Thoughts on the “9/11 Novel”

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m a little September-11thed out. Maybe it’s because I live in New York, maybe it’s because I read news all day, most likely it’s a combination of the two, but I’m more than ready to go back to how things were a month ago, when we beat the terrorists simply by caring about Kim Kardashian. After all, that’s the real American spirit: sheer unmitigated narcissism.

Not that the whirlwind of September 11 media coverage wasn’t to be expected, or that I haven’t done my share of thinking about what we’ve managed to “accomplish” as a nation in the last decade. I just feel a little worn down by the ubiquity of it all, a sentiment that culminated in this week’s kerfuffle over a New York Post item claiming Rachel Uchitel (of Tiger Woods and Celebrity Rehab fame) said she was “happy” her fiancé had died in the towers. Seriously America, this is why they hate us.

Surprisingly to me though, the media hoopla has also included a few articles on how books—and more specifically novels—fit into our remembrance of September 11. According to the BBC, 164 fiction books have been written about 9/11 since the attacks (in addition to 1,433 nonfiction titles.) In an essay published in 2009, author Zadie Smith wondered why we read September 11 books at all—after all, no one in 1915 clamored for a novel on the Lusitania. And The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Kirsch has questioned whether fiction as a genre is even capable of effectively describing tragedy.

There’s a part of me that sees Smith’s argument—perhaps our global obsession with commentary means we are too interested in (figurative) post-mortems—but a bigger part of me finds her indignation annoying. September 11 is hardly the first tragedy to receive attention in literature; per the BBC article, “the Spanish Civil War spawned Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; the bombing of Dresden gave rise to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five [and] the single bloodiest day in the history of human warfare, the Battle of Borodino in 1812, features in Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace.” (A cursory Amazon search also yields books on serial killers, Oklahoma City and Columbine.)

Personally, I never set out to read “a 9/11 book.” But through the years they wove their way onto my shelves, where I never found them ineffective approximations of tragedy, but rather nuanced explorations of a nation profoundly changed. See: the friendship formed between Hans van den Broek and Chuck Ramkissoon in Netherland. See: the darkly comic relief Joyce and Marshall Harriman feel about each other’s (inaccurately) presumed deaths in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. See: the arresting denouement of Falling Man. It’s silly to suggest that any author, let alone these authors, wrote a September11 novel as a response to some national demand for analysis. It seems far more likely that the need to process the attacks through literature was theirs internally.

Certainly, no novel—9/11 or otherwise—could compete on an emotional level with a personal memory, or even with a tragedy’s nonfiction (see: Survival in Auschwitz). But I don’t think anyone, including authors, expects otherwise. Fiction’s inability to live up to experience is a challenge the genre has always faced. It doesn’t exploit anything to admit that a few authors have risen to the occasion.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the “9/11 Novel””

  1. Interested to hear your thoughts on “A Separate Peace.” I read it when I was about 16 and found it profoundly moving… and bought a copy last year. I’ve been afraid to re-read it for fear that it won’t hold up the second time!

    1. Ditto. I read it in high school and remember only that it was beautiful and made me cry. So I bought it again last year and decided to do a re-read.

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