Sep 082011

Erika Dreifus and her favourite reader

In keeping with the memories of dark times we share this week, here is a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on writing stories after 9/11. Erika Dreifus casts an intelligently inquiring eye over the issues of politics in writing, political correctness, what used to be called the ethics of appropriation—in general the swirl of thoughts and inhibitions that somehow got in the way of writing about massive public tragedy in America. This essay was written just two years after that sunny September day. One wonders if things have changed, if these concerns still roil the conscience of young writers trying to grapple with the unspeakable or if they have learned to hear Albert Camus’ stern admonition, quoted by Erika below, “to forge themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.”

Erika Dreifus has published stories with connections to 9/11 in The Healing Muse, Midstream, and Mississippi Review Online, among others. Her story collection, Quiet Americans, was published by Last Light Studio in 2011. Erika is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review, and she serves on the editorial advisory board of J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She also publishes her own amazing online writing resource site, Practicing  Writing.This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the “Why Write?” Conference held at Columbia University in New York City, 28-29 March 2003. The essay was published originally in Queen’s Quarterly 111/1 (Spring 2004). DG is grateful to Philip Graham for drawing his attention to Erika’s work.


Having previously earned a PhD in Modern French history, I was in my first semester of a low-residency MFA program in creative writing in September 2001. Before I left for work on Tuesday, September 11 (I was teaching at Harvard at the time, and I had a full day of interviewing freshmen interested in my seminar on historical fiction slated), I submitted a new short story for my online workshop (2 other students) and instructor’s review. So fiction-writing will, for me, remain inextricably linked with the events of that day.

I was born in Brooklyn, and although I’d been living in Massachusetts for many years, most of my nearest and dearest were in the metropolitan NYC area that day. The following semester, I found that 9/11 was creeping into several of the stories I was submitting to my workshop. I was shocked by some of the reactions that this work received, and I was flummoxed further by discussions I found elsewhere. I welcomed any and every opportunity to explore all of this. Hence, my interest in calls for papers and conferences, and my need to think through all of these issues in writing.

—Erika Dreifus



 By Erika Dreifus


I noticed an announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It publicized a forthcoming panel at St Edward ‘s University in Austin, Texas, that would examine “Artistic Response to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks.” The announcement provided contact information. I sent e-mails to St Edward’s University. I could not attend the panel. But I wanted to know more.

I wanted to know more because “artistic response” to crisis in the public sphere – especially literary response to national and global trauma – has long fascinated me. From my undergraduate explorations of the intellectuel engagé to my own current work writing fiction I have not escaped the precedents, predicaments, and larger purposes surrounding “response.”

After September 11, 2001, these issues resonated in theory and practice. Sometimes it has seemed that I’ve spent nearly equal time, since then, writing fiction and arguing about it.

I’ve argued with colleagues and teachers, who objected to even the most carefully crafted allusions to the attacks in my fiction. Most surprising were the comments of one workshop classmate. Responding to one story I’d written six months after September 11, he wrote that while he, a Southerner, probably couldn’t understand “how you Northerners are dealing with [September 11], it really did have an effect on everyone. And personally, I am not ready to read short stories referring to [itl yet.”

After I’d recovered from seeing myself and my subject – rather than the actual work – faulted, I continued reading: “I feel like there should be some sort of grace period before it is ok to use that in fiction. It just doesn’t feel right. Like you’re trying to capitalize on that emotion … “

I confess that I derived some comfort from online discussions about John Updike’s short story “Varieties of Religious Experience,” which later appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Shifting from character to character – from Dan Kellogg, “an Episcopalian lawyer of sixty-three” visiting his adult daughter and grandchildren in Brooklyn that day, to “a stocky young Muslim – called, like millions of his co-religionists around the world, Mohammed,” to Jim Finch, “in his cubicle, about a third of the way into the vast floor full of bond traders and their computer monitors,” to Caroline, on the flight from Newark to San Francisco – the story depicts a set of possible truths, a variety of imagined possibilities precisely as one might expect a fiction writer to produce.

But in the magazine’s online “Post & Riposte,” one reader commented that he found himself “cringing when I realized what Updike was doing in this story. Admittedly, there are no rules about how soon after an event like this you can start fictionalizing it and teasing out varieties of meaning, but it still seems too soon to me.”

