Friday, September 9, 2011

What Should We Expect From 9/11 Fiction?

Four years ago, in a review of Don DeLillo's Falling Man, NY Times critic Michiko Kakutani noted that:
"not enough time has passed for any novelist to put the events of that day (9/11) and its shuddering consequences into historical perspective; perhaps not even enough time has passed for any novelist to grapple convincingly with those actual events, without being eclipsed by the documentary testimony (from newspaper articles, television footage and still photographs) still freshly seared in readers’ minds."
Does that seem right to you? I've wrestled with that sentence since I first read it four years ago. Part of me thinks she is right. Even now, 10 years later, it's still impossible to "grapple convincingly" with those events with any degree of perspective and detachment.

Part of me also thinks it's a too-easy dismissal for why, Kakutani would likely argue, there hasn't been a truly great 9/11 novel yet. But many readers, me included, would argue that there have been many very good ones.* And so why is historical perspective such a critical criteria for a great novel about an event? 

The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer, was published a mere three years after World War II ended, is still hailed as one of the best examples World War II fiction. James Jones' From Here to Eternity was published in 1952, seven years after the end of the war. It's also still regarded as a classic of World War II fiction.

I'll admit, two novels published half a century ago is slim evidence for the notion that it's possible to write a great novel based on an event soon after that event. But my point here is this: Perhaps the historical perspective Kakutani referred to is required not by novelists to write a truly great novel about an event, it's required by readers and critics to recognize and appreciate the true greatness of such novels. Once the historical perspective for the event itself melds with the historical perspective on the novel, then, and only then, do we recognize a novel's greatness as a depiction of that event.

In that review, Kakutani goes on to pan Falling Man as "small, unsatisfying and inadequate" — a sentiment with which I whole-heartedly disagree. If were to wager on any of the 9/11 novels I've read standing as the 9/11 novel, it'd be this one. (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a close second.)

Still, this question of what to expect from a 9/11 novel is one I think about frequently. And it's sort of shaped — positively or not, I have no idea — how I've read subsequent 9/11 novels.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to expect a great 9/11 still so relatively soon after an event? What would be the criteria for a great 9/11 novel? Or is a great 9/11 impossible until more time (how much) has passed? 

* The list I've read includes: Falling Man, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Netherland, The Garden of Last Days (Slate put this one on its worst 9/11 fiction list, with which I also lustily disagree), The Emperor's Children, and Let the Great World Spin

(By the way, the most emotionally stirring scene about 9/11 in any novel I've read is, strangely enough, in The Time Traveler's Wife. Henry knows what's about to happen, and gets up early just to quietly experience the world before it changes forever. Something about that scene really resonated with me. I think about it often.)


  1. We won't know the full historical ramifications of 9/11 for another 30 or 40 years. Yet authors will write about it, and their stories will change as perspective on the event changes. So no, authors should not wait to write their stories. Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" would have been a lot different had he known those Oklahomans headed to California would be deeply conservative and help elect Ronald Reagan governor. We're seeing several novels now written out of a 9/11, everything's damaged and falling apart perspective -- "Super Sad True Love Story," "Zone One" and "The Leftovers" come to mind.

  2. That's a good question. The reason I think why WWII was grasped so quickly afterwards and not 9/11 is because it was already wrapped up. Hitler died, Hiroshima was bombed, U.S had won. For 9/11, we're still living in the aftershock. We entered a war with no clear enemy and no clear ending, we got a guy executed (Saddam) who was deserving of his fate, but probably not tied with those events. Meanwhile Osama "died" in shrouded circumstances. Americans can gain perspective, because whatever happened, it's not over. And don't think I'm judging from my Canadian distance. I think most of the world is in the same boat.

  3. This is a great post and I think you're right that the historical perspective is more necessary for the general reader/critic population than it is for the author. It would be interesting to know how The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity were first received.

