up in a tweet: “Tip from an Atlantic insider: the correct way to read this list is to immediately ⌘F, search for the title of your favorite novel, and then tweet angrily when you see it isn't there.” Indeed, hot takes on X (Twitter) and epic Reddit threads are an outlet for readers who are outraged at the absence of Flannery O'Connor or confounded as to why their favorite Cormac McCarthy is missing from the list. The inclusion of graphic novels has been hotly debated. And Stephen King is a lightning rod, with Slate pop culture critic Jack Hamilton tweeting that Stephen King’s The Stand being on the list instead of It is “unserious.”

Publishers and authors are delighted to find their books anointed as a GAN, like the invariably funny Gary Shteyngart, who was “honored to see The Russian Debutante’s Handbook on the Atlantic list of The Great American Novels, a book that helped my generation of Russian immigrants feel even worse about themselves.” Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois, wrote an emotional post about the blessings of being included, given the poignant fact that Dubois himself originally published excerpts from The Souls of Black Folk in The Atlantic. Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen posted a cheeky comment referencing his own recent memoir: "The Atlantic is trolling me...I called The Sympathizer a Not So Great American Novel in A Man of Two Faces, and here The Atlantic is claiming it IS a Great American Novel. Who are you going to believe?"

As the old adage goes, you can't please everyone so you might as well please yourself. No matter what you think of The Atlantic's filter for the list, you can tell by the delightful write-ups about each book that the contributing writers felt passionate connections to the books. "Our goal was to recognize those classics that stand the test of time but also to make the case for the unexpected, the unfairly forgotten, and the recently published works that already feel indelible," read the editors' announcement. "We aimed for comprehensiveness, rigor, and open-mindedness. Serendipity too: We hoped to replicate that particular joy of a friend pressing a book into your hand and saying, ‘You have to read this; you’ll love it.’”

With that, we're sharing our sub-selection of 10 interesting choices on the list that Tertulia staff members are adding to our to-be-read stacks.

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Renata Adler's experimental novel from the 70s, Speedboat, was a favorite of Joan Didion and a stop on David Foster Wallace's syllabus. In the write-up for this Atlantic list, Juliet Lapidos calls it "the most exhilarating American novel of the past century, sentence for sentence."

There, There by Tommy Orange

This Pulitzer Prize finalist from 2018 has enjoyed a renaissance of interest with the publication of Orange's buzzing sequel and smash critical success, Wandering Stars. Elissa Washout celebrates the questions There There raises "about what it means to be Native but refuses to handily answer them. The queries of identity taken up by previous generations of writers remain, but in this novel, they are renewed by the complications of digital interconnectedness."

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout gets a ringing endorsement from Rumaan Alam as the rare comic novel that makes you laugh aloud: "If the essential ingredient of humor is intelligence, readers can conclude only that this author is a genius."

U.S.A. by John Dos Passos

George Packer makes a case for John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy of three novels that transport readers to the "wild energy, brutal injustice, and disillusioned hopes of the young republic, from the turn of the 20th century through the First World War to the stock-market crash of 1929." He speculates that the work's focus on social history and class conflict, rather than the private dramas of individual characters, may be one reason why the author has not held up as a towering figure like his contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The debut novel of Pulitzer-winning Marilynne Robinson makes an appearance on the list, during the same week that her powerful new Reading Genesis is released 43 years later. "It’s a meditation on the transience of human existence, the meaning of family, and the burdens of kinship—and it marks the arrival of an exceptional American talent whose words can reach even the unlikeliest of audiences," writes Yair Rosenberg.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Despite the many controversies that have followed Franzen in his career, his breakout novel has had staying power. Amy Weiss-Meyer made a case for why the themes in this satirical novel are widely relatable, and said: "Almost everything is fair game for Franzen’s finely honed satire: capitalism, sex, child-rearing, pharmaceuticals, foodie culture, queer studies, WASP snobbery, cruise ships, cities, suburbs. The result is hilarious, cringe-inducing, and ultimately, somehow, deeply human."

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Kaitlyn Tiffany's concedes that sometimes The Last Samurai "is read as snobbish and rarefied because it puts so much emphasis on the acquisition of obscure knowledge." But she hooks us with her praise: "The book is funny and thrilling and a gift to posterity: DeWitt, to make a point about the capability of whoever is reading, includes fairly thorough instructions on learning ancient Greek."

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

Xochitl Gonzalez, whose new sophomore novel Anita de Monte Laughs Last was just released to great anticipation, makes a rousing recommendation for Ana Castillo's inventive novel from the aughts: "Religion, capitalism, sexual orientation, medicine, the military, marriage—all are placed under Castillo’s tender microscope and written about in prose that, like mystical smoke, lingers on the reader for years afterward."

Divorcing by Susan Taubes

Judith Shulevitz argues that Susan Taubes should have been known as a major American novelist, calling Divorcing "a rediscovered masterpiece, a raw, witty, and utterly original novel about the life and afterlife of a mordant female Jewish philosopher."

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

For anyone who is not already a Colson Whitehead completist, join us in venturing beyond his Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, to read what Jane Hu claims to be his most "mesmerizing" book: his first novel. "What makes The Intuitionist so remarkable is just how uncannily uneventful it is, while still managing to convey so much paranoia and dread."

See The Atlantic's entire list of the Great American Novels.

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