Looking Back From The Future

By Brett Battles

Occasionally there are events in the world at large that work their way into the fabric of the literature landscape. World War Two. The Assassination of JFK. The Vietnam War. First man on the moon, to name some big ones in the last 70 years. Most recently you could add 9/11 and the Iraq War.

I’m not trying to get into a political discussion here. We all have our own views on things, I’m sure. But what interests me, and what I want to discuss is how there are these events that not only do they work their way into our daily conversations, but, eventually, they work their way into what we read, specifically our fiction. In fact, I would be willing to bet that the true marker of the impact of a particular event is how far it seeps into that fiction.

Something like 9/11 has certainly become a prevalent topic within literature of all genres. And in my area, international/political thrillers, unless you’re writing a period piece that takes place in decades past, not acknowledging the effects of 9/11 on just about everything means you don’t have a grasp of this post September 11th world, and therefore probably don’t have a fair grasp on the story you’re trying to tell.

One of the things I’ve noticed more and more is the growing number of stories that are partly or wholly influenced by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And between the two, it is the war in Iraq that draws the most attention for the obvious reasons. There are at least several dozen stories that bring the war directly to the readers. Soldiers stories, stories of those left at home, political stories that deal with the decisions made.

My focus is on the thriller/mystery stories that directly or tangentially touch on the war. Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel, NOTHING TO LOSE, does this, as does Marcus Sakey’s upcoming GOOD PEOPLE (haven’t read it yet). I’ve also been lucky enough to read Sean Chercover’s new novel, TRIGGER CITY. I got an ARC at Thrillerfest, and just finished it a few hours ago. In a phrase, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t come out until October, but when it does, I recommend picking it up and putting it at the top of your reading stack. His is an example of a tangential relationship to the war, and compelling from beginning to end.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that once an event becomes so ingrained in our literature culture, it’s fair bet its something that will not be soon forgotten.

I know, I know. You’re saying, “D’uh, Brett. I could have told you that without all this correlation between real world events and literature crap.” You’re right, you could have. But in my opinion, as stories such as CATCH 22 and THE NAKED AND THE DEAD help to paint our perception of World War Two, in fifty years from now, it is our current crop of literature that will help define our era and explain the events of our time to our descendants. Bring it a human face not possible in history books and other non-fiction tomes. And it is our literature that will determine which of those events were important to us, and which events will be all but forgotten.

Didn’t realize I was going to get so serious today, did you? Neither did I. I blame Sean Chercover. I’m on vacation this week and brought TRIGGER CITY with me. That’s what inspired this, so you can blame him, too.

So what do you think? Am I making too big of a deal about this idea…that literature is the ultimate filter of what’s important…what will be remembered? (Perhaps I should broadened that to include film as well as literature, as these days they are closely tied.) Love to hear your thoughts.

Today’s Song: Five Years by David Bowie

12 thoughts on “Looking Back From The Future

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Good post Brett. Both my novel and work in progress relate to 9/11 (actually the anthrax letter attacks right after 9/11) and the Iraq War.

    My second story ties into the emotions of a Father who loses his only son (only child) in the war and snaps.

    Thanks for the perspective, Brett.

  2. Louise Ure

    You’re right Brett, life and fiction intermingle, partially because we want to create real characters whose motivations are clear. And that means that those fictional characters have been shaped by something familiar, whether it’s the Iraq War, losing their house in a foreclosure, or working for a dot com. They’re snapshots of life.

  3. Stephen D. Rogers

    If it’s true that the winner writers history, it’s also true that the winner’s fiction is more widely read than the winner’s history textbooks.

    Or at least we hope so. 🙂


  4. Scott Parker

    I remember back in the days after 9/11 when we all wondered when we would be able to laugh again. Intellectually, I knew that day would arrive, but emotionally, I didn’t want to laugh. Then, for a few months and years afterward, someone would tell a bad 9/11 joke and the inevitable response would be “Is it too soon?” Now, as we approach the 7th anniversary, books, movies, TV shows crop up all riffing on life in a post-9/11 world. And there is going to be THE post-9/11 book or movie through which all future generations will view that day. I mean, can we think of WWI and not think of the book/movie “All Quiet on the Western Front”? Can we think of Vietnam and not think of “Platoon”? One trend I do see with post-9/11 and Iraq works is the focus on the human aspects of it. So far, there has not been a huge market for thriller books pitting the good guys against the Islamic terrorists. But there are books, like George Pelecanos’s “The Turnaround”, where regular folks face a war without a front and a populace that often forgets we are fighting. That kind of blowback will seep into our literature and future readers might even be appalled at our indifference. You never know: there may be a literary trend that is born out of the Iraq/Afghanistan/9/11 experience that we, as yet, don’t know. And if that genre/trend is born, inevitably it will have its genesis with one book or movie. I just wonder if its already out there.

  5. Tom Barclay

    No, you’re not making too big a deal of the notion. RAMBO and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ may be more significant than ‘Platoon’ to some people, so it’s wise to remember how different messages attract different readers and viewers.

    For me, it’s Michael Herr’s DISPATCHES.

  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Brett,You’re spot on.

    I think fiction is a tremendous arbiter of our future memories.

    But for pure impact, I think movies have even more influence. Perhaps this is because there is a larger audience? Perhaps because of their more visceral nature?

  7. JT Ellison

    Historically, the leaders of countries tapped their artists and culture to tell their stories. I think we’re carrying on a fine tradition. It’s just too bad that the governments don’t pay for the arts, commission our work to tell their stories, the story of the people, like they used to. Thank goodness we’ve taken it upon ourselves…

  8. John Dishon

    Well, 9/11 and the Iraq War would be memorable without any literature, movies, or art of any kind.

    I think it’s actually the opposite, because tragic events are an opportunity to make financial gains. It’s a trend, a fad, but the books about 9/11, for example, don’t make 9/11 memorable.

    Nobody cares about literature as a serious forum for discussion of the world or world events anymore. I’m pretty cynical I guess, but I don’t think Americans, anyway, since that’s all I can speak for, care about serious discussion at all.

  9. John Dishon

    @JT Ellison:

    I wouldn’t want the government commissioning art. That would be an open door for propaganda, which we get enough of already from the mainstream media.

  10. JT Ellison

    John, yes, but there’s always the groups of artists who band together to create without the yolk of government intervention, and the competition can create some amazing work. The Fugitive Poets, the whole Montparnasse scene, the Salon in Paris begat the entire avante-garde movement, the Irascibles in New York…

    With establishment comes anti-establishment, and as such private patrons of the arts. And bands of artists grouping together to spread their message. A lot of that has disappeared. That’s all I meant.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    While I feel that, primarily, a work of fiction is there to entertain and engage the reader, there’s nothing says it can’t get across a serious message at the same time.

    I should imagine that far more people absorbed a critique of Communist Russia under Stalin by reading Orwell’s anti-Stalinist satire, ANIMAL FARM, than by studying a textbook on the subject.

    And SJ Rozan’s seminal ABSENT FRIENDS provided me with a haunting picture of 9/11 New York City that has stayed with me since I turned the final page.

  12. Fran

    I have to agree with Ms. Sharp, “Absent Friends” just stunned me.

    Regardless of anyone’s take on politics, can you imagine not being jarred out of a book where someone blithely jaunts onto a plane without going through security? It’s affected everything, and only the dim wouldn’t acknowledge that.


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