Exposing a Dark Work: Literature after 9/11

By Katy Shaw

In September 2011, the twenty-first century world temporarily turned its attention away from the olympic fascination of 2012 and back to the start of the new millennium and the influential events of 2001. With the recent tenth anniversary of 9/11, questions regarding the role of literature in understanding contemporary events arose again. In the immediate days and weeks after 9/11, a widespread panic grew about the purpose of literature – and the author – in a new world of danger and uncertainty. Martin Amis famously claimed that ‘after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation’. While it is probably fairer to say ‘some’ not ‘all’ writers experienced this doubt, the role of the writer and particularly of fiction was the subject of much debate in the post-9/11 world. Writers were asking whether they had indeed found themselves living in ‘the age of horrorism’ Amis knee-jerkingly predicted or whether they had instead been thrust into a new international game of heroes and villains.

The ten years following the attacks have produced a range of fictional responses to 9/11. Some have forced us to reconsider not only the terrible events of that day but the weeks, months and years before it, to use a tragedy as a way of accessing a wider comprehension of other peoples, beliefs and ways of understanding the world. Others have chosen to focus on a sense of nostalgia for a time before the towers, a utopian vision of the past that we must fight to reclaim.

As Eisenberg wrote in the short story ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’, ‘The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it’. Shaken from a state of perceived innocence, the events of 9/11 compelled – rather than forced – writers to reconsider the function of their work. While Amis speculated that ‘a feeling of gangrenous futility had effected the whole corpus’ of literary output, Ian McEwan felt it ‘wearisome’ to consider inventing fiction when so much remained to be learned about current events. His desire to use post-9/11 literature to educate, to use fiction as an informing force, has proved influential in literary responses produced in the face of a new and unknown world of danger.

Focusing on literature – and especially the novel – the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen authors attempt to understand both the events of 9/11 and the altered landscapes left in its wake. But the coming generation will have to look much further back, not only to understand the events of 9/11 but how they came about, why they reached such a demonstrative pinnacle of terror and the effect of their reverberations on the post 9/11 world. For twenty-first century readers, this new generation of literature has the potential to offer a valuable and focalising source of understanding for our present and future. In exposing a dark world, the events of 9/11 changed not only the course of international history, but the path of literature in the twenty-first century.

Dr Katy Shaw is a leading authority on the literature of the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike and twenty-first century literatures. Her research interests include contemporary writings, especially working class literature, literatures of post-industrial regeneration and the languages of comedy. She is editor of C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings and director of C21: Centre for research in twenty-first century writings at the University of Brighton. C21 Centre for Twenty First Century Writings aims to create a critical, discursive space for the promotion and exploration of these writings as well as new creative work.


One thought on “Exposing a Dark Work: Literature after 9/11

  1. Fascinating subject. Although, I have to say, beyond (maybe) literature, what actually strikes me (subjective opinion here) is the complete *lack* of art / entertainment which seeks to even reflect, let alone explore or make sense of 9/11. For an event which ‘changed the world forever’ (and it clearly did) 9/11 seems to me to have became almost immediately a non subject for the ‘arts/ entertainment community’.

    I believe part of the reason is that the event itself was, and still is, fundamentally incomprehensible to most people (even if we try to pretend otherwise). We can perhaps talk about the ‘post 9/11 world’ (ie how 9/11 changed society) but I would suggest that most people cannot make any sense of the *actual event* itself.

    Can a largely incomprehensible act inspire creativity?

    Sure, we all understand that it was an act of terrorism …. but when you think about it, the majority of the ‘terror’ we feel in relation to this act has actually come from the media and governments who have relentlessly drilled into us the idea of this new ever-present ‘terror’ woven in every situation. Without the government introducing body scanners, TSA staff groping at children’s crotches, police with machine guns on the streets, CCTV, confiscation of water bottles when you board a plane etc I guarantee we would not feel any more terrorised today than we did pre-9/11. Certainly not those of us who were not directly involved, or related to someone directly involved (ie the vast majority of people).

    And so if it weren’t for all of these fear-based changes in society, 9/11 would be regarded today as just a momentary event which has now passed (as all events are). As horrific as the event was, one simply can’t still feel terrorised by 9/11 over decade later, in the same way that one can’t still feel scared by a horror movie you watched over a decade ago (no matter how scary the movie was).

    And so my point is this: the 9/11 event itself was not so much an event defined by terror, but rather by our total incomprehension of it. On the face of it, the actual event of 9/11 made (and still makes) absolutely no sense whatsoever. Our deep sense of bafflement over such a huge an incomprehensible, yet magnificently theatrical, act of destruction is actually far harder to process or express in any kind of creative way, hence the general lack of art/ entertainment being produced around this event.

