"The smoke was still rising," Viking Penguin executive editor Wendy Wolf recalls of the rush to submit book proposals after September 11. "Because we're downtown, our offices were closed that week. But they were certainly waiting here on Monday morning."
The eagerness clearly went both ways. "For the first four days, I never took a single note," says ex-fireman and author Dennis Smith, whose book Report From Ground Zero arrives next week. "On Tuesday, there were five major publishing houses calling. I'm glad they were fast, because then I started taking notes, which are actually very, very filthy and wrinkled."
As we move past the six-month anniversary, marked by the broadcast of Gedeon and Jules Naudet's 9/11 last Sunday (not to mention this issue of New York Magazine), the culture industry is making a crucial shift from first-draft history to more ambitious cultural reckonings.
It hasn't been just book editors snapping up proposals -- though they've bought everything from David Halberstam's Firehouse to Cantor Fitzgerald chief Howard Lutnick's story to Murray Weiss's biography of prescient former FBI agent and WTC chief of security John O'Neill. (There is, in fact, a separate O'Neill industry, with several TV and film projects: An article by New York's Robert Kolker was bought for TV, and Lawrence Wright has an MGM-backed movie deal.)
O.J. chronicler Lawrence Schiller is working on a script for CBS about United Flight 93, and there are no fewer than three TV projects about Rudy Giuliani, including Brad Grey's In Memoriam, which will be broadcast on Memorial Day.
Underlying the media's interest in 9/11 is a question of authority and authenticity. There are subjects the victims can discuss -- Greg and Lauren Manning's book talks about her recovery from severe burns incurred in the lobby of One World Trade -- that the observers cannot; the Naudets are quick to point out that Jules stopped filming two burning people he saw fleeing the building. And everyone takes pains to explain that they're donating money to 9/11 charities.
"It's all a matter of taste," says Lloyd Kramer, who's directing an ABC documentary based on Smith's book, "and every one of these programs should be judged at the highest level of taste."
"Is there a way to police good taste? In Iraq, there is," muses Newsweek's "Homefront" columnist, Steve Brill, who is also writing a book (reportedly for $1 million) about the country's recovery. "The best antidote to all that is embarrassment. Of course, there are some people who just can't be embarrassed."
"There will inevitably be a level of grief pornography," says writer Tom Beller, who just released a book of 9/11 testimonies culled from his Website. "If this book is part of the rising tide, then so be it. It's in a New Yorker's nature to rebel against sanctimony."
And one reason for the outpouring of print and video is that New York is, among other things, the media capital of the world. "It happened in the backyard of almost every major writer, photographer, and editor," says Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter, co-producer of the Naudets' film. "It was just so close and so enormous."
Still, others feel too close to what happened. "I've had six book offers myself," says Marian Fontana, who lost her husband, a firefighter. "I'm in the middle of it -- and I'm grieving heartily. If you're directly affected, I don't see how you could come up with something. You're not thinking clearly."
With such an unprecedented event, there is no telling what our appetite is -- or will be -- for dramatic and historical productions based on 9/11. "What's working right now is fantasy and escapism: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter," says Ben Silverman, the agent at William Morris who handled the Naudets' film. "And especially Friends.
"Television is looking for events," he continues, explaining the limits of 9/11 as a cultural product. "But this was a horrible disaster that was a television event. The world saw it all go down on television. It's tough to figure out how to top that -- and why would you want to?"