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Writing the Great American non-Novel 2010-May-12 at 12:37 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.

I don’t read much fiction.  With a couple of notable exceptions, I’ve never been moved by fiction.  I get done reading a work of fiction, and I always think, “You know, you could have said that in like 20 pages.”  So I never really understood the desire of writers to “write the Great American Novel”… I didn’t know what they were trying to accomplish, or why they even wanted to, or what in their experience made them think it was worthwhile.

I just caught an interview on Charlie Rose with Norman Mailer’s widow, and in it, he showed a clip from Norman where he talked about how he thought that he had written some good novels, but that he hadn’t written the “Great American Novel” yet… the one that people would read and it would change their lives.

The only work of fiction that did that for me was The Fountainhead, but I was 16 when I first read it, and interestingly enough that book doesn’t ever make it to the list of “Great American Novels”.  Every time I’ve read a “great” novel since then I’m just bored… not interested in the characters, not interested in the story, forcing my way through it.

What has moved me, over and over, is non-fiction.  The books that have had the most impact on me have always been prose, and always non-fiction.  Until today, I simply couldn’t imagine that that wouldn’t be true for someone else… that they would be moved far more by fiction than non-fiction.  It still seems a little weird to me, but that’s why we’re all different, I guess.  And then it clicked… I’ve read lots of “Great American” (and foreign) books, but they just weren’t novels; for me, they were non-fiction.

And since I now understand this… I think it’s worth stating a new goal for my book.  I want to write the Great American non-Novel.  I want to write the book that people read and get excited about.  I want it to change perspectives on their lives, on their communities, and on the universe.  In musical terms, I want to write intelligent pop.

And I want it to happen with my first book, although I don’t want to be the cliché of the person who writes his great first book and then tries to live up to it for the rest of his life.  I suspect there will be more good ones.

But I may as well publicly state this: the first book is going to be great.  I won’t settle for anything less.



1. Mike Wise - 2010-May-12 at 13:37 PDT

Good fiction is deep and complex. You couldn’t do “Satanic Verses”, “Catch22”, “Snow Crash” , or “Fire upon the Deep” in 20 pages. These works have tons of ideas that are explored in depth.

2. Scott Arbeit - 2010-May-12 at 17:03 PDT

I’m sure you’re right… and I’ll probably never know. It’s just not a form in which I find ideas are well-communicated. Fiction is just entertainment to me; if you have serious ideas, it’s not the place I’m going to get them from. I’m just acknowledging it, and realizing that I’m writing for all of the people who respond to non-fiction. I’m sure that, over the coming years, we’ll see more and more Integral fiction, but it won’t be from me.

3. Brian Harp - 2010-May-14 at 07:56 PDT

Hey – I have a friend that wrote a first novel that made the NY times best seller list and Oprah’s reading list – I’ll see if he is willing to speak with you about his experience if you are interested.

4. Scott Arbeit - 2010-May-16 at 17:44 PDT

Brian… wow. That’s a dream spot for a writer, of course. I’m definitely going to keep this in mind. When I have a finished product, and it’s getting towards publishing, I might revisit this. For now… I hate to ask anyone for their time when all I have is “I’m going to write a book” rather than “I just finished writing a book.” :-)

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