Norman Mailer once advised another author to wait 10 years before writing about the attacks of September 11 because “it will take that long for you to make sense of it.”
The estimate by the prominent New York novelist and journalist, who died in 2007, may have been premature. As the world marks a decade since the attacks, literary circles are still waiting for a definitive work on the topic.
“The world has changed since 9/11 and our culture has changed but I haven’t yet seen the book or the movie or the poem or the song that captures the people we are now and helps us redefine who we are in this new post 9/11 world,” journalist Lawrence Wright told Reuters.
Wright wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning account entitled “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”.
While publishers are bringing out a slew of new works, reruns of memoirs, survivor tales, Iraq war stories and fiction books tackling September 11 and its aftermath, writers are still making sense of an altered era.
Movies and television are often inspired by playwrights and novelists. But Broadway has yet to produce a significant play directly about September 11 and no novel dealing with the attacks has been a top bestseller or come to redefine a changed collective psyche.
Celebrated names such as John Updike, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo have all produced fiction stories. Many have written from either the militant’s perspective or painted the post-September 11 era with a broad apocalyptic brush.
Kiss of death
Amis’ “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” (2006) imagined the last days of one Sept 11 hijacker while Updike’s “Terrorist,” (2006) centered on a U.S.-born Muslim teenager set in a decaying New Jersey. Neither won major awards.
DeLillo’s “Falling Man” (2007) concerned a World Trade Center survivor and included several chapters told from the perspective of one of the hijackers. While applauded for its descriptions of the attacks, it received mixed reactions.
Non-American writers have also weighed in: H.M. Naqvi’s “Home Boy,” (2009), Chris Cleave’s “Incendiary” (2005), Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” (2009), Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown” (2005) and Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”. Some were heralded for challenging orthodox interpretations of terrorism and of the attacks.
But writers admit the process is slow. McEwan, whose novel “Saturday” (2005) reflected what he has called “a general darkening and gathering pessimism since the … attacks”, told Reuters back then it could be years until a definitive post September 11 novel was written.
Others, such as Florida author Andre Dubus III, whose novel “The Garden of Last Days” was critically well received but sold sluggishly, told Reuters the public wasn’t ready to embrace such tales.
“My novel did very well until the word got out that it had something to do with 9/11 then it kind of fell off the radar,” he chuckled. “It was like the kiss of death, it was like, ‘Oh I am not reading about 9/11’– and I can understand that.”
Dubus said he never set out to write “a 9/11 novel,” and even cut his ending of the hijacker inevitably slamming into the twin towers for “treading on really sacred ground.”
“Were we ready to write about this? I don’t think anyone was ready to read about it,” he said. “As we get to the 10th anniversary, I have a hunch Norman Mailer was right. We are just at the cusp of being ready to look back with any degree of perspective, that we need emotionally, to see it more clearly.”
Toll on culture
Some believe authors were subject to harsher reviews due to the sensitivity of the topic. Others, such as Amy Waldman, a former New York Times reporter whose new novel “The Submission” imagines a jury that chooses a Muslim-American architect to design a September 11 memorial, think it foolish to expect a single novel to capture the era.
“Why should we expect one novel to capture an experience that was so diverse in both its facets and how people experienced it and the way it affected America? That is a lot of pressure to put on a single novelist,” she said.
Nonfiction books, especially straight after the attacks, were easier to digest by readers hungry for information. Official and non-official accounts, even with dry titles like “The 9/11 Commission Report,” were bestsellers.
History has shown that traumatic events can take decades to process, said ACLU president Susan Herman. It took decades for the United States to officially apologize for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, a theme dealt perhaps most poignantly in David Guterson’s 1994 novel “Snow Falling on Cedars.”
Journalists, she said, immediately had to address the post September 11 era effects such as the Patriot Act, an October 2001 law that gave expanded powers to U.S. law enforcement agencies, but “individuals who are writing books, stories, plays, poems don’t really have the same ethical obligation.”
Wright said Americans were still trying to come to terms with September 11 and its impact on their lives.
“We are not comfortable with who we are. We are still in a period of discovery. Certainly 9/11 was a shock and there was bound to be a lag before people were able to address it in a cogent way,” Wright said.
“In terms of post 9/11 artistic production, the escapist factor has far outweighed the enlightenment factor. And maybe it indicates a longing to retreat from the confrontation with the complexities of the new world that we find ourselves in.”