Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do Events Impact Literature? (Or Vice-Versa?)

Ten years after the tragic events of Sept 11, 2001, authors are using the anniversary to look back and interpret the state of the world today, and the impact the attack on the World Trade Center has had on the lives of all of us.

Some question how the events have impacted literature--or if they have at all. I suppose I am more curious about how literature has impacted the way the world has moved, and thought, and reacted in the wake of that tragedy.

What words have since been written that would not have been written otherwise? Plenty. But of those words that were suddenly brought to the page, what impact have they had on our lives? What has changed because of those words; what have we learned about ourselves and each other that we would have never learned without those words?

That is the true importance of literature. Not, what impact have events had on the written word, but what impact the written word has on the events of our lives.

This article, "A compelling narrative from an unlikely source"by DAVID L. ULIN of the Los Angeles Times takes a look at the issue:


Ten years later, we know this is not what has come about. Whatever else the legacy of Sept. 11 might be, its effect on literature appears, at best, diffuse. Yes, there was a time, in the middle of the decade, when nearly every work of fiction seemed to contain an echo of the tragedy, from the fiercely fragmented vision of Deborah Eisenberg's "Twilight of the Superheroes" to the impending doom with which Paul Auster ends "The Brooklyn Follies." And yes, the debate over literature's relevance lingered; in 2005, V.S. Naipaul told the New York Times that "if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material."

Where, though, is the transformative book about Sept. 11, the one that, like Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" or Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," evokes its emotional resonance? O'Brien calls this "story-truth," which he distinguishes from "happening-truth": "I want you to feel what I felt," he writes. And: "What stories can do, I guess, is make things present." That's what literature has traditionally provided - "the buzz of implication," as E.M. Forster put it - yet for whatever reason (the scope of the event, its ambiguity and chaos) such implication has been, in most writing about Sept. 11, hard to find.

Or maybe I'm just looking in the wrong place. Over the last few weeks, I've been re-reading "The 9/11 Commission Report: The Attack from Planning to Aftermath" (W.W. Norton: 640 pp., $14.95 paper), which, in its calm, considered way, encompasses all the implications of the disaster, literary or otherwise. First published in 2004, the work of a bipartisan federal commission chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Indiana Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, it has been reissued with a new afterword by the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, and it's stunning to encounter it again.

"The 9/11 Commission Report" opens with a vivid re-creation of the hijackings, then shifts into extended discussions of the rise of Osama bin Laden, the development of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the escalation of the conflict between al-Qaida and the United States. Throughout, the commissioners pause to comment on threat assessments, failed initiatives and missed opportunities, including several aborted efforts to capture or kill Bin Laden in 1998 and 1999. After offering extensive context, the report returns to the events of Sept. 11, covering emergency and military responses and the need for greater flexibility in reacting to future risks. "We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures," the commissioners write: "in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management."

Click here to read the rest of Ulin's article.

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