Yet he added: “Not out of some concern for propriety – I think that art can poke its feelers anywhere, at any time – but just as an artistic creation, I think this story fails – and not a little of the blame comes from the treatment of this subject matter.” At least this critic, unlike mine, adhered to the old Jamesian notion, expressed in “The Art of Fiction,” that when it comes to analyzing imaginative work:

… it is of execution that we are talking – that being the only point …that is open to contention. This is perhaps too often lost sight of, only to produce interminable confusions and cross-purposes. We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.[i]

And I’ve argued with visual artists, painters, and sculptors who also found 9/11 writ large “too fresh” for artistic treatment. (What about Guernica, I asked them?) What left me intellectually reeling was the realization of how much time 1 was spending arguing with so many people who seemed positively ignorant of (or indifferent to) the degree to which crisis or trauma had evoked artistic response in any other time or place.

True, some granted that, maybe, artists or writers could “respond” publicly. Perhaps in demonstrations. Or on op-ed pages. But forget about the possibility of a writer’s freedom and right, let alone a possible sense that she might feel obliged, or even right, to do precisely what poet Edward Hirsch described at an October 2002 literary awards dinner as the very essence of the writer’s endeavour: “to try to make sense out of experience.”

Time for another confession. I might be a bit oversensitive to this issue of intersections between public events and private experiences. Initially trained as an historian, practised in teaching such material in interdisciplinary humanities courses, and at some level always conscious of my identity as a grandchild of people who were forced to flee their homeland, I possess multiple interests in the ways artists and intellectuals respond to contemporary problems and events. Especially traumatic events. And I seek to understand – and teach – the past by all kinds of “evidence” – including literature.

Consider just two literary responses to “events” that were once “contemporary.”

They returned to me as I completed that most current degree – the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Then I revisited texts from my reading past, even those freshman year surveys in British literature that too few people take anymore (but that’s the subject of another article). It seemed to me, back in freshman year, that Alfred, Lord Tennyson, conveyed something about the Crimean War in his own time that no textbook could. That Wilfred Owen made the war that was supposed to end all wars all the more tragic.

How does it affect one’s understanding of “Charge of the Light Brigade” to know that Tennyson wrote the poem after reading a newspaper report? That, in other words, he found inspiration, motivation, or whatever one chooses to call it, in a “fresh” account? And what of the fact that Wilfred Owen was killed in action one week before World War I ended? Does that information change, enrich, do anything to our reading of the text? Does the loss of life that Tennyson invoked or that Owen suffered mean anything? Do the circumstances that surround us mean anything? As we try to make sense of experience?

To Barbara Kingsolver they do, or at least they did when she was selecting the stories to be included in the Best American Short Stories 2001:

For a story to make the cut I asked a lot from it – asked of it, in fact, what I ask of myself when I sit down to write, and that is to get straight down to it and carve something hugely important into a small enough amulet to fit inside a reader’s most sacred psychic pocket. I don’t care what it’s about, as long as it’s not trivial. I once heard a writer declare from a lectern: “I write about the mysteries of the human heart, which is the only thing a fiction writer has any business addressing.” And I thought to myself, Excuse me? I had recently begun thinking of myself as a fiction writer and was laboring under the illusion that I could address any mystery that piqued me, including but not limited to the human heart, human risk factors, human rights …. The business of fiction is to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world, which is where I live, write and read.[ii]

Contemporary events, conflicts, and crises certainly reflect tender spots and imperfections. Tennyson and Owen wrote about tender spots and imperfections, too.

But of course (and perhaps, dear reader, you have been waiting, with some impatience, for me to acknowledge this salient point) they were poets. And British. But these facts, 100, support my main concern. Fiction writers face a dilemma, especially in the United States, a land I love but a land where it is unfortunately not common for writers to be “public intellectuals.” When it comes to contemporary concerns, especially in the realm of anything that might be construed as “political” or in the field of “current events,” American fiction writers apparently are supposed to remain silent.

Because in the United States there’s an axiom, as Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy have noted: “Avoid politics.” Leebron and Levy further caution: “American readers and writers have an unspoken understanding about polities and fiction: if it becomes clear and obvious that an author’s political agenda is dictating plot or character, and plot and character are not compelling on their own, then the author has broken the unspoken contract.”[iii] Of course, one may wonder when any writer has not broken an unspoken contract, if he or she offers any story with any agenda, political or not, that outweighs the power of the plot and character.

