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.