Twenty-two years ago, the world was irrevocably changed by the terrorist attack on New York and Washington D.C. that extremist Osama bin Laden put into place and then executed. The fallout of that catastrophic event was not limited to the 2996 people who were murdered and their loved ones or the war that shortly ensued that caused even more bloodshed on the tightening of U.S. security protocols. 9/11 changed society in so many different ways. As odd as it may seem, it also impacted the way literature was written and how writing reflected its contemporary issues.
Noting Literary Eras by Poignant Events
Prior to the devastation of 9/11, literature was chock-full of deeply intrinsic details of the world’s historical events. During and after the World Wars, for example, literature kept a written history of the emotional and physical turmoil these events created, especially from a fictional point of view. Writers didn’t shy away from exploiting the public intrigue. In fact, it’s safe to say they did so for reasons other than just to sell a book. Fiction helped create real change and push the reader to understand what happened. Moreover, in an era where television and media coverage was non-existent, books were far more accessible to the general public for consumption.
Throughout history, literary trends marked major world events based on subject matter and opinion. Science fiction evolved out of the explosion of scientific exploration, a sense of purposelessness and anti-authoritarianism derived from the First World War and forwarded modernism, and The Cold War brought on a slew of anti-Russian literature. 9/11’s impact was more subtle and yet glaringly obvious. The event itself could not be sold to the general public in fictional form from a straight approach.
What Changed and Why
9/11 was the first massively destructive and world-altering event to be televised live on a grand scale. The emotional impact wasn’t just that of those who were firsthand victims, responders, and bystanders. The entire world was a bystander, one who believed they were watching a tragic accident that took a turn for the worst when the reality of the situation struck as the second plane hit. Children watched in their classrooms; morning commuters listened as they sat in traffic; every news outlet and television station tuned in and broadcasted live. Between the visual, commentary, and speculation, 9/11 set a new precedent when it came to media dispersion and instant information access.
Every war prior to 9/11 happened in the abstract for the majority of humanity, especially the U.S. Those impacted the most were firsthand participants or loved ones of military personnel, except where the battle actually took place, which wasn’t on American soil, with the exception of Pearl Harbor. However, even with Pearl Harbor, it happened off of the public’s radar. Most Americans weren’t aware until after it happened; they didn’t listen to or see the devastation. Emotional trauma played a major role in the way readers would consume any literature based on an event that rocked their up-to-that-point solid, safe worldview.
A New Era in American Literature
9/11 was not successfully written about in the direct approach in fiction as other world events. Where writers spoke of the soldiers’ plight in the trenches of WWII, the confusion of military members and the general public with Vietnam, and exploited the hysteria of impending nuclear attack of the Cold War, writing about those inside the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, or on Flight 93 was unapproachable. Readers couldn’t stomach the thought of reliving those life-changing moments. The emotions the stories brought out weren’t just a pull of the characters within the pages but their own remembered feelings and experiences. That kind of trauma, on such a massive scale, was unprecedented and quickly realized by writers the world over.
That’s not to say that it was swept under the literary rug and never to be seen. Rather, it became the pivotal change in 21st-century literature known as “After the Fall” coined by The juxtaposition of reality and fiction became a common combination. No one could believe that 9/11 would ever have happened, and when it did, there was a dynamic shift in world culture, and it was represented in books. 9/11 was alluded to or included as part of the climax of a novel that impacted the protagonist in some way or was a catalyst to the current climate of the novel.
Literature After the Fall
After the Fall saw an explosion of dystopian novels, from the world being devastated due to political wars in Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games to the mysterious circumstances of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. 9/11 influenced how fiction might reflect reality and what that future could look like. Writers exploited the emotional trauma of 9/11 indirectly by focusing on combining the contemporary familiar with futuristic otherness. Creating plausible circumstances based on how life was lived before and after 9/11.
The Hunger Games might seem like a far stretch, but it was probably the height of reality TV as the internet and media were exploding alongside technology. Reality television desensitized the public, so after a disastrous war and global change, the utilization of such an effective tool to exert dominance wasn’t as far-fetched as one might have thought. McCarthy’s novel, in its catastrophic dystopian vagueness, was even more touching, given the emotional trauma each of the characters carries with them of the event that caused the world to cease. 9/11 is alluded to throughout, not only in scenes through the city but also the mention of faith and how it caused the apocalypse and what characters are living through.
The wool was pulled from over the eyes of the American public. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, foreign adversaries came knocking on our doorstep, and every citizen was alerted when it happened. The connectedness of every person holding allegiance to the U.S. was forged under the fires of terrorism that struck on that fateful morning. The impression it left was everlasting. It’ll take well into the mid-21st century, if not longer, before it wears to a level that can be seen directly in American literature.
Click here to read about 9/11 Hidden Heroes.