So maybe I have poet envy. Notwithstanding Percy Shelley’s claim that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” or William Butler Yeats’ somewhat contradictory pronouncement, given his not quite apolitical tendencies, to “be silent” when “… Asked to Write a War Poem,” those who specialize in verse seem pretty acknowledged. Especially when it comes to writing in – or of – the moment.

Take a look at the 800-page volume Carolyn Forché has edited, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. It’s a remarkable book, one I have recommended to many. It is divided into segments that cover everything from the “Armenian Genocide” and the “Spanish Civil War” to “The Struggle for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the United States” and “Revolutions and Struggle for Democracy in China.”

Tender spots of an imperfect world, indeed.

And there’s been an observable “trend” in the first wave of post-September 11 writing. In the edited anthologies (William Heyen’s substantial September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and Ulrich Baer’s 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, for example) there’s a lot of poetry. Combined with a lot of nonfiction and short essays. Not much fiction.

Beyond the Updike story, one example of fiction engaging with this subject is Joyce Maynard’s novel, The Usual Rules, in which a 13-year-old girl’s life is forever changed one September morning when her mother leaves the family’s Brooklyn apartment for her job as an executive secretary – on the eighty-seventh floor of one of the towers. As if anticipating workshop criticisms, a Publishers Weekly interviewer asked if Maynard believed “people might think you are exploiting a national and personal tragedy.” Maynard’s reply?

“I think that probably will happen.”

Why? Scarcely ten days after the September 11 attacks, the New York Times ran a piece, “Novelists Reassess Their Subject Matter.” The Times‘  Dinitia Smith noted:

And simply from the point of view of craft, novelists should be wary of contemporaneity, of incorporating current events directly into their fiction, said Robert Stone, whose book Damascus Gate, published in 1998, is about a journalist who becomes involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem at the time of a plot to bomb the Temple Mount.

“You have to be very careful when you refer directly to major events of such significance,” Mr Stone said, “because that can be very meretricious writing.” He remembered how in Damascus Gate he wrestled with himself about using the phrase “ethnic cleansing.”

“Every time I saw it on the page I thought, Am I riding the contemporary here?” he said. But in the end, he decided, the phrase would be appropriate because his character is a journalist who is directly involved in contemporary events.[iv]

At least Stone evaluated what might be appropriate to his subject. Had he submitted his manuscript to a fiction workshop he might have found that some readers resisted reading what they would have rather condescendingly called “current events.”

My experience is that these are usually younger readers (and I issue this pronouncement from the advanced age of 34). They are readers whose literary point of reference is far more likely to be Harry Potter than Hamlet or Henry James. They are readers who may react far more viscerally to content than to craft, readers unfortunately unschooled in any historical, let alone “current,” events in any country outside the United States.

Should such readers, or anyone else, actually study the past, they might discern that it is particularly at moments of crisis that the writer may be most compelled to speak out, and perhaps to do so in his or her own genre. To write of the moment, in the moment.

In his Nobel speech, Albert Camus declared that the writer “… is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.” Those of his generation ” … have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.”

I reread Camus, and I can’t help but think of my classmate. “To me September 11 is current events,” he told me. “I think writing about current events, I think Movie-of-the-Week …. For me, ideas come from deep thought and introspection.”

Apparently he hadn’t considered that “current events” might provoke “deep thought and introspection” and had devoted little such “thought and introspection” to what fiction, as a genre, may achieve. He might find instructive Peter Blauner’s observation, in the wake of The Usual Rules, that fiction “can offer time, distance, texture and, most important, intimacy. It gives the reader a way to climb inside these moments and live there for a while.” Or as Pete Hamill has observed: “There were so many casualties. No story is like any other. Some will have to be imagined. Some, people can’t articulate. And the dead are silent forever.”[v]

My classmate might also benefit from reading Ann Patchett on the genesis of Bel Canto, a novel intimately linked to the “current events” story of the takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, in December 1996.

