“Bye and Stuff” by Lydia Komatsu
Over the past few weeks, Peter Molin and I have been exchanging emails on the topic of essays about war literature. That is, writing that considers war literature–its good, its bad, the past and future. We came up with a pretty solid list that I realized would have been nice to have as an MFA student, and Pete agreed to let me run it, so here you go. There are a couple of caveats: I didn’t include book reviews, mostly because the consideration of war literature as a genre is not the primary concern and as a writer of a few reviews, I can say you might be fortunate to spend, at most, about 10-15% of your piece in such territory. I also have not included literature criticism essays (think of your college English essays, then add a Master’s or PhD) because, well, they’re pretty boring and tend to put the creative process under an analytical microscope that, for me, sucks the joy right out of writing. In other words, interesting, but rarely compelling for the creative act.
Now that the fine print’s out of the way, the standard disclaimer does not apply. I mean for this to be fairly all-inclusive. Hence the whole “Living” bit. But to get there, I’ll need you to let me know what I’ve missed in the comments. I’ll review to see if it passes muster, then I’ll update the post with your recommendation. Peter already had pretty much all of the list on a post on Time Now, but we also came up with a few more.
1. Matt Gallagher, “Where’s The Great Novel of the War on Terror?”, The Atlantic, 2011. So far as I can tell, Gallagher’s was one of the first essays to really focus on contemporary war literature as a genre.
2. Brian Van Reet, “A Problematic Genre: The Kill Memoir,” The New York Times, 2013. This one was important for me, as it was written around the time I started writing.
3. Ryan Bubalo, “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013.
4. Phil Klay, “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” The New York Times, 2014.
5. George Packer, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars,” The New Yorker, 2014. I’ve returned to this time and again over the past few years, and tackled it for my MFA thesis critical essay. It’s a good survey, but a bit wrong in some critical places.
6. Roxana Robinson, “The Right to Write,” The New York Times, 2014.
7. Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014. I first read this on deployment, and it’s a lot like Gallagher’s 2011 essay in that it identifies a gap. Three years after the fact, the essay still holds up well, although the premise has been diluted as a result of the publication of several Afghanistan books. Still, his underlying thesis–that there’s something different about Afghanistan that affects the way it’s represented–is as relevant today as it was three years ago.
8. Michiko Kakutani, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” The New York Times, 2014. Kakutani is the only major newspaper-related book critic that I am aware who has covered war literature pretty consistently with her thoughtful reviews. I’ve traced her as far back as 1987, when she reviewed Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. Her survey, “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” remains my go-to reference for war lit recommendations.
9. Kayla Williams, “Women Writing War: A List of Contemporary War Literature by Women,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014.
10. Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper,“ Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015. This one ruffled some feathers, my own included. He might be correct in identifying how we’ve turned veterans into victims, but some of his critiques come off harshly.
11. Sam Sacks, “First Person Shooters,” Harper’s, 2015. Between Scranton and Sacks, 2015 was the year of dissent, evidently. Sacks’ basic premise appears to be predictive and countermand Packer: war literature is missing politics, and the genre is made worse for it. This one is behind a paywall, but chances are good a university library has a copy of the issue. Also, friends who are grad students might be willing to sneak you a PDF bootleg.
12. Adin Dobkin, “The Never Ending Book of War,” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016.
13. Michael Peterson, “War and Remembrance: Notes Towards a Taxonomy of Contemporary War Literature,” The Mad Padre, 2016. A Canadian chaplain offers a a more classically-informed take on war lit taxonomy.
14. Pretty much every post on Time Now has something to say about the state of contemporary war literature, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend it.
Update, 30 May 17: Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and Steven Moore for reaching out to request the following additions.
15. Michael Carson, “War Makes Bad Art,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. A tidy response to Sam Sacks.
16. Michael Carson, “Philosopher Hero: From Socrates to Scranton,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. And a response to Scranton’s LARB piece.
17. Steven Moore, “Trouble with Ceremony,” The Georgia Review, 2017. Pay attention to the meta-reflective thread within the essay that deals with the modern lineage of the war story.