There’s been a glut of 9/11 books published on the eve of this year’s 10th anniversary. But all the new-ness overshadows the rich bevy of writing that’s been published over the past decade since the attacks. Literary critics have been debating what effect, if any, Sept. 11 has had on fiction in particular in recent days, but one of the best essays I’ve read is this one by Adam Kirsch.
Kirsch focuses on Jewish writers’ novels (and non-fiction) written since 9/11 and finds the range of responses illuminating. In all their variety–from Philip Roth’s "The Plot Against America" (2004), which can be read as a kind of alternative history of anti-semitism in America, goaded by the increased anti-semitism today, to Amy Waldman’s "The Submission" (2011), which sets up an imaginary conflict between two well-established American Jews and a feisty Muslim architect–they say little about how "the American Jew" comprehends the Sept. 11 attacks. But they all suggests that Jews today, in all their variety and no matter their temperament or political sympathies, sense that anti-semitism is far from dead.
Most problematic is that, given how far Jews have come in American society, from the despised immigrant of the turn of the 20th century, to the high-flying power-brokers of the 21st, Jews should have been the foremost defenders of Muslim Americans. But something closer to the opposite has happened. Jews have become one of the most suspicious groups of them. If the terrorists and radical Islamists weren’t so rankly anti-semitic, and had even moderate Muslims been less critical of Israel, this might have been otherwise: Jews would have been the first group to defend the rights of Muslims. Yet this is hardly an excuse.
Kirsch comments on Paul Berman’s post-9/11 analysis "Terror and Liberalism" (2003) to point out the problem this poses. Berman’s argument was that the litmus test for challenges to liberalism–the sine qua non of Western democracies, and the chief enemy of Islamic radicals–was how Jews were fairing. A rise in anti-semitism, Berman argued, roughly correlated to the decline of liberalism.
I would argue that even this unnecessarily complicated, adding an extra link when a more straight-forward one is plain. The obvious test for liberalism today is not how Jews are faring, but how Muslims are. And the answer is even clearer: badly.
Kirsch also writes tellingly about Amy Waldman’s new novel "The Submission," which centers around a thoroughly assimilated American Muslim architect, who wins in a blind contest for a fictional Sept. 11 memorial. (See my profile of Waldman here.) Once the architect’s identity is discovered, the entire country goes into a frenzy–liberals defending him, conservatives not; both groups with notable exceptions.
What interests Kirsch is the reactions of the novel’s two main Jewish characters. There is the memorial contest chair, Paul Rubin, a retired Wall Street liberal, who sides with the architect, albeit uncomfortably. And then there is the governor, Geraldine Bitman, a presumably Jewish figure, who gives into the bigotry and suspicions of the anti-Islam alarmists.
Kirsch asks the critical question for Jews that is posed by Waldman’s novel: if the architect is sacked by public fears, "is that progress for Jews?" He adds, "Bitman says yes, and she is happy to make common cause with this lumpen-American; Rubin unable to deny his cultural and personal affinity with Khan. In this way, ‘The Submission’ can be read as another exercise, or exorcism, of post-Sept. 11 anxiety about the Jews’ place in America—its reliability and its price."
It’s worth noting how Kirsch’s essay on Jewish responses jibes with two other notable essays on post-9/11 culture more generally. The New York Times’ book critic, Michiko Kakutani, argued a couple of weeks ago that, in fact, not much has changed in the way writers’ write since 9/11. To be sure, there’s many novels about or in some way reflecting the attacks, but no identifiable style, no unique genre, no style or sensibility–and certainly no definitive work of fiction–has emerged in the past decade that could not have be written about some other equally devastating tragedy.
That’s not to say wonderful books haven’t been written. Only that, if you take away details referring to planes crashing or towers falling, and substitute them with any other tragedy, you could easily imagine a similar mood being conveyed.
In contrast, Ruth Franklin recently wrote in The New Republic that all our post-9/11 novels do share something similar, and something that is distinct. It’s the turn inward, by which she means that novels dealing with the post-9/11 world all focus in one way or another on America’s internal divisions, its fault lines–in a word, its own internal problems.
"It could well be because our novelists continue stubbornly to insist on turning their gaze inward, bizarrely searching for the answer to the question of 9/11 in America rather than at its global source," she writes, adding, "It’s tempting to blame the peculiar insularity of recent American fiction on the write-what-you-know philosophy of the MFA workshop. But it’s more likely just another example of the inward turn that our society has taken in the post-9/11 era."
There’s great irony in this: even as America’s image has loomed large in the all corners of the post-9/11 world, our writers seem most interested in what the effects have been on us back home. This is exactly the opposite of what so much writing before mid-century did, and even well after. Franklin writes about 1990s novels like Philip Roth’s "American Pastoral" and Don DeLillo’s "Underworld" as novels that "are suffused with an existential anxiety about America and its place in the world." That’s in marked contrast to the isolationism of today’s fiction writing.
I can’t help but wonder if Jewish American writers aren’t just as guilty of this. If they are–and I haven’t read nearly enough post-9/11 Jewish novels to say either way–then you can ask what that says about Jewish life today, more generally.
If there’s an inward turn in Jewish fiction, a focus on how the terrorist attacks affected us Jews, then you could argue that it’s just another sign of how far Jews have come in America. Like most Americans, we’ve carved out our space in this land, and like most Americans, we’re hyper-sensitive that our position may be threatened by the attacks.
Conversely, you could argue something far different, if not quite the opposite: Look how different we Jews have become? How different we are from who we were a century ago? We no longer see in the plight of others something relevant to us; we no longer see a threat to their freedom as a threat to our own.
And is that, as they say, good for the Jews?