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Why the 9/11 novel has been such a contested and troubled genre

Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

Why the 9/11 novel has been such a contested and troubled genre

Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

Thousands of people have visited the memorial site, conspiracy theories continue to proliferate and for many the sense of loss is still visceral. After 15 years, the terrorist attack that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York continues to capture the imagination.

Over these 15 years, a diverse range of artistic and cultural responses have attempted to understand and give meaning to the events now known as 9/11. One medium that has had substantial critical attention has been the novel. And we can learn much from this attention. The ways in which these novels were anticipated, criticised and frequently linked to debates about the wider role of fiction in society evoke compelling questions about how we now see the attacks.

In some ways, the high profile critical debates that surrounded these novels and placed so much importance on them, actually reinforced George W Bush’s assertion that “on September 11 night fell on a new world”. And in doing so, some argue that they undercut the complex prehistories and aftermaths of 9/11, giving it inflated importance in the world narrative.

Writing terror

Even before there were such novels, the apparent need for literary interpretations of the attacks reflected just how incomprehensible they felt for many. And perhaps because 9/11 was such a visual spectacle, newspapers and magazines sought literary authors – experts at exploring the human condition through the written word – to interpret or narrate the trauma.

Early essays by Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis and John Updike spoke to other popular non-fiction responses, like the New York Times’ sombre Portraits of Grief profiles that appeared throughout the autumn of 2001. These literary authors also reflected on the difficulty of writing fiction about “unimaginable” events. This, of course, stoked anticipation for the inevitable 9/11 fiction to come: how would authors attempt to represent the “incomprehensible”?

Twin tower to twin couple.

When novels from DeLillo, Claire Messud, Jay McInerney and Ken Kalfus arrived, critics were quick to note striking similarities. These novels, all of which appeared between 2006 and 2007, focused on the ways privileged white New Yorkers dealt with trauma. And all of them did so through marriage or relationship narratives.

Discussing these novels in an article titled The End of Innocence, Pankaj Mishra asked with incredulity: “Are we meant to think of marital discord as a metaphor for post-9/11 America?” For Mishra, it was particularly galling that DeLillo – who has been so insightful about terrorism – was “retreating like McInerney and Kalfus into the domestic”.

Scholarly articles by Richard Gray and Michael Rothberg followed, similarly criticising those same novels for their “failure” to engage with otherness and the geopolitics of 9/11. Gray was trenchant: “The crisis is in every sense of the word, domesticated.”

Mishra, Gray and Rothberg all felt that fiction should be doing things that the mainstream media and US government responses were not – offering nuanced articulations of the geopolitics of the war on terror and the rise of fear and xenophobia in the US and the West.

But this position was challenged by scholars such as John Duvall and Robert P Marzec, who pointed to canonical novels like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), which registered the traumas of World War I precisely in this way – through domestic settings. Perhaps the strongest response came from Catherine Morley, who criticised the Mishra, Rothberg and Gray perspective that “fiction is no more than a political tool”.

Clearly, the debate about the 9/11 novel evoked larger ideas about what fiction is for and how it should deal with crisis or catastrophe in the 21st century.

A defining moment?

However polarised the debate became, both sides ascribed great importance to the 9/11 novel – and in doing so they also reinforced the idea of 9/11 as a defining moment. In 2008, this was pointed out by Zadie Smith. Discussing a new novel by Joseph O’Neill, Smith sardonically criticised the disproportionate interest in the 9/11 novel:

It’s the post–September 11 novel we hoped for. (Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?) It’s as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence.

The reference here to the Lusitania sinking and the Bhopal chemical disaster in India, which took the lives of many more people than 9/11 did, is pointed. Smith is clearly voicing a suspicion that the intense attention attached to the 9/11 novel is linked to an American exceptionalism that shrouds other moments, events and perspectives in contemporary history.

Recent books like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, O’Neill’s Netherland and Amy Waldman’s The Submission have answered the calls of Mishra, Gray and Rothberg in their more politically engaged or international narratives.

In many ways, they have also retained aspects of the earlier texts and we can certainly now see the 9/11 novel as a genre. Marriages and relationships are at the centre of all of these novels and they also continue to explore the way privileged Americans absorb and respond to trauma.

Perhaps the book that most clearly aligns with Zadie Smith’s position, though, is Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Bleeding Edge goes the furthest in challenging the singular importance attached to 9/11 in its intertwined historical narrative, weaving in the significance of the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and a history of the internet’s transition from an anarchic to a completely corporate space.

It is certainly the case that the reception and debates around the 9/11 novel have been as informative as the novels themselves. The genre continues to provide food for thought on how we remember the attacks.