    I've only read one of the 9/11 novels you mentioned (EL&IC) and I'm pretty sure that's the only 9/11 novel I've read at all. I loved it, but really, the only way to know for sure if enough time has passed is for that time to pass and someone to read it then. But I don't think that means the books shouldn't be written or even that they're bad.

  4. I think that some authors jumped on to that subject rather quickly and others just dropped the ball-Salon has a good article about bad 9/11 fiction and it's worth reading.

    Ben makes a good point about WWII having more of a sense of closure than 9/11,which makes putting it into a fictional context that much more troubling. I wouldn't discourage any writer from engaging the subject but in my opinion,the better books about 9/11 will come within another ten or twenty years from now.

  5. . . . i think jess walter's the zero is a pretty darn good 9/11 novel . . .

  6. I'll go a bit of a different direction here and say that it's not time that is limiting satisfying 9/11 representations but the structure of the event itself. It happened so fast. One morning. Really a few hours in one morning. WWII happened over several years on every continent and effected people from every walk of life. Let's call 9/11 what it was; a really big fire started by a couple of planes.

    Big historical novels want big historical events. So much of what we mean by 9/11 didn't actually happen on 9/11: the fear, the wars, the slog-fest grinding of nation-building in places that don't really want it.

    Doesn't matter how much time passes--I don't know that we are going to get a "great" 9/11 novel.

    Also, try this test: what is the great Pearl Harbor novel? Or how about the great revolutionary war novel? Or Civil War novel?

    Strange as it seems, just because a significant historical event happened, doesn't mean that a great novel is in the offing.

  7. I've read all of the so-called 9/11 titles as you with the exception of The Garden of Last Days (which I'm now crossing off of my TBR list, thanks.) The Submission by Amy Waldman just recently bumped Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from its perch as my favorite. I read it a couple of weeks ago and still think about it on a daily basis. I highly recommend it.


  8. Thought you might find this article interesting in light of the discussion:

  9. I should mention that it's not the point of the article, necessarily, that I myself am pointing out, but rather the earlier discussion of bringing the event to art or fiction.

  10. Throughout history, books and songs and movies and moving speeches have been made in the face of serious stuff. I think that often we tell ourselves that we need to look at events after a certain amount of time, yet some of the best stuff has come from times mid-turmoil. I am not all that emotionally charged by 9/11 but I don't think that it's something connected to a cosmic time line that will change over a specific period of socially sanctioned time.

    Whether written the day of or years into the future, fiction or any art, should reflect emotion, intelligence and feeling of the writer as an observer. To give art a time constraint seems to make little sense to me.

  11. William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition addresses 9/11 at least obliquely, and, for me, did a good job of capturing the feeling of being overwhelmed and unsure of how to contextualize those events. I don't know that anyone would call PR a 9/11 novel, but it's worth a mention. As to whether it's possible to write anything that could eclipse readers' built-up memories and associations from the news of that time, a lot of the kids I teach (7th graders) are on the cusp of becoming sophisticated readers, and many of them have little or no sense of the actual events of 9/11 or any documentary testimony that hasn't been filtered and re-filtered. I wonder if there's a good book out there for them about this pivotal event in our history--any recommendations?

  12. Great post. This is one of the questions up for debate in my thesis on this very topic... I'm looking at Falling Man, Saturday (Ian McEwan) and Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid) because I want an American response, a Western but not American response and a non-Western, non America response. To get some perspective.

    I listened to a podcast that was recorded not too long after the attacks where they were discussing when we would get to read the response to 9/11 that matched Tolstoy's War and Peace (as a response to the Napoleonic Wars). The link to that discussion is here: Personally I think that the more interesting approach is not to wait for The Response but to look at the responses that have been produced so far. They tell us a lot about the political climate, the reactions of the people from various places in the world and lend us a space to see some things through a emotionally removed place where social critique is possible. No piece of fiction is without flaws, but I wouldn't want them to be because I feel like even the flaws tell us something.

    Other post-9/11 novels I read included: The Zero by Jess Walter; Man in the Dark by Paul Auster and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus. All have something to add and offer a way in to understanding the reactions to and consequences of that day.

