There is a recent "literary tournament" mooted regarding the "Great American Novel" (later morphed into the "Great American Novelist" with an arbitrary, and much criticised, 4-book rule) on the Guardian book threads. This is just to record the names of novelists I nominated myself, or nominations from posters I agreed with, or simply look intriguing to investigate further. This is a preliminary list and will be updated once I have more time to delve into the threads in more details. (The numbers are not to be interpreted as rankings but simply to allow me to count to 16):
1. Toni Morrison
2. Carson McCullers
3. Kurt Vonnegut
4. Annie Proulx
5. Joyce Carol Oates
6. Jhumpa Lahiri / Louise Erdrich
7. Chang-Rae Lee
8. Norman Mailer
9. William Burroughs
10. Ursula K. Le Guin / Philip K. Dick (unfortunately discounted after further thought due to the universality of their speculative / science fiction that are not really about the American experience as such)
11. Saul Bellow / John Steinbeck / John Updike / Philip Roth
12. David Foster Wallace / Don DeLillo / Thomas Pynchon
13. Truman Capote / Raymond Chandler / Henry Miller
14. Charles Bukowski / Bret Easton Ellis / Jonathan Franzen / Chuck Palahniuk
15. Edith Wharton
16. Ernest Hemingway / William Faulkner / F. Scott Fitzgerald
Even in this little exercise it's clear that there are different leagues within the same field, if not determined by talent then at least by period and subject matter or angle. Not to mention the many, many authors not included simply they didn't fit the 4-novel arbitrary rule.
So sod the rules imposed by TenuousFive. For meaningful comparisons for my personal enjoyment of great American literature, I would actually sub-divide the above list (which comprises way more than 16 anyway as I started categorising authors in similar leagues as I perceive them with each other) into the following divisions (of at least four authors per group and in some instances, five authors each):
Division A: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Louise Erdrich (non-white American writers)
Division B: Joyce Carol Oates, Carson McCullers, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver (white female American writers)
Division C: Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe (white male American writers)
Division D: Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson (dissenting America)
Division E: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton (the gilded age)
Division F: Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Henry Miller, William Burroughs (America's underbelly)
Division G: David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy ("morally passionate, passionately moral fiction" in the words of DFW of a disillusioned contemporary America)
Division H: Thomas Pynchon, Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski, Chuck Palahniuk ("transgressional American fiction")
Division I: Joan Didion, Larry McMurtry, Susan Sontag, Tobias Wolff (authors who traverse the ground between fiction and faction).
To my mind's eye this is a far more meaningful list, not just tidier in terms of category but better in terms of allowing for some sort of like-for-like comparison (although some of the divisions themselves would also logically cluster together into a bigger group). I do now realise also how much more American literature I need to read in order to just be able to cover the recognised "bests". I know I may never be a completist regarding American literature though, but I do hope to be able to cover enough writings from the above authors to be able to make an informed judgement as to the quality of their writing vis-a-vis one another.
I would say though that I definitely have read enough of Anne Tyler to know she doesn't make the grade (And "Digging to America" is one of hers that I've read, when this was mooted as already Tyler's greatest by one of her fans), much as her supporters would love her to be recognised as a GAN. Unlike another poster though, I wouldn't call her a "chick-lit" author, just as I wouldn't call Amy Tan herself a "chick-lit" author, but I would put her in the same literary pen as Amy Tan, and that's no disrespect to either Tyler or Tan.
I know the very best of Chang-Rae Lee could equal a Toni Morrison, but the lack of Asian American writers with heft is indeed one of those ignored-but-hard-to-miss-bald spots on the Great American literary landscape, if not indeed, the Great English literary landscape itself. Unfortunately Asian American writers are also far more easily dismissed and discounted than other ethnic American writers, at least in Britain, where ethnic novelists apparently only come in the black or brown variety, and so the history of Chinese / Korean / Japanese Americans, and British people with East Asian heritage, continued to be told from the perspective of White novelists (a la J.G. Ballard) or even Black novelists (cf. Zadie Smith in "Autograph Man"). However sympathetic or even empathetic those novelists might be, they are not the genuine, authentic voices we seek.