Cognition and dissent

An American Story will be published in the UK and France this week, on 6th September. I shall be discussing the book in Waterstones in Argyle Street, Glasgow this evening, and on Wednesday evening (5th September) I shall be at Waterstones in Gower Street, London. After that I shall be in France for a few weeks, for some similar events in Paris and other places.  I am concerned, though, that the book is not available in the USA. American readers will only be able to buy the Gollancz edition as an e-book, which will be available worldwide immediately. Next year, Gollancz will distribute their print edition in the USA.

Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower (the TV adaptation is on Amazon Prime), said that any writer who takes on the subject of 9/11 is venturing into hallowed ground. (‘Hallowed ground’ is a phrase sometimes applied to the Ground Zero site in New York City.) I’m beginning to see what he meant, as the rejection of my novel by American publishers, large and small, is complete.

Given the known risks of seeming to be an unlucky writer venting his outrage at purblind publishers, here’s the story. I am not new to the problems of finding American publishers. At least two of my books, The Quiet Woman and The Dream Archipelago, have never been published in the USA, and The Separation received a similar thumbs-down from trade publishers until it was picked up by Michael Walsh’s niche imprint, Old Earth Books. (The Separation still has not found a mass-market edition in the USA.) Even The Prestige, which has been in print for more than two decades, had a struggle to find an American offer back in the day. Now it is happening again, this time to An American Story.

As a writer you have to take the rough with the smooth. No one owes you a living. You learn to shrug these things off, although shrugging off non-publication in the world’s largest English-language market is not easy if you make your living from writing books. By no means am I the only writer this has happened to – many others in this country and elsewhere have suffered worse than me.

Looking through the editors’ notes of rejection, and setting aside the opening lip-service compliments about my wonderfulness as a writer, presumably an attempt to soften me up, a consistent theme of negativity emerges. They worry about the subject-matter, the difficulty they perceive of selling a book that deals with 9/11, also their wish not to stir up the feelings that such a book inevitably, as they see it, would arouse amongst readers. The word ‘conspiracy’ appears several times.

One of the matters I noticed, while I was doing the necessary research for the novel, was that there are almost no investigative books about 9/11, fact or fiction, from trade or commercial publishers. There have been several novels in which the attacks are mentioned and discussed openly, describing the trauma, the shock, the feelings of anger, etc., and there have been memoirs and books about people’s horrifying experiences and the losses they endured – but there is almost nothing about the immense and intriguing controversy that surrounds the US authorities’ version of what happened.

Most of the books I could find on that subject were either from independent or underground publishers, or were self-published. Many of these books are poorly written. In a similar way, the internet is awash with video material, much of it dealing with shocking, controversial or passionately argued exposés of the events and the official explanations of them, but almost without exception these videos run and re-run familiar images, often in poor video quality, and are amateurishly put together. Overall they lack objectivity or journalistic skill. The internet is one thing, but the almost complete absence of responsible literature from established publishers is a disgrace. The appearance of An American Story from mainstream publishers in the UK and France is therefore a small breakthrough.

My novel (and it is above all just a novel) is in effect about a condition psychologists describe as cognitive dissonance. This identifies a state of mind in which two versions of reality or understanding are held at once, even though they are in conflict with each other. A simple example of cognitive dissonance is the mindset of a tobacco user, who in full awareness of the dangers of smoking clings to certain false beliefs: that there are many other risks in daily life and smoking is no worse than any of those, that smoking is calming and helps concentration, that the medical evidence is wrong or exaggerated, and so on. Heavy drinkers of alcohol make the same sort of denials. Individuals are of course free to make such arguments, because (apart from drunk drivers, etc) most of the damage they do is largely restricted to themselves.

On the macro scale, though, cognitive dissonance is dangerous. Several current examples spring to mind.

The UK government must surely realize the extreme dangers and chaos that their obsession with Brexit is leading this country into. Apart from the unreliable result of an ill-argued referendum there is not a single good reason to pursue this suicidal policy – all the objective evidence bespeaks economic and social ruination. Yet they push on with it, knowing the issues but doggedly ignoring common sense, the lessons of history, the essential qualities of the British nation.

It’s even worse in the USA. With Donald Trump presently occupying the White House, the USA is living under not only the worst and most dangerous president in history, but the one likely to be the worst ever. The evidence of Trump’s incompetence, his low intelligence, his increasing dementia and above all his immoral outlook is everywhere – there are so many proven examples that in the end you start forgetting some of them. Yet he stays in place, apparently secure in his important office because a majority of people in the US are suffering cognitive dissonance. They know full well what a terrible man this is, completely ill-suited to be president, and that he should be removed. But they do nothing. They make excuses, they deny what they know is true.

Then there is 9/11, of which I have written. My novel is about the cognitive dissonance that sustains a myth. Everyone in America knows what happened that day, everyone knows the story that eventually emerged from the US authorities to account for it. Most people have also heard that the story (the ‘American story’ of my title) is full of illogical reasoning, omissions, bad science, inconsistency, implausible explanations, but they go on preferring the official story because it’s simpler and it maintains the status quo ante.

Those unwelcome doubts are raised by people the American media call conspiracy theorists; others are described as ‘truthers’. While loony conspiracy theories spring up these days about almost any publicized violent event, the ‘truth movement’ in the USA is of a different stripe. They are usually lumped in with the cranks, written off by the contempt implicit in the label as oddballs, troublemakers, fringe activists. But in reality the truth movement consists of professional engineers, architects, chemists, airline pilots, physicists, air traffic controllers, scholars, defence analysts. All of these groups (and in membership they number several thousand) have mounted sober and rational dissent from the official story. In every case they back up their arguments with evidence, hard science, clear logic. Necessarily they have had to work outside the mainstream of publishing. The dismissive labelling of them as ‘truthers’ avoids the disagreeable necessity of having to think about what they are pointing out, and more so, takes away the need to do something about it.

9/11 was a disaster of international proportions, its deadly consequences continuing into the present day, but because the attacks happened where they did, the Americans have grabbed the rights to the story. Not all stories are true. Some are cognitively dissonant, full of denial.

My book is a novel, and it stands or falls in that respect. I make no claim for it other than the fact that it is not part of a conspiracy, that I do believe in the truth, and that one should always listen to dissent.