2011: The Year Contemporary War Fiction Became a Thing

In a 2011 Atlantic magazine article titled “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” Matt Gallagher, the author of the Iraq War memoir Kaboom, explores reasons why, as of the time he writes, so little fiction had appeared that addressed America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan,” Gallagher writes, “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 title of Gallagher’s article bears an eery similarity to a question posed by German critic Walter Benjamin in a 1936 piece called “The Storyteller.” Looking back at World War I, Benjamin wrote, “Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent–not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?”

Benjamin continues by suggesting that “the flood of war books”–particularly novels–that began appearing in Germany ten years after World War I’s end shortchanged “experience,” or wisdom, for what he derisively called “information.” Be that as it may, let’s keep our eye on Gallagher here, for he wasn’t wrong surveying America’s recent publishing past. In my search for war fiction published prior to 2011 I can find only a few short stories scattered here-and-there. Frederick Busch (Benjamin Busch’s father) published two short tales, “Good to Go” and “Patrols,” for examples, in small literary magazines before including them in his 2006 collection titled Rescue Missions. Annie Proulx’s “Tits-Up in a Ditch” about a woman who loses an arm to an IED in Iraq, appeared in the New Yorker in 2008, as well as in Proulx’s collection of short stories titled Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Busch and Proulx were both established authors—each over 60 years old at the time they wrote their stories–with many published titles and critical laurels to their credit. I’m glad they turned their attention to the nation’s millennial wars, but not sure why a younger cohort of writers, to include veteran-authors, didn’t make Iraq and Afghanistan their subjects sooner than they did.

Gallagher notes the publication of Siobhan Fallon’s collection of tales about life at Fort Hood, Texas, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which appeared in January 2011. But he’s skeptical that more fiction might be forthcoming in the years to come. Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggests, just might go undocumented by authors of fiction, much like, say, the Filipino-American War (his example, not mine). Gallagher, bless him, wasn’t right in this case. 2011 would see the publication not only of You Know When The Men Are Gone, but Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, and the years after 2011 would see much more fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, authored by veterans and civilians alike. Let’s give credit to Fallon and Benedict for initiating the contemporary war lit surge, and by no means should we succumb to Benjamin-like skepticism about their achievement. Benedict, an academic and activist writing as a critic-from-outside unimpressed by the military effort, and Fallon, an Army spouse writing as a military insider full of knowing sympathy, established twin poles of literary possibility that virtually every writer since has followed one-way-or-the-other. That You Know When the Men Are Gone and Sand Queen were authored by women and featured women protagonists is also important. The great wave of war novels that arrived in 2012–The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit–was “all dudes,” as the saying goes, but 2013 and onwards featured many war fiction titles by and about women.

Let’s note also that Gallagher’s novel about Iraq, Youngblood, and Roy Scranton’s War Porn, which Gallagher mentions as an example of a war novel having trouble finding a publisher, will be out in 2016. Finally, Time Now, which I began in 2012, owes much to a comment by Gallagher I heard while in the audience for his presentation at the War, Literature, and the Arts conference at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010. Gallagher remarked that any war writer seeking to establish him or herself in our modern era had better have an online presence. I already kept a blog going about my Afghanistan deployment, so I wasn’t thunderstruck by Gallagher’s claim, but it occurred to me then that the art, film, and literature of the current wars might benefit from dedicated digital coverage and critique. Hence this blog, and hence, Matt Gallagher, thanks.

While we’re rendering thanks, let’s also commend the organizers of that 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference, which was so seminal in its recognition of contemporary war writing as a genre and so inspiring not just to me but to many others.  At the time, I was already aware of Brian Turner’s work, but the WLA conference was my initial exposure to writing by Fallon, Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, and quite a few others (though note Fallon as the only author of fiction). So here’s to WLA editor Donald Anderson and conference organizers Jesse Goolsby and Brandon Lingle. Excellent writers themselves, they nourish excellence in others, storytellers interested not in purveying information but communicating experience.

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13 Comments on “2011: The Year Contemporary War Fiction Became a Thing”

  1. BVR Says:

    Good post. Definitely interesting that the first wave was by women. You Know When The Men Were Gone is excellent and deserving of even more accolades than it got. For what it’s worth, from 2008-2011 I published 6 short stories somehow about Iraq. All in lit mags (Shenandoah, Brooklyn Review, Southern Review, Gulf Coast, Evergreen Review). I have no doubt other authors, some vets, publishing in similar venues wrote interesting war stories – problem is, it’s hard to catalogue and be aware of this material, let alone read it all.

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    Brian–thanks for the correction to the record, and apologies for the omission. I’m working on a longer piece on pre-2011 war fiction and will definitely take stock of your achievement there-in. Total agreement with your assessment of Sioban Fallon’s fiction! FWIW, many of Fallon’s stories first appeared in literary magazines such as The Briar Cliff Review, Roanoke Review, Salamander, and New Letters between 2008 and 2010. So we see the strengths and weaknesses of the tiny-run literary magazines: hospitable to new talent, but so diffuse in their reach and so difficult to search. I’m sure Abrams, Fountain, Powers, and Roy-Bhattacharya published chapters of their novels in literary magazines sometime before 2012, but I haven’t yet found them.

    I’ve also become aware of David Zimmerman’s 2011 Iraq War novel The Sandbox and am looking forward to reading it.