There were many things I wanted to write about when I started Bel Canto …. But more than anything, I wanted to find a way to grieve for something I had read about in the paper. The disasters I find there make me dizzy. They reel by me in a state of constant abstraction. Seven children shot in a school, 258 people killed in a plane crash, 10,000 lost in an earthquake. These are numbers I can’t understand, and I find myself thinking these are things that happen someplace far away, to people I don’t know. How could I begin to separate out every life, to acknowledge it, grieve for it, learn from it? I couldn’t do it every time, but with this story I thought, just once, I wanted to try.[vi]

Maybe Patchett wanted to make sense out of experience. And to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world. Maybe that’s what fiction writers are allowed to do, even in the United States, even writing about September 11.

Maybe we don’t have to keep silent.

—Erika Dreifus

[i] James continued: “Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple – to let it alone.” I am grateful to Professor Michael Kobre for reminding me of James’ allusion to the “donnée.”

[ii] Barbara Kingsolver’s introduction to Best American Short Stories 2001, ed. Katrina Kenison, Barbara Kingsolver (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), pp. xvii-xix.

[iii] Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy, Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1995), pp. 113-116.

[iv] Dinitia Smith, “Novelists Reassess Their Subject Matter,” New York Times, 20 September 2001, p. E1.

[v] In Bob Minzenheimer, “Fiction Deals with Sept. 11 in Ways Journalism Can’t,” updated 26 February 2003, Cited 16 March 2003.

[vi] Ann Patchett, “A Way to See Life Anew: How a Hostage Story Inspired the Haunting Novel Bel Canto,” The Writer, June 20002, p. 24.

  7 Responses to “Keeping Silent? Writing Fiction After September 11, Essay by Erika Dreifus”

  1. I certainly do not believe writing about actual world tragedy in fiction is bad or unacceptable. In fact the writing part is necessary for the writer as their way of working through the events as you have touched on. As far as when the public is ready for this is another question entirely. There is no right or wrong time for this work to be brought into the public eye despite the spectrum of individuals who respond, are not ready, feel whatever they feel and do not want to recognize the work, or just use the excuse of impropriety as a reason to dismiss this fiction or wield a sense of control over the world. Maybe control is the crux of the issue when not wanting one’s wounds fanned.

    Wonderful piece.

  2. What a thoughtful, persuasive essay. Inspiring. Writing that opens up narrative possibility and permission, beautifully put. Thanks for posting.

  3. A sensible, helpful (to someone writing about a recent disaster that made the news), and wonderfully written essay. I enjoy it for craft as much as for content.

  4. An important topic, well expressed. I am always inspired by equal parts characters and their politica/historical context. (And I’m thrilled to discover, Erika, that you;re a modern French history expert! Would love to pick your brain some day!) It never ceases to amaze me, though, how lucky we Americans are to have so few cataclysmic events in recent history that inspire as much reflection and expression as 9/11. True, the symbolism is huge and so many people were affected, all at once. But I also like to think about what other events in our nation’s recent history have powerful, symbolic resonance for writing. Thoughts?

    • Thanks, everyone, for the generous comments, and thanks again to DG for asking to republish this essay. Sharon, I’d suggest that there are in fact many events in our nation’s recent history that evoked in their own time many of the feelings (terror, helplessness) that can lead to the sort of writing I think that you’re talking about. For example, one of the books on my to-read list is Tayari Jones’s LEAVING ATLANTA, which deals with the Atlanta child murders. I remember how terrifying it was to me, as a child, hearing about those murders on the news.

  5. Thank you all for the comments. I really appreciate them. (I tried leaving a reply the other day, but I must have done something wrong, because it didn’t “take.”)

    Sharon, “recent” may depend on the age of the writer. But as I mentioned in a Twitter response to you, one example of a writer engaging with another public trauma might be Tayari Jones and her novel, LEAVING ATLANTA, which deals with the Atlanta Child Murders.

  6. I just wrote a fiction short story about 9/11. I have submitted it to several online magazines and writing contests, but so far I’ve gotten the feedback that it “doesn’t fit” their magazine/competition. It’s extremely, extremely graphic, which I know is a big risk, and most people probably won’t like it, or will be disturbed by it…but I was still hoping someone might appreciate it and take something from it. Anyway, any thoughts? Know any place that might be interested in it? Thanks 🙂 And also, of course, this is a great essay! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Very interesting. Well done!

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