Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Writers and 9/11

Via Arts and Letters Daily, a devastating look at how "writers" responded to 9/11:
But it was writers-with-a-W who really excelled, doing their best to confute Shelley's grandiose proposition that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. That idea always looked dubious -- in practice writers are all too often sillier and nastier in their politics than anyone else -- and one or two writers were wise enough to recognise this in September 2001. Bret Easton Ellis said that he was too depressed to make phrases, and Philip Roth refused public comment. If only there had been more like them.

When asked to contribute to "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War," George Orwell replied in more than usually intemperate terms: "Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish? I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender?" But he had a point, and his biographer DJ Taylor recently declined to contribute to a collection of "Authors Take Sides on Iraq" on similar grounds if with less verbal violence, recognising that nothing he could say was going to make the smallest difference, and wondering why a writer has any duty to be "engaged." It would after all be odd to see a book called "Stockbrokers Take Sides on Iraq" or "Bus Drivers?" and any such collections from literary ladies and gentlemen ought to be prefaced with a warning: an alarmingly high proportion of the eminent writers of the past century veered towards the totalitarian heresies of left or right, attracted by communism or -- in the case of rather more great writers, as it happens -- by fascism.

This might not be accidental. Imaginative writers are distinguished not by a sweeter character (too often very much not), greater intellectual honesty, or even deeper intelligence, but -- apart from the gift of expression which is their stock in trade -- a way of looking at the world which is interesting because it is exaggerated or distorted. After an event like 11th September, such expressive gifts might be more hindrance than help; some things are best said simply rather than dressed up in look-at-me prose. Arundhati Roy claimed that it is "the writers, the poets, the artists, the singers, the filmmakers who can make the connections, who can find ways of bringing [the event] into the realm of common understanding"; the evidence suggested the opposite.


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