The literature of 9/11

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“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work … For those heading to an airport, the weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine.”

I spoke last week at the Karachi Literature Festival. It was somewhat out of my comfort zone but I joined the novelist HM Naqvi for a discussion entitled “The tenuous line between fiction and nonfiction”. I’ll spare you the gags but here are the rough points I made (and I used 9/11 to illustrate them, despite reasonable concerns about yet another of these discussions in Pakistan):

  • Writers of fiction and nonfiction both make a claim to truth and share techniques – using facts, telling a story
  • The literature of 9/11 suggests one way of examining the line, where it stands and what it means
  • In the aftermath, nonfiction has provided more of the must-read books. As this Guardian top 20 suggests
  • Novelists have struggled to deal with such huge events in a convincing manner. 9/11 was so shocking it seems difficult to weave a fictional story around. Maybe it is too soon?
  • The distinction then between nonfiction and fiction is not about the search for truth – writers of both fiction and nonfiction try to do both. And nonfiction might not necessarily be true (eg mistaken assertions)
  • It is more about the relationship between writer and audience. Writers have to invited the reader in, convince them they have built a plausible world. If the reader refuses, the book fails. Nonfiction writers simply claim their world to be true. Take it or leave it.
  • In other words truth can be stranger than fiction will allow. And there’s a Mark Twain quote along those lines that I badly paraphrased

Some reading I found useful in thinking all this through:

Nonfiction titles proved to be most enduring in decade after 9/11 attacks – but eventually the rawness will recede and novels will become a more important way of writing about those issues

In the shadow of the twin towers – contemporary Western literature simply cannot understand the motives of the terrorists. Simple empathy – the idea of getting inside the killers’ heads – fails because the perpetrators were incapable of understanding others

After the unthinkable – 9/11 novels might have a beginning, and perhaps they now have a middle but they don’t yet have an end.

Anyway, this all helped crystallise my thoughts on the line between fiction and nonfiction, and why it was that I had never much felt the need to read any of the novels that sprang up in the years after those events. I even found Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist – a writer that I admire and  a book that limits itself to some of the questions that a novelist might reasonably address – to be too achingly self-conscious about THE BIG QUESTIONS.

But now I’m going to put that right and see whether the novels I’ve avoided so far might be rather better than I’d previously allowed. So here’s a rough list:

Ian McEwan – Saturday

Jay McInerney – The Good Life

Jonathan Safran Foer – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

John Updike – Terrorist

Joseph O’Neill – Netherland

Claire Messud – The Emperor’s Children

Lorrie Moore – A Gate at the Stairs

Kamila Shamsie – Burnt Shadows

I have read Don Delillo’s Falling Man, I think. But I can’t remember it. So I suspect I found it unsatisfactory. Anyway, that’s my plan: To read these novels and see whether my prejudice stands up or falls. Does anyone want to join me? Or do you have any suggestions – good or bad???


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