Almond (Kill)Joy

By Kathryn Comment

911lit.jpgThe CS Monitor‘s obligatory “9/11 Lit Survey” hits the press 1-2 months after other publications’ surveys, but its timing pairs it off with one of the most interesting discussions of 9/11 Lit yet to arrive: Steve Almond’s provocative (and, very likely, unfair) evisceration of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as “unsophisticated” “melodrama,” “a wish fantasy borne of the sorrows of 9/11” that “peddles the seductive notion that our best response to those attacks need be no more mature than a childish wish that evil be banished from our magic kingdom.”

As if working in tandem with Almond, the CS Monitor devotes a portion of its 9/11 Lit survey to the psychological risks involved in reading fiction about traumatic happenings. And, though the relayed risks are hard to parse — one psychologist, for example, warns, “fictionalized accounts may lead some readers to believe that the ‘realism of drama’ is the truth” — the acknowledgement of any risks at all is a surprising step for an article on 9/11 Lit to take. Previous articles on the topic have given themselves over to straight-forward assessments of the books under discussion (good/bad, moving/cloying, etc.) or bombastic generalizations about art’s slow digestion of trauma (“In time, inevitably, cold truth is recast and reshaped into literature,” proclaimed the NY Times.) The CS Monitor‘s take also has its share of junky platitudes (“Historically, artists have felt compelled to paint, dramatize, and write about events of their day…”), but its inclusion of a psychological perspective allows for the possibility that fiction can be more than a simple matter of taste and talent.

And that, too, is why I’m calling Almond’s piece “provocative.” On the one hand, Almond could be accused of reducing the psychology of reading to taste; if a bad — i.e., melodramatic — book can undermine healthy complexity and promote psychological immaturity, what’s to stop us from becoming even more self-righteous about our preferences, asserting our taste as healthy and even necessary (instead of, simply, educated, cultured, refined, etc.)? In a way, then, Almond might be dismissing further discussion. But, all the same, he’s discussing, unlike most articles out there, what literature does — how it hooks our emotions, how it shapes our politics, how it confirms our world-view. I didn’t need to read another critique of Foer’s novel, but Almond’s critique — so insistent in its notion of bad taste — was the only critique to be about taste and not just a simple, unreflexive expression of taste.