The events of 9/11 irrevocably changed the course of global affairs. They also changed culture. It will likely be easier to say how a century from now. But with 20 years’ hindsight, The Times’s book critics reflect below on some of the influence of that day on the writing that has followed.
“Sept. 11 accelerated a trend, already long in motion, toward opening American fiction to formerly marginalized voices,” writes Dwight Garner.
Jennifer Szalai says 9/11 produced “fictional treatments of identity that had to do with uncertainty, instability, precariousness — depicting ambivalence as an irreducible part of the human condition.”
A report from a high school in Pennsylvania:
In 19 years of teaching, it was the first time one Central York High School educator had ever received an email like it: a list of banned books, movies and other teaching materials.
“This is disgusting,” the teacher, who requested anonymity to protect his job, said. “Let’s just call it what it is — every author on that list is a Black voice.”
Merve Emre writes about a newly published novel by Simone de Beauvoir:
which Beauvoir wrote in the winter of 1954 and then abandoned. It finally appeared in France last year, and now, as if to make up for lost time, appears in not one but two English translations—in the U.K. as “The Inseparables” (Vintage), translated by Lauren Elkin, and in the United States as “Inseparable” (Ecco), translated by Sandra Smith. The story, described in France as “a tragic lesbian love story,” has been billed as “too intimate” to be published during Beauvoir’s lifetime.
Zach Graham interviews Jonathan Lee, whose historical novel The Great Mistake tells the story of the life and death of Andrew Haswell Green, whose idea it was “to merge the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx into a single interconnected metropolis called New York City.
“Novelist Emily Gould takes a hard look at today’s literary landscape—and at how things have changed since Lethem, Franzen, and Safran Foer first appeared on the scene.”
“The books the Jonathans published between 1999 and 2003 occupied that rarefied sliver of the market where literary fiction and huge cash cow overlap. This sliver is smaller now,” writes Gould. Read more of what she has to say on the evolution of the publishing industry.
Dorany Pineda looks at the current state of the book-publishing and book-selling industry. Even though we’re not quite “back to normal,” the overall outlook is good.
“Though his novels and short stories — published over six decades, beginning in 1934 — are set in an older, more decorous America, he grapples with themes that feel shockingly contemporary.”
A.O. Scott discusses the work of William Maxwell for the New York Times series The Americans, “essays on American authors — some well known, some unjustly forgotten, some perpetually misunderstood” that aim to embrace “what Henry James called the ‘complex fate’ of being an American.”
William Maxwell (1908-2000) was, Scott writes, “a resolutely modern writer, attuned to the fine vibrations of individual and interpersonal psychology against the backdrop of everyday life.”
I review Maxwell’s 1980 novel So Long, See You Tomorrow here.
“. . . the things I like most usually don’t follow a traditional western three-act structure of set-up, rising action, and resolution,” writes Patricia Thang. “As an Asian American who grew up on a lot of Japanese media, it made sense that my perception of stories might be a bit different from the general western audience. Here, I will discuss one such aspect of the non-western storytelling that I love so much: kishōtenketsu.”
This piece gave me new insight on how to approach narrative structure in fiction.
Merve Emre examines Virginia Woolf’s concept of literary characterization—that “the writer and the reader as two strangers getting to know each other in a distant, impersonal way, learning through characters how to calibrate each other’s sensibilities and thoughts.”
Woolf called this “the art of ‘character-reading’: a practice of observing, of speculating about, people, both in life and in fiction. The adept character-reader was one who fixed people with a powerful, sympathetic, and searching gaze; who seized on their unobtrusive moments—their small habits, their humble memories, their incessant chatter—to grasp the full force of their being.”
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown