Readers Choose Today's Great American Novelist

Posted by Hayley on July 4, 2018


The Great American Novel is something of a moving target. The term, used to describe a work of fiction that accurately shows the culture of the country at a specific time, was first coined in 1868 by writer John William De Forest, who thought such a book should be by and about “eager and laborious people."

That was 150 years ago. Who's best reflecting our society now?

We asked you on Facebook and Twitter to tell us who you think is the greatest living American novelist. Check out the top picks—along with each author's most popular books on Goodreads—and join the comments to debate your fellow readers.


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Did your favorite not make the list? Share your pick for the greatest living American novelist in the comments!

Check out more recent blogs:
7 Great Books Hitting Shelves Today
July's Poetry Contest Winner: Portrait of My Family as a Pack of Cigarettes
The Best Audiobooks of 2018


Comments Showing 1-50 of 109 (109 new)


message 1: by Jay (new)

Jay DiNitto Don't Hosseini's novels mostly take place outside of the U.S.?


message 2: by Rowan (new)

Rowan Jay wrote: "Don't Hosseini's novels mostly take place outside of the U.S.?"

In locations torn apart largely by American interference, yes.


message 3: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Post Jay wrote: "Don't Hosseini's novels mostly take place outside of the U.S.?"

Should that matter? He's still an American novelist.


message 4: by Lyubov (new)

Lyubov Donna Tartt! <3


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

I can't believe Jonathan Franzen hasn't even made the list. Any of his novels can easily be called THE great American novel.


message 6: by Tsvetelina (new)

Tsvetelina Lyubov wrote: "Donna Tartt! <3"
YES <3


message 7: by Aubrey (last edited Jul 04, 2018 08:31AM) (new)

Aubrey Rowan wrote: "Jay wrote: "Don't Hosseini's novels mostly take place outside of the U.S.?"

In locations torn apart largely by American interference, yes."


Oh, the irony.

Also, 'Sing, Unburied, Sing' is linking to 'The Goldfinch' instead of the actual book page.


message 8: by Tova (new)

Tova Isn't Kristen Hannah from Australian? Not saying she shouldn't be on the list, but that was my impression.


message 9: by Courts (new)

Courts Tova wrote: "Isn't Kristen Hannah from Australian? Not saying she shouldn't be on the list, but that was my impression."

From her wiki page:

Hannah was born in California. She graduated from law school in Washington and practiced law in Seattle before becoming a full-time writer. She currently lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington,[3] with her husband and their son.


message 10: by Mathias (new)

Mathias Donna Tartt!! "The Goldfinch" is an epic read!!


message 11: by Anna (new)

Anna I think this is an excellent, fairly well rounded list. It represents a wide range of reading tastes with authors who have really proven themselves over and over again.


Sheryl_at_Ubookquitous Toni Morrison -- her novel each tackle a period of US History from Americans who experienced them in a narrative told in the voices that have too often gone unheard.


message 13: by Gayla (new)

Gayla Stephen King


message 14: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly Ann Louise Erdrich: she writes about the Pillagers and other Native American families, what it was and is like to be of a pushed aside (discarded) people.

Her work is believable, her characters are real.....

I am disappointed, but not surprised


message 15: by Anna (new)

Anna Elizabeth Hey! Donna Tartt made the list - my vote. I feel special haha.


message 16: by Holly (new)

Holly Jane Smiley isn't on the list, so not really motivated to vote.


message 17: by Pillsonista (last edited Jul 04, 2018 02:03PM) (new)

Pillsonista Is this meant to be serious, or what? Because I had a good laugh.


message 18: by David (new)

David Stephen King is certainly one of the most popular living American novelists, but his books are hardly "great american novels." Idk, horror and other genre fic isn't really what I think of when I hear that term and he really seems like the odd man out here.


message 19: by Doris (new)

Doris Maybe I haven't read enough of their works, but my impression is that, however great these authors may be, they have none of them written a "great American novel". Although I'm hard-pressed to identify a "great American novel" of the past 50 years. The Bonfire of the Vanities, maybe? No Country for Old Men comes closest, IMHO.


message 20: by Paul (new)

Paul O'Neill Dear Goodreads,

Please stop creating awesome lists of recommendations. My to-read pile can’t take it.


message 22: by Joe (new)

Joe Stamber Stephen King for me. I don't like everything he's done, but the variety and depth of his work is incredible. Many people dismiss him because they aren't genuinely familiar with the scope of his work.


message 23: by Mél (new)

Mél ☽ This is a good list!


message 24: by Andrea (last edited Jul 04, 2018 01:20PM) (new)

Andrea Rachel wrote: "Jay wrote: "Don't Hosseini's novels mostly take place outside of the U.S.?"

Should that matter? He's still an American novelist."


I think it should matter. The definition itself says "a work of fiction that accurately shows the culture of the country at a specific time". So, yes, the work must reflect the essence of U.S. and the life at any specific time period. There is a difference between being a great novelist, who happens to be American, and writing the Great American Novel. I think the article itself confuses the two notions.

That is why, for example, I wouldn't add King to the list. He is certainly a great American writer, as I think his work is remarkable and has had a vast impact on our culture, but I can't name a single novel of his that would reflect America and its voice, considering he writes mostly fantastic fiction.


message 25: by Joyce (new)

Joyce I had high expectations for Lincoln in the Bardo - but wound up barely getting through it. George Saunders should not be on the list in my opinion.


message 26: by Terri (new)

Terri Gulyas Kimberly wrote: "Louise Erdrich: she writes about the Pillagers and other Native American families, what it was and is like to be of a pushed aside (discarded) people.

