Sunday, May 20, 2007

Post-9/11 Literature

Not often I get actually excited by a literary article nowadays, but I am excited by Pankaj Mishra's article in yesterday's Guardian Review, in which he considers the response of American and British novelists to 9/11 and the newly emerged world order.

Fittingly, it's literary journalism of the most iconoclastic, offering a fundamental reappraisal of the nature and value of contemporary western fiction. He considers the usual suspects, those white male writers who are viewed as having claimed this ground and who so often seem to inhabit a literary tower impenetrable to criticism, and finds them lacking:
Struggling to define cultural otherness, DeLillo, Updike and Amis fail to recognise that belief and ideology remain the unseen and overwhelming forces behind gaudy fantasies about virgins. Assembled from jihad-mongering journalism and propaganda videos and websites, their identikit terrorists make Conrad's witheringly evoked revolutionaries in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes look multidimensional.
These authors fail to transcend the Western literary cult of individual experience, he implies, and continue to see the situation in terms of a simple opposition between 'Muslims' and 'the west' which simply does not echo the experience of many Muslims for whom 'the west is inseparable from their deepest sense of themselves'.

'Most of the literary fiction that self-consciously addresses 9/11 still seems underpinned by outdated assumptions of national isolation and self-sufficiency', he says. He sees too the voyeuristic fictive efforts of these writers to recreate the twin-towers experience as 'fuelled by masculine anxiety' and points out that female writers like Deborah Eisenberg, Claire Messud and Jennifer Egan, who treat the events more glancingly, are more successful at conveying 'how the obsessions with terror, image, novelty and celebrity work out in ordinary ... life'. There is a rich fund of such writing, he tells us - including that from Kiran Desai, David Mitchell and Jeffrey Eugenides - to which we should be looking for a true evocation of a 'new spiritual homelessness.'

And for me, as a writer, this was truly the best and most dynamic kind of criticism: it has inspired me to rush to my desk and write!
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