Where's the Great Novel About the War on Terror?

The market is heavy on memoir and light on fiction about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A veteran asks why.

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PublicAffairs, Sentinel HC, Twelve


War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.

–Ernest Hemingway, letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

The American war writing tradition is a proud one, and booming in this era of the Global War on Terror—at least in the non-fiction realm. Hundreds of memoirs and press accounts from Iraq and Afghanistan have been published since 9/11. These works run the gamut from personal testimonies of combat (Colby Buzzell's My War and Kayla Williams's Love My Rifle More than You), to attempted explanations as to how and why these wars unfolded the way they did (Donald Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown), to embedded press accounts by correspondents with infantrymen half their age (Sebastian Junger's War) or exiled Iraqi prostitutes (Deborah Amos's Eclipse of the Sunnis.) There has been such a proliferation of non-fiction war writing over the last ten years that it's nearly impossible to talk to anyone in the publishing industry without hearing phrases like "war fatigue" and "market saturation."

Fiction has proven an entirely different animal. Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan, even the most avid bookworm would be hard-pressed to identify a war novel that could be considered definitive of this new generation's battles. The explanations for this vary from the esoteric—wars need to end first before fiction writers can fully capture their impact—to the pragmatic: People don't read fiction anymore.

In an email discussion about this issue, Eric Cummings, a literary critic who writes at the military blog On Violence, argued that a memoir-centric publishing industry has played the most instrumental role in stunting the growth of GWOT fiction. However, he continued, "The first draft of war literature tends to be memoirs anyway—it happened during both World Wars ... I'm sure [Iraq and Afghanistan novels] will come. And they will probably be better than the memoirs."

There is a lot of evidence to back up the assertion that war fiction takes time. Many all-time classics of the genre, from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, took over a decade to pen. And those books seem almost rushed compared to a pair of Vietnam novels that were published in the last year, Karl Marlantes's Mattherhorn and Ken Babbs's Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, both of which took the authors over 40 years to write, rewrite, and publish. As Hemingway (a war veteran) explained to Fitzgerald (who was not) in the letter cited above, the emotional wells of war are as rich and vast as they are lethal, and such an experience can take a while for a young person to sort through and subsequently channel into the creative process.

But this argument doesn't always hold. Three Soldiers, by John Dos Passos, was released in 1920, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Norman Mailer published his lengthy and lauded World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948. Ronald Glasser wrote and published his celebrated book 365 Days in 1971, as the Vietnam conflict still raged. Going beyond American literature, Henri Barbusse's World War I novel Under Fire appeared in 1916, and Graham Greene published his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, in 1955. And while no "instant classic" has emerged yet from Iraq or Afghanistan, that hasn't stopped writers in other genres from making their mark—look no further than Brian Turner 's poetry collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, and Siobhan Fallon's collection of homefront short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone.

When I asked my Twitter followers why there aren't more GWOT novels, some users responded that there is, in fact, great literature on the subject out there—it's simply not being widely appreciated. One described these current years as "a formative time." Some of my own anecdotal experiences support this contention. Warrior Writer workshops have sprung up across the country, and of the ones I've attended and participated in, most contain at least one or two star writers. Roy Scranton certainly qualifies as one. Currently pursuing his doctorate in English at Princeton and a regular participant in the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop, Scranton has published works in a litany of small presses, and a personal essay "War and the City" in the New York Times. He's also labored for over three years in an attempt to get literary agents to read his novel War Porn.

Scranton was still very passionate about how this process played out, when reached by email. "The novel was conveyed and written in three distinct parts," he wrote. He continued:

The first tells the story of an Iraqi mathematician at Baghdad University prior to and during the invasion. The second is a first-person narrative, fictional but very much grounded in my own experience in Iraq. The third returns to the U.S., to a Columbus Day BBQ being held by a young couple and their friends in Utah; one friend invites an old boyfriend of hers, who has just come back from Iraq, where he was a National Guard MP in an Abu-Ghraib-style prison. The novel was like 200,000 words long.

Taking the advice of my ex-wife, I excerpted the middle section (about 90k) and sent it around as a novel. I got positive responses from people, though no offers, and was told by at least two agents, an editor, and a creative writing teacher that I should turn it into a memoir. I was told that women buy novels and they aren't interested in war novels, whereas memoirs have a wider appeal.

When not bogged down in academic work, Scranton spends his days revising War Porn—in its original, longer form—confident that it will eventually find a home. He's also begun working on that memoir so frequently suggested.

Presented by

Matt Gallagher is the senior writing manager of the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and spent 15 months in Iraq with the U.S. Army as an armored cavalry officer. He is the author of the war memoir Kaboom.

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