Brow Beat

An American Rant: Stop Titling Everything “American”

In his review of American Horror Story, which premieres tonight on FX, Slate’s TV critic Troy Patterson writes that the show’s “title carries more weight than its content can bear.” He then quotes a book review by Joyce Carol Oates of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife:

Is there a distinctly American experience? The American, by Henry James; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser; The Quiet American, by Graham Greene; The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho—each suggests, in its very title, a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections…. ‘American’ is an identity fraught with ambiguity, as in those allegorical parables by Hawthorne in which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are mysteriously conjoined.

But wait: Are only Americans “fraught with ambiguity”? Oates lets these titles—and, especially, the many, many lesser books she might have mentioned—off the hook too easily. Too many books—and movies, and now TV shows—use the word “American” in their titles as a cheap shortcut to gravitas and sociological importance. 

It even bothers me when good books do this. Consider a novel about a New Jersey family rocked by the cultural upheaval that came to many countries in 1968. If you call that novel American Pastoral, you are bypassing both its local and its global resonance in favor of a grand American narrative in which your novel now participates.

Imagine if Melville had gone with An American Whale? Or, say, The American Sea Captain? Arguably no other novel has said as much about the United States as Melville’s Moby-Dick—but we don’t need the title to tell us that. There is something hectoring about such titles. American Teen. American Recordings. American Gangster. Hardly a month passes without a new “American” opus at the cinema, in the bookstore, or on television.

Besides bullying us with their national import, these titles often reinforce the fairly exaggerated ideas we tend to have about the uniqueness of this country. There are many things particular to and remarkable about the United States, but let’s not get carried away. Capitalism is not uniquely American (sorry, American Psycho). Suburbs are not uniquely American (sorry, American Beauty—the movie, I mean; and yes, plastic bags float in the wind in other countries, too).

What’s more, when we say “America,” we really mean the United States of America, though the more general name is (or should be) shared with other countries throughout “the Americas,” north and south. (Among the many reasons to be fond of David Foster Wallace: He consistently referred to, e.g., “U.S. fiction” and “U.S. popular culture,” phrases that lack the grandiosity of their “American” counterparts, but which are more accurate. And, of course, he refrained from naming his big novel American Jest.)

I’m reminded of another book review, this one by Jonathan Franzen of Alice Munro. Franzen began his review wondering why Munro’s “excellence exceeds her fame.” Reason #3, according to Franzen: “She doesn’t give her books grand titles like Canadian Pastoral, Canadian Psycho, Purple Canada, In Canada, or The Plot Against Canada.”

What Franzen doesn’t mention is that no Canadian writers do this—unlike capitalism and the suburbs, this affliction seems particular to the United States. Though I’m not sure: We Americans consume a notoriously small amount of foreign culture. Perhaps there are novels out there called Chinese Pastoral and Brazilian Gangster, Pakistani Teen and A Finnish Tragedy. Do any come to mind? (And I’m not thinking of such American opuses as The French Connection or The Italian Job—I mean works originating in their titular countries.)

If so, let me know in the comments.