Writing about 9/11

14 May 2012

"Ground Zero Fiction: History, Memory, and Representation in the American 9/11 Novel" is a 500-page analysis of American novels dealing with the events of September 11 written by Birgit Däwes, Junior Professor of North American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The book has been awarded the American Studies Network Book Prize 2012.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 seemed to mark a turning point for the entire world. The images of the two planes hitting the Twin Towers are still ever present around the globe. The writer Paul Auster referred to these events as the beginning of the 21st century, while President George Bush spoke of a second Pearl Harbor. Many others simply remained speechless in the aftermath. "At the time, many writers maintained that the events should be written about, but that it was just too early," comments Birgit Däwes. "It was in 2004 that writing about this theme gradually began to emerge."

In September 2011, the Junior Professor at the Department of English and Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) published her book about American novels that deal with the attacks in some form or another. Ground Zero Fiction: History, Memory, and Representation in the American 9/11 Novel is the title of her 500-page volume that also won the American Studies Network Book Prize 2012.

178 novels about 9/11

"I was really flabbergasted," she claims. "This is a pan-European prize that is only awarded every two years." All books dealing with some aspect of the USA and published in English are eligible for the prize. The winner also receives a modest EUR 1,000. "But these kinds of prizes are not about the money," Däwes explains, "it's the recognition that counts."

Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, John Updike – "All the great white American authors have written something about 9/11." But, they're not the only ones. For her book, Däwes looked at 168 different works. "At the last count, I was up to 178," she notes. Although her book is finished, she has not lost interest in the topic, "I still need to be aware of what is being published," Däwes states. The broader public is also interested in what she has to say. In fact, she has been asked to give a number of talks about her work.

Doesn't this get a little boring after a while?

"At the beginning, I asked myself: 'There are now so many novels about 9/11, but how do they differ from one another? Won't it be boring to keep dealing with the same topic? Isn't it a bit like the Titanic where you already know how the story ends?'"

She tried to get as complete a picture as possible by bringing together all the novels that she could find. This wasn't all that easy because the label "9/11 novel" doesn't appear on the cover of any of the books – quite the contrary, in fact. In Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, for example, one of the protagonists looks at a picture of the tightrope artist Philippe Petit, who showed off his skills by balancing along a rope strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

"McCann claims that his novel has nothing to do with the attacks," specifies Däwes. But then she opens his book on page 273. There is a photo of an airplane with its nose pointing toward one of the towers. "This is the only photo in the whole book." And so the novel belongs in Däwes' collection, too.

Texts contribute to cultural memory

Däwes did not discriminate between types of novels when choosing which works to include in her study. "This issue has crept up a lot. Friends have asked me: 'Have you really read all that trash?' But all these texts contribute toward cultural memory. I can't dispense with them if I really want to get at the zeitgeist." In general, Däwes finds the idea that there is a difference between high literature and light fiction to be more of a hindrance than a help.

She has developed another system that allows her to classify the flood of works dealing with the topic. In her concept, she uses a typology with six categories. A rather large group includes books that analyze the events of 9/11 and diagnose the consequences. "Like what this meant for Arab-Americans who were quickly lumped in with the Islamists." They had to deal with resentment, reprisals, and violence. "There are some South Asian-American and Arab-American authors who are trying to counter this trend."

A typology of the 9/11 novels

Other writers, including John Updike in his Terrorist, try to reconstruct the events. "For him, the corporeality of the terrorists is important. There is a lot about digestion and ingestion." This is presented with such emphasis that an element of monstrosity is attached to the perpetrators. "Others attempt to portrait the terrorists as if they were the fall guys," Däwes says. But she only uses expressions of this nature in casual conversation – her book is much more rigorously academic.

The most interesting category comprises novels in which the authors leave room for readers' interpretations. These books have several layers of meaning. The best example is Jonathan Safran Foer's bestseller Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This is the book that first inspired Däwes' study.

"Lots of critics accused early 9/11 novels of being a retreat into the private." But Foer's work is proof to the contrary. The story of the nine-year old Oskar Schell links Hiroshima with the bombing of Dresden and the Twin Towers. "It is a very political book," states Däwes. Only on one level, it can simply be read as a story about a nine-year old boy.

No Twin Towers made of Lego bricks

For Däwes, her typology represents merely a suggestion and not the final word on the subject. "I modified many parts as I was writing, too," she comments. One thing she is sure about, however, is that whatever else it did, 9/11 did not shake up the literary world. Literary trends have indeed taken up the topic, but they have not veered off into new directions as a result. In terms of ideology, the whole spectrum is represented. However, many of the works deeply question the role of the USA as a victim.

It took Däwes three years to write Ground Zero Fiction. "I did most of it while I was on parental leave," she explains. As if to illustrate her point, the picture of her three-year old daughter appears on the screen of her laptop in the background. "I told myself that if she started to build the Twin Towers with her Lego bricks, then I was working too much." This has apparently not yet happened. Her daughter smiles happily, innocent of any awareness what 9/11 means.