Posted by: Sarah | January 24, 2010

Where’s the war fiction?

At this very minute, my younger brother is boarding a cargo plane in Iraq with a number of other lucky Joe’s holding R&R tickets. He’s been in Baghdad since April 2009 without a single day off. No five o’clock Margaritavilles. No sleepy weekends. No Thanksgiving or Christmas or Labor Day. The guy’s been on shift, on alert, come-what-may for nine months and finally, he’s getting on a plane that someone else is flying for a change, strapping into his cargo net seat, and resting.

Obviously, he’s on my mind, and I’m praying hard that the flight out of the sandy desert is smooth. I hope he sleeps—really sleeps on the ride home. I hope that when he wakes up, the groundhog days have ended for a time. It’s only an R&R, mind you. He’ll be Stateside for two weeks then back to Iraq to finish his year deployment. His wife is ecstatic to see him. They’d only been married seven months when he left.

But he’s not complaining about how long he’s been gone or how short his leave may be. No, my brother and I come from hardier stock than that. A quick family tree: my brother is a West Point grad and an Army aviator; my father is also a West Point grad and a 30-year retired Army Colonel deployed to both Desert Storm and the Iraq War; my mother’s father fought in Korea; my father’s father did two tours in Vietnam; I’m married to an Army doc. Get the picture?

I feel more comfortably carrying a military ID than a state driver’s license. So I know the unspoken fear and angst, courage and fortitude of the military family. The concept of war isn’t an ‘issue’ to be bantered and debated over dinner or in casual grumblings. It’s personal in my family. Those who whine about it might as well slap my grandfathers, father, brother and husband in the face. However, this is a democracy and as an author, I’m a huge proponent of free speech and expression. But lately, when any simpleton can start a blog or upload a website spouting their war opinions, I’ve begun to wonder if we, Americans, aren’t dulling our empathetic senses.

In the essay “The Death of Fiction?” on Mother Jones (thanks to Patrick Brown at Vroman’s for sharing), the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review Ted Genoways segued slightly from his main topic (which is fascinating and you should all go read!) to make this observation:

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and storywriters alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.

Long after I closed the screen, I mulled over this paragraph. He’s right. Journalistic narratives of the Iraq War abound; blogs by loved ones are prolific and often far too detailed for their own good; the book industry is saturated with eyewitness accounts. We get war ‘short stories’ on CNN and MSNBC every hour. It’s no wonder poets and fiction authors can’t squeeze a thought onto the page. There’s no room for the imagined when the unimaginable is shown and discussed minute to minute.

I made the mistake of sending my brother a novel based on the experience of two soldiers in Baghdad. He kindly explained why he didn’t read it. “I face this every day. I don’t need to read about it in my spare time. I want to read something… cool.”

Fair enough.

My mom had similar sentiments when I pressed her to read a ‘heartbreaker’ novel on vacation. “Life is hard on its own,” she argued. “If I read something fictional, I don’t want to be depressed! Give me something uplifting.”

She’s not a fiction reader by nature. Personal taste. I get it. But there’s a pattern here that I think partly explains Genoways’ observation. I can only speak to fiction because that’s my business. Fiction is an escape. Yes, for the authors, it is our way of shining light on issues related to the human experience, but for readers, it’s a journey to fictional dream worlds. So how can your imagination journey to Iraq, Afghanistan or any modern war-related setting when the reality is so tangible?

One of my favorite war-themed works is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had the pleasure of hearing him read from this beautiful collection and it was absolutely mesmerizing. Besides delicious prose, I believe one of its many strengths is the publication date: 1990—not 1975. Vietnam was the progenitor of our current see-it-all journalism, but this war tale landed in the hands of a new generation with fresh minds. Yes, the stats and facts of Vietnam were historical documented, but here—here was feeling. We all but gobbled up the pages. Another brilliant attribute is O’Brien’s story form: His belief that the fictional (i.e. false) story is the only way to accurately portray war by engaging the reader’s emotions rather than stating austere data.

This brings me round to Genoways’ essay, the clogged blogosphere, digital satellite broadcasts, iPhone videos and the barrage of war memoirs coming at us. Don’t read me wrong, folks. I champion journalists! They bring us knowledge and understanding unlike any other group of reporters in history. They are amazing men and women. No debate there. But as applied to the preferences of the literary milieu, I worry that the onslaught of Anderson Coopers are numbing our emotional ability to engage, and therefore, as O’Brien argues, our ability to truly understand. The artistic community can’t help but be affected with the rest of the population.

