9/11 and Literature: Why Do We Look to Writers For Answers and Explanations?

Dr Catherine Morley, University of Leicester

Dr Catherine Morley, University of LeicesterIn the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 writers from across the globe were solicited for their reactions to the monstrous spectacle of the day. As early as 12 September, the British writer Ian McEwan wrote of his confused state as he faced the compelling horror of the events as they appeared on the television screen in front of him. But by comparison to some of his American contemporaries, McEwan was a little late off the mark. Paul Auster, for instance, recorded his impressions on the very day itself. By 20 September 2001 Dinitia Smith, writing in the New York Times, called upon a host of writers, including Joan Didion, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, to elucidate their thoughts on the future of writing in the wake of 9/11. This process of consultation with writers continued on both sides of the Atlantic, so that by 30 September John Dugdale observed that: ‘Among the writers who have written about the World Trade Center bombing so far are Martin Amis, Peter Carey, Amitav Ghosh, David Grossman, Ian McEwan, Jay McInerney Susan Sontag, John Updike and Jeanette Winterson.’

This immediate deluge of literary responses has been mirrored in the protracted prose responses in the few short years since 2001. Despite Norman Mailer’s edict to Jay McInerney to ‘wait 10 years … It will take that long for you to make sense of it’, a swarm of novels have appeared. McInerney himself ignored the advice of the older writer, publishing The Good Life in 2006, a year which also saw the publication of Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. Such novels, it seems, ignore the presence of the Muslim other, preferring instead to focus on the interior, domestic worlds of their American protagonists and the acrimonious state of their affairs.

There have, of course, been exceptions to this. John Updike’s Terrorist (2006) takes the reader into the mind and the world of a would-be, home-grown jihadist, Ahmad Mullaway Mulloy. The British-born, Princeton-educated Mohsin Hamid, albeit ironically and through parodic inversion, takes on the terrorist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2006) in which the Pakistani ‘fundamentalist’ resists the fundamentals of the corporate New York lifestyle. Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) merges the domestic with the public, bringing his domestic protagonist into direct contact with his Muslim enemy through the novel’s protracted metaphor of ‘organic shrapnel.’ And, needless to say, writers outside the borders of the US have taken on the Muslim subject more willingly and more successfully than their American counterparts.

As others have observed, the widespread public soul-searching of writers in the days and weeks after the attacks is an important gauge of the public position of the writer in the contemporary world. Why was it that writers were called upon to explain or offer insights into the events? In what way would they be able to offer accounts any more illuminating than one’s own experience of 9/11? And how could the writer offer any more than what was offered by the endless reportage and documentaries of the day?

It seems the reading public seeks a narrative that will weave the multitudinous stories of 9/11, the stories of victims, survivors, witnesses and perpetrators, into some kind of coherence that speaks to a subjective sense and experience of the moment. In this way, writers can bring together the documentary and the emotional. Indeed, such was the case in the slew of early responses which were largely accounts of subjective experiences. Unfettered by the constraints of objective reportage, writers can create fictional spaces upon which the reader can graft his/her own story and emotional responses to the tragic events of the day. What readers seemed to look to writers for, in the aftermath of 9/11, was a unifying narrative (a plot, if you will) to make sense of their own chaotic responses to the events.

Catherine Morley is Lecturer in the School of English and Centre for American Studies. She has published numerous articles on literary responses to 9/11 and is currently completing a literary study of American Modernism.


  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 17/09/2011 at 09:18 | Permalink

    “Unfettered by the constraints of objective reportage, writers can create fictional spaces …….”

    That applies to 100% of newspapers and 98% of other media. Even on Radio 4, a politically sensitive news item reported in full at 1pm will have had the detail removed by 6pm. Immediately after 9/11 all the news media was a fictional space.


  2. Richard Hagan
    Posted 16/09/2011 at 19:20 | Permalink

    Newspapers. Because you used the word “we” I thought you meant that they had written books that the public had bought but by we you meant journalists. At one time there were journalist that the public respected for the quality of their writing but even ten years ago that had ceased to be true and a “name” is required to get any attention. Clearly it did not get mine.

    We know how many people bought the papers but not how many read the articles. In such times, papers that normally tell the truth lie about events. That, combined with the orgy of cliche and speculation in which they indulge leads discerning readers to turn the pages, putting the paper aside before page 5. Watching the rolling news channels with the sound off to absorb the images was the best way to make sense of the events at the time. Dead murders are less scary than live ones, as the IRA will testify, which is why they invented Fox News.

    I read Falling Man because I like DeLillo’s images but, for me he missed the true significance of the event. This was The Black Hand and the towers were Franz Ferdinand. The event’s greatest significance was that it became the excuse for war that was long sought.


  3. Rural Retreat
    Posted 16/09/2011 at 18:41 | Permalink

    I loved this line “Unfettered by the constraints of objective reportage, writers can create fictional spaces upon which the reader can graft his/her own story” because if you swapped the word “writers” for “George Bush” it would compel in the same way.


  4. Richard Hagan
    Posted 08/09/2011 at 21:33 | Permalink

    They all kept it very quiet. These are famous authors but I have not heard of a single publication by them immediately after 9/11. Where were these writings published?


    Catherine Morley Reply:

    As mentioned in the opening paragraph, these initial responses were recorded in various US newspapers including the New York Times. Here in the UK pieces penned by Amis, McEwan and many others appeared in the Guardian, the Times and the Telegraph.


  5. Frank Dawson
    Posted 07/09/2011 at 18:23 | Permalink

    Fascinating piece. I suppose a key question is whether that unifying narrative can ever really exist given competing attempts to lay down a narrative of the events?


  6. Stanley Cullis
    Posted 07/09/2011 at 17:05 | Permalink

    This seems a very lucid and elegant argument, although I have to say I don’t think many of the 9/11 books are much cop. It’s all me, me, me with American writers, isn’t it? You end up yearning for a bit of the good old stiff upper lip. But that aside, Catherine Morley’s argument strikes me as thoroughly convincing. Good stuff!


  7. Gervillian Swike
    Posted 07/09/2011 at 16:48 | Permalink

    What a terrific article! I only wish all academics wrote like this. In my own student days at the University of Wolverhampton (Telford campus) I would have loved to have had a lecturer like Dr Catherine Morley. Oh well; I can but dream.


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