Will the UK literati please stop trying to make America's tragedy its own?
Roll up! Roll up! Twin Towers rock, only $10 a piece! As reports come out about the vultures already scavenging among the wreckage of the World Trade Centre for ghoulish souvenirs to sell in the future, we can see the beginnings of a macabre kind of death tourism, coming soon to a United States near you (1).
Of course it’s sick; of course it’s tasteless. The t-shirts carrying images of the twin towers ablaze under the logo ‘America under attack’ are only outdone by those shirts sporting the words, ‘I can’t believe I got out’. The bandanas, hats and hankies promising that ‘evil will be punished’ seem innocuous in comparison with the young men selling their snapshots of the crash as it happened.
But is this nascent death tourism any more ghoulish than the media-sponsored sympathy in which we have been encouraged to participate since the moment that first plane crashed? Is the fast-buck approach of New York’s wideboys any more unpleasant than the self-indulgent word therapy being conducted by Britain’s intelligentsia?
No doubt journalists in offices throughout London are secretly wincing at the flowers, the teddy bears, the rituals of mourning that fit the post-Diana prototype in all their gaudy sentimentality, and seem so inappropriate and – well, naff. But it does not make you quite so uncomfortable as the intelligentsia’s alternative – the acres of newsprint covered by the literary version of the pornography of death, from creative writers who clearly feel honour-bound to make their two-pennyworth count.
‘We speak of “plane rage” – but it was the plane itself that was in frenzy, one felt, as it gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the south tower.’ This is Martin Amis, writing in a national newspaper under the banner ‘The first circle of hell’ (2). I’m no expert on creative writing – but while I can imagine this kind of garbled prose earning a school student a gold star, we might have expected better from a professional like Amis.
‘Emotions have their narrative; after the shock we move inevitably to the grief, and the sense that we are doing it more or less together is one tiny scrap of consolation’, writes Ian McEwan, on the front page of the Saturday 15 September edition of the UK Guardian (3). But Ian, why should you feel the need to write the narrative? Why can’t you stick to your dark imagination, and leave the reality to news reporters?
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with novelists writing newspaper columns – indeed, at a time when most newspaper columnists are also writing novels, the line is pretty difficult to draw. It’s a question of how you write them. Ahdaf Soueif, author of the excellent novel The Map of Love, also wrote a piece in the Guardian on 15 September, arguing the need to question US foreign policy (4). I would not call this article politically persuasive, or particularly insightful. But at least it was political.
And I’m not a prude – it seems obvious that a real-life event that, as so many writers pointed out, out-did any Hollywood blockbuster, contains the basis of some great plots for future novels.
But Amis and McEwan – along with several columnists who seem to want to be novelists – add little more to the coverage than maudlin self-indulgence. These endless pontificatings from the TV room upon ‘how I felt about the crash/the smoke/the deaths/the survivors/the pictures/my family and friends but particularly myself’ offer up bad poetry and sickly prose to pick on the bones of the metaphorical allegory that is the smouldering aftermath of New York (seductive, isn’t it?).
No doubt these authors found their pieces difficult and emotionally tough to write. But it reads like they loved every second of it. The copyright symbols under Amis and McEwan’s newspaper pieces highlight the fact that they feel they are part of a moment – and they want to claim it for themselves.
What is this, if not the literary equivalent of wearing a t-shirt proclaiming ‘I can’t believe I got out’? Or worse, the publication of a postcard that really should read, ‘I wish I’d been there?’.
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