    Thanks for this post!

  13. This is a great post, Greg! I know that I'm not ready to read books on 9/11, Katrina, Tsunami of '04, etc. I feel these memories are far more recent and I can't yet go and get books or movies on this topic. But I'm sure 20 or 30 years down, I will not have these issues. These events will be historical then, but as a reader, I will be detached enough to read them objecively and not have my still very strong opinions cloud my reading experiences.

  14. @Richard - Really interesting point about Grapes of Wrath. I'm not sure rash of dystopian novels is a direct effect of 9/11 as much as it is a direct effect of our charged political climate, which I guess you could probably trace back to 9/11. Ah, hell.

    @Ben - Good point, Ben - it's true that it was a singular event, but it seems like your logic should work in reverse. It should've taken longer to absorb and comprehend a long, much-more-complicated event like a war than a single attack. Either way, though, our notion of how the literature that arises from those events will change as time passes and our notions of those events change, also.

    @Red - I could be wrong, but I think both of those WWII novels were very well-received when they were published. I think The Naked and the Dead is Mailer's first (of an impossibly huge number) novel, and pretty much launched his career. And I couldn't agree with you more that not enough time passing is an excuse not to write about an event. That kind of seems to be the subtext to Kakutani's sentence, and I think that's what bothers me about it.

    @lady t - I saw that Salon article (it's linked above), but stopped reading after it panned The Garden of Last Days, which I liked. Regarding closure, in all reality, both events had the same closure since 9/11 was a one-time event. The aftermath of both events, though, or how each event affected lives is what is fertile ground for fiction, and frankly, I think there's a better chance for better fiction immediately following those events than 10 or 20 years or some other arbitrary time period in the future.

    @Jonathan - I've heard that from many, many people - it's on my shelf, staring me down even more intently now.

    @ReadingApe - The thing is, though, I think there ARE satisfying, indeed, great, 9/11 representations - which is why I have so much trouble with Kakutani's sentence above. But I do agree that 9//1 is the touchstone for much of the fertile literary ground of what came next. I'm not sure about Pearl Harbor or Revolutionary War, but THE great Civil War novel is The Killer Angels. That sucker even won the Pulitzer!

  15. @chronicles - I've read a lot about The Submission and am very intrigued - glad to hear it highly recommend. It's going in my next book order. (Definitely don't cross of The Garden of Last Days off your list - I really enjoyed that book!)

    @Steph - Thanks for the link - I really enjoyed this sentence in particular: We go to great art and literature not as a way of wasting time, but as a way of redeeming time. We go to art and literature not as a way of escaping reality, but as a way of forcing us back to facing reality.

    @Iwriteinbooks - Yeah, I also don't think after some arbitrary amount of time has passed, suddenly some writer will be instantly inspired to write the greatest of all 9/11 novels. To give art a time constraint makes little sense to me, too (and I love that line - well put!).

    @Sam - I'll have to look into Pattern Recognition - thanks for the rec. As far as a good 9/11 novel for 7th graders, I'd try Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It's a novel that works on a number of levels with a number of possible interpretations - might be a good way to have discussions about the event. And very interesting about the sort of threshold of age where the event itself becomes lost amidst the reinterpretations and re-filters of the event.

    @Kath - Great comment! Thanks for the link to the podcast, I'll definitely check that out. And of course, I'll be interested to hear what answers you come up with to this very difficult questions.

    @Aths - That's an interesting perspective. I'm not sure that I agree having a very strong opinion "cloud" (though I wouldn't use that choice of words) my reading experience is necessarily a bad thing. We bring strong opinions and emotions about just about tons of other things into the novels we read - i.e who we are always influences how were read. But, of course, if novels about disasters aren't what you want to read because you're worried they'll make you feel a certain way, then of course, that's your right. Read, and let read, as I like to say. ;)

  16. re: The Garden of Last Days. For some inexplicable reason, I read your comment as "lustily agree" rather than "disagree." Blerg. Putting it back on!