February 3, 2023

Capturing 9/11 in literature: is it too soon?

Writers, like the rest of us, realised the consequential enormity of that day. Indeed, soon after 9/11, Martin Amis noted, “all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.” Some writers were compelled to write about the events of that day and immediacy was important: in the raw aftermath, writers instinctively scrambled to interpret this changed world that we now inhabited. Those writers that did not consciously write about 9/11, may have unconsciously allowed their emotions or experiences to permeate their work in any case (see the debate surrounding Amy Waldan’s novel, The Submission). Others will have avoided the subject at all costs.

As such, there are two types of post-9/11 novel: the one that consciously uses the atrocity as a backdrop, a scene; and the one that unconsciously explores the themes highlighted by that day. Post-9/11 novels include:

  • Windows on the World by Frederic Beigbeder (2003)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibley Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
  • A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus (2006)
  • Terrorist by John Updike (2006)
  • Falling man by Don Delillo (2007)

Some credible authors are included in that list, and yet I can’t quite bring myself to read any of these novels. For me, the line between fiction and reality was not just blurred by the events of 9/11, but erased altogether. How then, can writers use this real horror as a setting for a fictional piece, replacing real lives and real narratives with imagined ones?

Of course, life informs fiction, and the penning of post-9/11 novels was inevitable. There are those who would argue that novels based on wars and tragedies throughout history, are equally as insensitive, but the primary distinction here, is time: is it too soon?

In his essay, In the Ruins of the Future, published in December 2001, Don DeLillo aknowledges the ‘realness’ of 9/11: “When we say a thing is unreal, we mean it is too real, a phenomenon”. He goes on:

The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon? We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted. But language is inseparable from the world that provokes it.

But perhaps enough time has now passed, I don’t know (can you ever know?). For me, the trouble lies in depiction and interpretation: can a novel truly capture the terror of that day; truly express the emotions of an entire population, the emotions of that fictional character, that falling man? Perhaps it is time to admit that even fiction has its limitations. Perhaps truth actually is stranger than fiction.

I’m not against the writing or publication of post-9/11 fiction; indeed the bravery of the writer should be admired. These post-9/11 stories and novels are necessary for the documentation of our history, for the narrative of our society. These post-9/11 stories and novels, at least the good ones, will have their day, if not in this lifetime, then definitely the next.

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1 Comment on Capturing 9/11 in literature: is it too soon?

  1. This is a subject very close to my heart, as I am in the process of writing a novel which deals with the fallout from that day. I’m fascinated by literature about 9/11. Indeed, I wrote my Masters dissertation on the elegy after 9/11, looking at Simon Armitage’s long poem, “Out of the Blue” and seeing how this kind of mass mediated event is dealt with in poetry; the ways in which elegy has had to adapt to this new form of public disaster.

    I read Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” recently, and really loved it. I thought it captured the subdued atmosphere following the attacks really well. His characters don’t know how to react.

    I’m very aware of the ethical concerns surrounding my own writing, but I sincerely believe that an event with such a global impact should be represented in art.

    I have an article being published in Social Alternatives (Vol 32, No 3) about poetic representations of 9/11 with a focus on the Armitage poem. I know that there is at least one other essay that deals with graphic representations of 9/11.

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