War is war. The tactics have changed, but its little black heart has remained the same since the dawn of existence. For me, it’s no surprise that historical fiction has increased in popularity. It makes sense that to try to understand our time in the midst of our time, we journey to other periods and live vicariously through those men/women/characters.

My husband is leaving on a road trip soon, and we stopped off at Cracker Barrel last night to pick up a couple books on tape. After thirty minutes of perusing and my offering suggestions, he decided on an adventure book set against the Second Sino-Japanese War. It features an Indiana Jones-esque protagonist off to save his little piece of the world. Roll your eyes if you must, but isn’t that what we all secretly want to read? A book where the regular Joe makes a big difference and all ends well. Isn’t that what we hope for our own lives?

To answer Genoways’ question: Where is all the contemporary war fiction? I think it’s incubating in us. The stories are clay on a potter’s wheel, the mud going round and round and round. When it stops, then we’ll be able to give it certain shape. Today’s fiction writers may be quiet now, but it’s only because so many people are competing for the loudest voice: “Me! Over here! Look at what I saw, experienced and know! Listen to my true story!”

And far too often these accounts stem from bitterness and bear forth complaint. Our hearts are hardening. Our heads are whirling about so fast we haven’t time to feel. For people who have no familial connections, it’s a sandstorm of stinging news bites.

When the winds have slowed, I believe fiction authors will put their pens to paper again and only then will the realities of this war be fully revealed and grasped. Or at least, that’s my prayer.

Yours truly, Sarah

Read Ted Genoway’s “The Death of Fiction?” here:



  1. Your piece is excellent! I remember reading somewhere about the movies and books of the 30’s and 40’s. They were “feel good” themes because times were tough and people needed something other than raw, in-you-face fiction about life to get them through. I think we are in those times right now. I want to read a fiction that makes me remember better times and releases all those “feel good” chemicals. I, for one, am saying… “Take me to a happy place!”

  2. That line from Genoway’s piece jumped out at me, too. While I do think there’s an insularity to much modern fiction, I’m not sure I’m ready to say we can’t produce a great war novel. For one thing, sadly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still very much underway. It generally takes a while for a writer to write a book, and when factors in fighting in the war, processing that experience and then crafting a brilliant novel, it’s no surprise we haven’t seen one yet.

    As for the idea that people want to read “feel good” books during hard times, I suspect there’s some truth to that, though that fiction doesn’t seem to have survived the Depression. The literature of the Depression is, well, depressing. But that’s literature about the depression, written by people who lived through it, rather than fiction written to entertain those actually going through it. Personally, I’ve never turned away from a book because I thought it might be heavy or sad or depressing. Dealing with complicated emotional issues is the job of fiction. Strangely enough, it will stop me from watching a movie, though. It’s pretty easy to put off watching “Virgin Spring” in favor of The Hangover.

  3. Dear Patrick,

    Completely agree with you. I believe brilliant novels are being experientially processed and crafted as we speak. Genoways asked, ‘Where is war fiction now?’ And that’s where I think, perhaps, he can’t see the forest for the trees. I believe he’s also referring predominantly to short story fiction (in his and fellow literary magazines) more than published novels.

    To the “feel good” reads. Correcto! Look at GRAPES OF WRATH, RED PONY, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, etc. All were written about an onerous time in American history after a period of reflection. I’m a huge proponent of the gut-wrencher, the tear-jerker, the heart-breaker novel. Delving into the gritty stuff of humanity is the only way to unearth the gold. However, I respect the fact that many avid readers don’t want to be emotionally ‘unsettled’ by their fiction. Especially when/if they’re facing earthquakes in their own lives.

    What does it say about me that I have not seen “The Virgin Spring,” but with great frequency my husband quotes scenes from “The Hangover” just so I’ll laugh Coke out my nose. Sigh. Oh, the shameful dichotomy. Author and lit geek by day, sophomoric chowderhead by night. I hope the truth doesn’t get out. 😉

    Yours truly, Sarah

    P.S. Good to hear from you. I always enjoy our repartee. Keep up the great posts! (

  4. […] goes through cycles where it becomes more insular, more personal, or conversely, larger in scope (This blog post by Sarah McCoy addresses some of those issues with regards our current lack of Iraq/Afghanistan War literature).  […]

  5. […] goes through cycles where it becomes more insular, more personal, or conversely, larger in scope (This blog post by Sarah McCoy addresses some of those issues with regards our current lack of Iraq/Afghanistan War literature).  […]

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