The “Too Soon” Mentality

It seems that every time a book or a film dealing with September 11th comes out, someone cries out the words, “Too soon!” It happened recently with Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, when Norman Mailer told McInerney that McInerney should wait ten years before attempting a novel about it. It happened with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where people declared it was “too soon” for a novelist to write about 9/11. And now it’s happening again with United 93. The trailer was released to theatres and people reacted negatively. The result? An AMC Loews theatre in the Upper West Side pulled the trailer.

It’s been more than five years since September 11th. And with all due respect to the victims, I’m wondering why today’s artists are so timid with respect to the subject. Is it standard operating procedure to take no chances for fear of offending? I hate to invoke Godwin, but the current silence reminds me of the situation chronicled in the 2004 documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, which I was lucky to see last year. The film offers a convincing argument that Hollywood adamantly refused to come to terms with the full reality of the Holocaust until years later and points out that later movies, such as the excellent film The Pawnbroker, were coping mechanisms that may have come too late.

This popular notion of repressing or, more accurately, self-censoring dramatizations of recent history hasn’t gone away. Talk of 9/11 and deal with its explicit details, and you are declared insensitive or tasteless. But what better way might our nation come to terms with that terrible day then to expose its explicit details through film, literature, music, painting, sculptures, theatre, opera, ballet or countless other forms of art? What do we gain when our culture reflects the notion that September 11th didn’t happen or shouldn’t be talked about? Piece of mind, perhaps. But limitations which might beget other limitations.

So people are crying and feeling uncomfortable when seeing this trailer. Well isn’t it art’s purpose to do this? And don’t such emotions allow a certain catharsis?

Too soon? If not now, then when?

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  1. The subject should not be off limits. People worry that some art dealing with it may be exploitative, insensitive, or plain bad – but that is not a reason not to deal with it. That is just bad art. And you cannot allow the risk or reality of bad art to halt what needs to be done.

    I hope sincerely that American writers do explore 9/11 more and more – and that any such exploration leads to American writers to cease their navel gazing and look out into the world and deal with what is happening now – a world in many ways at odds with America – and explores why Americans scratch their heads in confusion as to why the world loves them for their entertainment and culture but is suspicious of them for their foreign policy. This is a ripe and important subject – America in the world. But who is dealing with this in American letters? Is this not an important aspect of our day? Who is asking ‘what is America in the world’? Which writers are addressing this question in their fiction?

  2. Jay McInerney writing a love story of two Manhattanite coke snorters in the aftermath of the towers falling is more of the same navel gazing to me. Who is writing about America in the world?

  3. The audience reaction shows how important it is that this be shown now. We’d all like to turn away from that day, but we need to be reminded of what these passengers did.

  4. I’m more concerned with the years immediately following 9/11. I’ve been bemoaning the fact that literature is not addressing the period after 9/11, where for a couple of years the press, politicians and much of the public turned off their minds and blindly did whatever Bush wanted.

    It was like McCarthyism and then some – disasterous war, use of torture, enemies no fly list, government spying on citizens – and the unwillingness of the press, politicians to complain about it or acknowledge the existence of those who did protest (remember the huge Iraq war protests?)

    When the government and press collude (or silently endorse) the dismantlement of free speech, civil rights and the pursuit of unjust war – it’s the duty of literature to step up to plate and cry out. Not publish more pointless stories about yuppies and lattes

    From McCarthyism we had works like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – and in the years following 9/11 we have?

    But I rant…

  5. Ed,

    I don’t think Mailer meant one shouldn’t write about 9/11 because it would be in bad taste but rather because it takes a while for these things to filter down artistically. I wrote about this and made reference to Tolstoy writing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia 50 years after the fact. Just to be clear, though, I think people should write about whatever they want, whenever they want. Art’s another matter.

  6. As the author of the post linked to as “people” in this post, I just wanted to state for the record that I did not, in fact, declare it “too soon” for Foer’s book. I thougt that the subject might be depressing (the book wasn’t), and I broadly hinted that the “too soon” mentality might be responsible for some of the horrible reviews that the book attracted (and I detailed some of the other reasons). I loved Foer’s book, and I thought that it handled 9/11 very well. Anyway, I agree with the sentiments of this post. I wonder why movies realistically portraying the events of 9/11 draw so much ire, while other realistic dramatizations, say Black Hawk Down get a pass.

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