    Finally, thanks to Brenda Sanfilippo for alerting me to Annie Proulx’s story “Tits-up in a Ditch.”

    • BVR Says:

      Oh no apology needed – I didn’t take your post as aiming for a comprehensive listing of every war story published, and not sure my early ones are worth mentioning alongside Proulx et al, but just wanted to point out that when you take the small mags into account, there are probably hundreds of worthy stories out there that very few people have read. Yes, Kevin published a chapter of his novel in Witness (2010).

      • Peter Molin Says:

        Just the fact the work was first placed in lit mags meant for the intelligentsia and lit-world insiders and aficionados, where few veterans and not so many general readers of fiction might find them, is interesting. Not sure what the alternative might have been, though (online? big-market magazines? anthologies?).

  3. BVR Says:

    My feeling is that many if not most literary fiction writers cut their teeth publishing in small mags, so no surprise that this applies to contemporary war fiction, too. Big market magazines are where you publish after you have a book out. Nearly impossible to get an acceptance there as a no-name writer, without a strong recommendation from a famous writer, a personal connection to the editorial staff, or something like that. Fire and Forget was kind of a strange anthology in that it represented first publication for many of the stories in it. Usually, it’s the other way around, stories in lit mags first, then possibly anthologies or collections later.

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Agree, but I still wonder about a couple of aspects about the process. One is the willingness of lit mag editors to consider fiction about the war, seek out new talent, explain it to their patrons and institutional bosses, market it to their readers, etc. The second is the process by which vet-writers even found out about the existence of the literary mag world, which has a microscopic footprint in our culture, even for those who want to write and like to read new fiction. I guess here is where the much-discussed influence of MFA programs on the war-writing scene comes back into play….

      • BVR Says:

        Well, I knew about lit mags as a teenager, before I ever thought seriously about joining the army. But that’s because I was a writer before I was a soldier (as I know Powers was, and Klay). I think most people who want to publish their work eventually get around to considering lit mags, just because they’re there, and they publish so many pages per year. It’s a supply and demand thing. Writers want to publish and lit mags are one avenue. MFA programs have led to their proliferation, no doubt, but similar publications existed and were influential well before MFA programs came into being. I think that nearly all people who apply to MFAs already know about lit mags. They do have a small footprint, but among writers and agents, it is larger. On the acquisition process: they either publish by small committee (vote of editorial board) or by fiat of the editor in chief. These editors do not typically report to any bosses (other than to beg for more grant money). They do not typically publish with an eye to what will “sell,” more to quality and individual taste. They are more willing to publish new talent, both because they have to be, and because it is a badge of honor in the lit mag world to be the one who first discovered so-and-so before she got famous. So, if the editor really likes a war story that comes over the transom, it’s accepted for publication; the decision might take minutes. This, unlike the book publishing process at big houses, which is more considered, driven by profit, and in which many different people, including marketing folks, typically have to agree in order to get a book into print (assuming it doesn’t sell to the head-of-house or someone else with a lot of authority). Then again, books just take a lot longer to write than stories, so the first wave of book-length fiction was bound to be a few years behind the first wave of fiction in small mags.

  4. Peter Molin Says:

    If you knew about literary mags as a teen, that probably explains why you were one of the first vets into print with your stories (besides being so good!). Thanks for the patient explanation of what must seem like a mysterious, intimidating process to many, and if you have time to post a few comments about a related subject–finding an agent– please do. I would love to know, for instance, (for historical and journalistic purposes) which journals, which editors, and which book agents have been the most war-writer friendly over the years.

    • BVR Says:

      Another early war story that came to mind: “Refresh, Refresh,” by Ben Percy. The acknowledgment section is a good place to go, to start tracing the connections between writers, agents, editors, etc. Philipp Meyer has been a big supporter of Kevin Powers and me. Coincidentally, his American agent, Eric Simonoff, sold both Redeployment and War of the Encyclopaedists (but passed on Kevin’s book, I am sure to his great regret). It’s a small world. Getting an agent is where MFA programs actually matter a lot. Not because high-power agents come sniffing around, recruiting talent (mid- and lower-tier agents sometimes do, at the best MFAs) but because the friendships made between students, alumni, and professors, facilitate introductions of all kinds, including to top agents. Basically, friends helping friends.

  5. Peter Molin Says:

    Thanks once more. Good to know “the stories behind the stories,” complete with names. Without consideration of the market and the influence of a few key individuals who combine altruism, vision, and an eye for what might be respected/will sell, the history’s incomplete.


  6. Hey gentlemen. Brian, glad you mentioned Ben Percy’s iconic short story Refresh Refresh (also the title of his story collection, but I believe it was the only story in this collection to handle war issues); that was the story that made me think “ordinary” readers (as in non-military) might actually read my stories too. And to add to the lit mag conversation, I’d like to mention Salamander Magazine, a lit mag out of Boston/Suffolk College, which has always supported and printed mil themed stories, including quite a few of mine, pre-2011. Peter Brown, the fiction editor there, was very receptive to my work, also giving me the nudge I needed to seek a larger/civilian audience.
    Great discussion, guys, lots of sharp information here, as always.

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Siobhan, thank you for contributing to the discussion! Besides Salamander, I note that YKWTMAG stories appeared first in small mags such as The Briar Cliff Review, Roanoke Review, and New Letters and also one–“Remission”–in the mass-market pub Good Housekeeping, which is the coolest thing ever.


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