    Being violently mugged in a dark alley is a terrifying event for anyone, but it is at least comprehensible. It makes sense. We understand the motives and the reasoning behind the act. Even ‘senseless’ acts of violence or criminality tend to have sensible explanations when we look deeper….. such as intoxication, mental health issues, personality disorders due to childhood abuse or trauma etc. In every case we *can* eventually process terrifyingly destructive or criminal acts using reason and logic, and this helps us to then process them emotionally too.

    By contrast 9/11 was and still is lacking any kind of coherent rational explanation. As an event which needs to be explained it is not so much like a mugging or a bank robbery and more like waking up to discover your house is surrounded by a thousands random people throwing rotten eggs at your windows and repeatedly chanting “We despise you, your secret’s out! We know! We know! We know about YOU!” for five hours straight before inexplicably dispersing again and life getting back to normal. Yes, of course this scenario would be terrifying, but it would also be totally incomprehensible too. There would be no way to make sense of it logically, and so there would be no valid emotion to feel either… just a kind of emotional numbness and inability to think straight. (In simple terms: “WTF just happened?!”)

    The actual event of 9/11 was rather like this second example. By being a massive yet totally incomprehensible act it was in *effect* an attack on human consciousness itself. It left us largely *unable* to process.

    A distinction needs to be made between the *act itself* which makes no sense whatsoever and the *official story of the event*. This official narrative (Osama Bin Laden et al) was first introduced into the live TV broadcasts precisely 45 seconds after the second plane impact (I kid you not) and in the days and weeks that followed it morphed into the whole ‘war on terror’ which *does* have a narrative structure we *can* comprehend. In fact the official narrative of 9/11 is the exact opposite of the incomprehensible event itself …. the official narrative has an almost child-like simplicity to it, rather like Tom and Jerry cartoon or an old Western or James Bond movie – where there are clear cut ‘goodies and baddies’. Baddies do bad things because…well, they’re the baddies, right? That’s their job! 😉

    Anyone who questions (let alone challenges) this official narrative is likely to be labelled a ‘conspiracy theorist’. This is troubling for several reasons, one of which is the rather obvious fact that the official story is BY DICTIONARY DEFINITION also a conspiracy theory.

    Secondly it is troubling because the world of art (and particularly literature) is absolutely filled to the brim with stories involving complex conspiracies to do with people IN power and people SEEKING power which are either factually (historically) based or well within the realms of possibility (believability).

    As many great Shakespeare plays illustrate, an undeniable aspect of all human beings is our potential ability and willingness to engage in various forms of conspiratorial behaviour. And human history itself is (if you think about it) one long chain of complex conspiracies (successfully achieved or not).

    Every evening’s TV schedule contains at least one cop/ detective drama often centred around a conspiracy and the plot is often extremely complex with multiple layers, false trails, interrelationships, false leads, deliberately planted evidence, clever misdirects and so on. Sure, these shows are usually a bit OTT, but they would not be popular if they were not essentially believable.

    And so we have this bizarre situation where we accept conspiratorial behaviour and scenarios as being a legitimate reflection of society when it is portrayed in fiction or catalogued in history books, but we refuse to even *consider* such complex (but commonplace) behaviour occurring with respect to current events or those within the last decade or two.

    So to summarise, I’m afraid I only see art/ entertainment related to the ‘post 9/11 world’, but nothing relating to the event itself, or what led up to it, for these reasons:

    – 9/11 was primarily an attack on human consciousness itself, designed to greatly hinder our ability to process emotions or think critically … thus leaving us more helpless and dependent on ‘authority’ than ever before.

    – the 9/11 event (which is a conspiracy by definition) only really makes any sense as a ‘false flag attack’ of some kind (we need not speculate exactly what kind). We see this type of conspiracy occurring throughout human history as it happens. No other type of conspiracy narrative makes any logical sense which I would suggest is why it’s almost impossible to create serious art relating to 9/11 based on the official 9/11 story. Unless you want your book/ film/ musical/ whatever to have plot like some Roger Moore era James Bond movie (complete with a ‘Dr Evil’ character in his evil secret base) you simply can’t draw on the official narrative of 9/11 in any way. It is, by any standard, a ludicrous story.

    – Perhaps another very simple explanation for the lack of serious, profound and intelligent art relating to the actual event of 9/11 is that we can’t yet see the wood for the trees?

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