Exploring and Explaining Epic Fiction

What makes a novel an epic novel?

That kind of book often is long, contains many characters, is set in various places, has a story line spanning multiple years and even generations, and is filled with consequential events — such as war, adventure, quests, travel, societal changes, family feuds, and/or confrontations with evil. Readers react with adjectives such as “sweeping” and “action-packed.”

On the other hand, an epic novel usually is not solely focused on a romance (though a romance or three might be part of the mix), usually is not funny (though it might have humorous moments), and often does not depict characters in a deeply analytical way. That means authors such as Jane Austen and Henry James wrote great novels but not epic novels.

Also, epic novels might or might not be literary, and might or might not fall into the historical-fiction category.

Why am I blathering on about this? Well, I’m currently reading Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, which definitely qualifies as an epic work. The mostly Oregon-set novel is long (my edition is 715 pages of small type), has a large cast, jumps around in time, and features a bitter strike in a lumber town. There’s also intense ill will between two half-brothers — the older a “tough guy,” and the younger a more educated type who returns to Oregon after many years in the East. Tour de force writing, too.

The book by Kesey (best known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) reminds me a bit of John Steinbeck’s earlier East of Eden. Very different novels, but they share a mostly West Coast milieu, a multigenerational span, and almost biblical sibling strife.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is also kind of epic in its way. While it takes place over a relatively short period of time, the author ambitiously depicts the Joad family’s quest to find a better life by traveling from drought-stricken Oklahoma to the supposed promised land of California. Added to the stew are depictions of death, class differences, social injustice, resistance, and more.

Any piece about epic novels can’t omit perhaps the most epic novel of all: Leo Tolstoy’s massive War and Peace, whose title is self-explanatory. There’s also Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and its obsessed Captain Ahab, almost mythical white whale, rich prose, etc. And Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which says just about everything that can be said about race in America and related topics.

Or how about the multigenerational masterpieces of magic realism One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)?

Then there’s James Clavell’s nearly 1,000-page historical novel Shogun, which skillfully combines a detailed look at early 17th-century Japan, a clash of Eastern and Western traditions, a cross-cultural romance, plenty of violence, much maneuvering for power, other kinds of intrigue, and so on.

Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque Don Quixote — a novel published around the time Shogun was set — is also epic in its adventures, explorations of madness vs. sanity, etc. And funnier than most epic novels.

More recently, we have Eleanor Catton’s sprawling, intricate The Luminaries, set in the time of New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush; and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which bounces from New York City to Nevada to Amsterdam as it tackles terrorism, the importance of art, and more.

Also sort of epic are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (war, media, environmentalism, and other manifestations of U.S. society); Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (immigration, industrialism, gender identity, and more); and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (immigration again, the Latino/Latina experience in America, pop culture, etc.).

Semi-eligible for this discussion are various trilogies and series. They can of course be epic — think J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels — but their multiple-book nature gives authors the advantage of more time and space to achieve epic-ness.

Your favorite epic novels? How would you define what makes a novel epic?

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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.