Her work is believable, her characters are re..."


I agree! Excellent and provocative writing!


message 27: by Marianne (new)

Marianne Tova wrote: "Isn't Kristen Hannah from Australian? Not saying she shouldn't be on the list, but that was my impression."

According to Wikipedia she was born in California and lives in Washington State


message 28: by Brian (new)

Brian Thanks for this. Been looking for some leads on some good contemporary authors.


Carla (carlaslittlelibrary) Donna tart!!


message 30: by Alexw (new)

Alexw Jeff Shaara- His Civil war historical fiction is better than his Dad's( see Killer Angels)


message 31: by Donna (new)

Donna Krebs what about Amy Tan?


message 32: by Leo (new)

Leo Wonderer wrote: "I used to love Stephen King's stuff until I read "The Stand". Couldn't forgive him for all those lost hours slogging through it only to be bitchslapped by shameless and literal deus ex machina!

Ok..."


I agree with you on the Stand... it was a slogging but somewhat worthwhile read. The Dark Tower series, though, was actually an amazing work of fantasy. Sure, the Gunslinger was horrible, but in King's defense, it says in his author's note that it was something he came up with during his childhood. The Drawing of the Three and after that was much better, so I applaud him for making an amazing fantasy epic. Oh well, people have their own opinions. *Shrugs*


message 33: by Jgrace (new)

Jgrace Why are these polls done on facebook and twitter? Isn't this the main goodreads site? They should be posted here.


message 34: by Leo (new)

Leo Jgrace wrote: "Why are these polls done on facebook and twitter? Isn't this the main goodreads site? They should be posted here."

That's true, but maybe the other websites are more efficient.


Amy "the book-bat" Amy Tan and Louise Erdrich would both be excellent additions to this list.


message 36: by Emily May (new)

Emily May I guess this is a little premature as she only has two books, but I can definitely see Celeste Ng being on this list one day.


message 37: by Kristen (new)

Kristen Out of these options I would say Hosseini Khaled. I really wish he would write another book. I've loved every one he's written so far.


message 38: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Shifflet Anna wrote: "I can't believe Jonathan Franzen hasn't even made the list. Any of his novels can easily be called THE great American novel."

Completely agree.


message 39: by Christa (new)

Christa Pelc Are any of these happy or uplifting? Honest question. I’ve read some of these authors, and most of them are plain old depressing and heavy! There has to be Great American writer that can write something that wont make me feel depressed.


message 40: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I admire many of these authors, but my vote is for Stephen King. He's been relevant from the 1970s through today, his works have of course been made into dozens of movies, with Shawshank Redemption lauded as one of the greatest movies of all time. He is one of a hand full of authors most everyone could pick out in a line up. While not always the case, many of his works are deep and resonant.

His works have been so ubiquitous and so influential that even readers and non-readers alike can refer to his works in casual conversation and be understood.

I pulled up to the hotel, and it was The Overlook, only creepier.

Carrie had a better prom night!

Settle down, Cujo.

She's like Annie Wilkes, his #1 fan!

I hate clowns even before Pennywise.

Walking the Green Mile

Tunneling out with a rock hammer. Crawling through a river of...

He is guaranteed a spot on the NYT list. When you take public transportation, or see what people are reading in public, his books are most common, or only rivaled by JK Rowling.

I took a train trip last year, and I read The Shining on my Kindle, the woman two rows up was reading 11-23-63, another person was reading one that I forget.


message 41: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Joyce C wrote: "I had high expectations for Lincoln in the Bardo - but wound up barely getting through it. George Saunders should not be on the list in my opinion."

I really enjoyed it, but I get why it wouldn't be everybody's thing.


message 42: by Leo (new)

Leo Michelle wrote: "I admire many of these authors, but my vote is for Stephen King. He's been relevant from the 1970s through today, his works have of course been made into dozens of movies, with Shawshank Redemption..."

Amen to that!


message 43: by Jay (new)

Jay DiNitto Rachel wrote: "Jay wrote: "Don't Hosseini's novels mostly take place outside of the U.S.?"

Should that matter? He's still an American novelist."


I would think it matters, unless you want to stretch "American novelist" to strange lengths. If his novels are about Afghani people (primarily), I'd call him a great Afghani novelist, since those are their stories. It's approaching disingenuous--and imperialistic--to assume stories taking place elsewhere are somehow American.


message 44: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I think there's a difference between American novelist and a novel set in America/the United States, or at least that seems to be at the heart of the dispute.

Stories set elsewhere are not American, but their authors can be, which would make them American novelists as opposed to authors of ... Americana?


message 45: by Jason (new)

Jason Dennis Lehane should be on this list. His novels are incredible.


message 46: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Jason wrote: "Dennis Lehane should be on this list. His novels are incredible."

Yep, I was just sharing quotes from his books in another discussion.


message 47: by Jason (new)

Jason Any given day was an awesome journey.


message 48: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Yep, so good, and bonkers all the historical events that really happened in that brief span of time. Great setting all around.


message 49: by Amber (new)

Amber I enjoy Stephen Kings books and only read a few of his a year (except for It cuz that one was boring and can't read Cujo cuz I'm deathly afraid of dogs) but my fave author is Sherrilyn Kenyon from Tennessee and CJ redwine is great too. Brandon Sanderson is great too. 😀 I like a lot of different authors though.


message 50: by Genevieve (new)

Genevieve I think Jonathan Franzen should be added to this list.


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