Conflict & Justice

The Appetite for Books about Afghanistan

Wars produce books: lots of them. Ten years into the war in Afghanistan, American publishers continue to put out new books about the conflict and the country. But will those books dry up as the United States proceeds to withdraw its forces from the country?

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Adam Tobin, who owns Unnameable Books in Brooklyn, told me, "I could fill this bookstore with books about the Vietnam War that have been published in the last 50 years. And I only have one shelf of space for those books."

Tobin listens to Johnny Cash on the radio as he decides what to stock. He doesn't pick foreign policy books, including ones on Afghanistan, very often. "If I get one that people are looking for, I will sell it quickly", he said, "Otherwise they tend to sit there for a very long time."

Books about current news events go out of date fast. "Even a book that's a bestseller for a moment, six month's later nobody cares about that book anymore."

That's what Jean Mackenzie expects to happen to something she's working on at the moment. Mackenzie is a journalist and journalism trainer who, until last year, lived and worked in Afghanistan. She's writing a chapter on counterinsurgency for a yet-to-be published foreign policy book.

"I wrote the initial draft last year," she said, "and it's only going through the editing process now. I'm reading what I wrote a year ago and it's already out of date. I'll put a new top on it but by the time it's published, which could be a year from now, I don't think that too many people are going to be interested in counter-insurgency in Afghanistan."

In fact, whole subjects can be too unstable for a publisher, said the editorial director of Public Affairs, Clive Priddle. For instance, the Arab Spring has been a hard topic to tackle.

"Because," he said, "I think a lot of people's predictions of the Arab Spring have not been entirely accurate. Do you know what the fate of Syria will be on the first of September? I certainly don't, I don't think anybody does. Could you confidently say that Bahrain will not emerge in street violence? I can't. So those topics are very difficult for us."

Priddle looks for books that tap into themes or story-lines that may touch on current news events but are likely to have a long shelf-life. Public Affairs has a book out now that's not only about the current war in Afghanistan, but about previous wars in the country too.

Still, interest in a place like Afghanistan does come in waves: when a war begins, or ends, or kind of ends. And in between there are lulls, times of fatigue when readers don't want to hear any more about war or corruption or violence against women. As Jean Mackenzie put it, "This is not an appealing story for a lot of people."

But when those waves of interest do roll in, authors and publishers try to be ready. Mackenzie's writing her own book at the moment, based on people she met during her seven years as a journalist in Afghanistan. "I don't want to do another, you know, brave girl in a war zone kind of book," she said. "I think we've had enough of those."

Instead she's writing a novel that charts a decade of war from the perspective of Afghan families. Mackenzie is writing about really personal things, moments that maybe wouldn't make it into a standard foreign policy book on Afghanistan.

Writing a novel means she doesn't have to worry about keeping up with the news, or about seriously risking the reputations of her real-life Afghan friends. "I have been told on more than one occasion by people that I'm fairly close to that were I to write a book that were to expose them, things that they had said to me, things that had happened, that they would come after me and kill me," she said.

Alhough Mackenzie is an American, her determination not to make herself the central character in her book fits in with a trend Public Affairs editor Clive Priddle is seeing across American publishing. "America is listening quite carefully to expertise or just good old-fashioned storytelling from around the world," he said, "in ways that I think it has been reluctant to do previously; some of the self-confidence that we have all the answers here has taken a hit."

Jean Mackenzie gave me a good example, a young Afghan author named Qais [Akbar] Omar who has written a memoir called "A Fort of Nine Towers". "It has yet to be published," she said, "but it's an account from the Afghan perspective of the civil war years and the early days of the international intervention that is just beautiful, and chilling."

"You don't hear Afghans' voices," Omar said over a crackly phone line from Kabul. "And this is exactly what the books written over the past 10 years or more are lacking." Qais Akbar Omar has seen foreign authors come in and write beautiful books about his country but, he said, "most of them are about them."

Jean Mackenzie also told me about another book by Qais Akbar Omar, this one co-written with an American author. It's called Shakespeare in Kabul. Reading it, she said, helped her see the last ten years through Afghan eyes.

"It really made me very humble."

Correction: the radio version of this story incorrectly states that 'A Fort of Nine Towers' by Qais Akbar Omar is a novel; it is a memoir.