Like a storm of bad metaphors flooding your nearest bookstore, the biggest publishing trend of 2006 is already Hurricane Katrina. While the typical publishing process—from a book's initial conception to actual printing—spans years, at least 20 books that center on the horrific storm and its aftermath will hit shelves within the next six months.
This isn't the first such wave of disaster-related titles: More than 50 Sept. 11-related books were published in the first six months following the attacks; to date, more than 600 titles that center on 9/11 have been released.
When I lived in New York, I witnessed the World Trade Center collapse from my apartment's rooftop. When I lived in New Orleans, I taught science in an inner-city middle school and waited tables in the French Quarter. I once served a Jack and Coke to Mayor Ray Nagin; he smiled and checked out my cleavage. I could provide photos. I could do some research. Hell, according to this publishing trend, I should have my own book deal by now. After all, publishing is a business, and businesses must pay mind to hot topics.
"I think when something like this happens, you can either address it or ignore it," says Liz Van Hoose at Knopf Publishing, which released Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap. While its contents have nothing to do with the hurricane, Knopf released the book last November (four months prior to its original publication date) in order to use Katrina as its marketing strategy. "We felt that it would be important for people to see it soon after [Katrina], rather than later," Van Hoose says, "when people would have forgotten about New Orleans entirely."
What might be good for business isn't always good for readers. What gets squeezed out of the publication process from books released so soon after disasters is precisely what books alone can offer: thorough, investigative research conducted without regard to the stringent word-length or time constraints imposed by magazines and newspapers. To wit: The first of the 9/11 books to garner wide critical acclaim (including a National Book Award nomination), was 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. It wasn't released until January 2005—more than three years after 9/11.
Now, take at look at the Katrina books already available: Eyes of the Storm, from the Dallas Morning News; Time magazine's Hurricane Katrina: The Storm That Changed America; CNN Reports: Katrina—State of Emergency. All of these books are essentially photo albums that regurgitate information we've already seen countless times in newspapers, on the Internet and on TV.
Not all new Katrina books are filled with photos. Why New Orleans Matters, author Tom Piazza's first-person riff on his favorite haunts and memories of the city, was happily written in a single month at the request of Judith Regan, president of Regan Books, the imprint of HarperCollins behind literary masterpieces like The Truth About Diamonds: A Novel, by Nicole Richie and How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, by Jenna Jameson. WNOM does give a very short account of the storm near the end of the book, but it's marred by horrific passages like "sympathetic U.S. Marshals who had also stopped to make sure we had business at the house, one of whom was from Las Vegas and one from I think it was Minnesota, maybe it was North Dakota, I'm sorry I can't remember, I can't remember everything, why don't you go down there yourself if you want to know, maybe it was Wisconsin."
Upcoming Katrina titles—including Waters Dark & Deep; The Ravaging Tide; New Orleans, Mon Amour; and Through the Eye of the Storm: Finding Faith and Redemption in the Aftermath of Katrina—run the gamut of related topics. Can this flood of quickie, pop-history titles hurt New Orleans? Yes, by ultimately trivializing the disaster.
"There is ample evidence that people get 'satiated' on particular topics," says Shanto Iyengar, a communications and political-science professor at Stanford University. Iyengar says a trend of media coverage of natural disasters is that "most accounts focus on individual victims or 'human interest' perspectives (e.g., the reports of looting and disorder in New Orleans), that often makes it difficult for the reader to understand the underlying context of an event. Soft news rules. The inevitable consequence is a confused and uninformed audience."
In other words, the kind of books that can come out immediately following an unforeseeable event—emphasizing photography, personal stories and knee-jerk opinions—ultimately misinform the public. The pop Katrina books will satiate the public's appetite for the hurricane—even relief efforts—so that by the time any books of real substance come out, the "Katrina fad" will long have passed.
While these sorts of titles don't inform beyond a very base level already shown on TV, their publishers can help by raising funds to rebuild the ravished areas they're about. Books are big business: According to the Book Industry Study Group, over 2.34 billion books were sold in 2005, netting a total of over $30 billion. Noticing which "hot" disaster books funnel proceeds to charity is revealing.
Time's Hurricane Katrina book states that "$0.25 of your purchase will support the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund from now until December 31, 2005." Meanwhile, CNN is donating 100 percent of its book proceeds to Katrina relief, with Andrews McMeel Publishing matching that donation.
When I asked Piazza if any of the proceeds from his book, Why New Orleans Matters, were going to charities, the author snapped: "No. It's not a benefit book." He's got a point: His book isn't helping the city. But it's not helping our nation comprehend the impact of such a catastrophe, either. While books like Piazza's—or ones filled with photos of homes reduced to rubble—may help raise awareness, they ultimately do little but perpetuate the aimless anxiety that helps contribute to a speedy "Katrina burnout."
So why does New Orleans matter? It matters because of Tennessee Williams, A Confederacy of Dunces, Louis Armstrong, even Emeril "Bam!" Lagasse. It matters for the same reason that New York and Southeast Asia matter: Because of the ordinary, beautiful human lives inhabiting them and support their glorious cultural heritage. 9/11, Katrina and the long forgotten 2004 tsunami matter because they're wake-up calls for each of us.
Reporters, authors and publishers have the power to help us not only comprehend but learn from the catastrophes. They have an opportunity both to provide a broader context and to scrutinize actions in detail, such as our president's decision to spend billions of dollars to bomb one country at the expense of rebuilding—or, better yet, saving—his own. Now that's a book I'd love to read.