49 Writers: Matthew Komatsu | Raw or Cooked?

Peter Molin, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and
professor of English at West Point, published a post this week on his
outstanding Time Now blog on the difference between “cooked” and “raw” war literature.
And before I forget, if you aren’t tracking Time
, hit the link and add it to your favorites. His posts are the smartest critical
thought on war literature that you can find anywhere on the Interwebz.
I’ve had the pleasure of emailing a few times with
Pete, and he’s a smart guy with informed opinions about the nature of war
stories. His latest post was a great look on some recent war-related stories to
hit the wire. Task and Purpose ran an
on what makes service members natural storytellers, Warhorse ran an essay provocatively titled “The
Redemptive Power of Lying
”, and Humans
of New York
featured several veteran
. All are very different takes on veteran storytelling, but Molin
does a great job of breaking down what they represent by framing them within
Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of “raw” vs. “cooked” art.
The metaphor is fairly self-explanatory, and Molin
explicitly avoids placing inherent value to either. To him, they’re reference
points that help us understand how to evaluate war literature. For example, American Sniper would be a “raw” piece,
versus Redeployment, which is most decidedly
“cooked.” The former focuses on tough aspects of combat, the familiar “war is
hell” tropes; the latter is more careful, considerate, and complex.
Molin’s take is decidedly cooked (in a good way),
and complicated my own opinions on war literature. I consisted for years on a
steady diet of raw war writing. They are stories that captivate the imagination
and have wide popular appeal, but the same simplicity that made those books
great reads eventually frustrated me. Namely because I could not find a way to
frame my own experiences in the same way. And if I couldn’t do that, I had to
wonder if my experience was worth writing at all.
Cooked war writing taught me there was a lot of
room for narratives not dominated by battle and carnage. But in doing so, I may
have shortchanged the value of the raw stuff. Looking back on a lifetime of war
literature, it’s hard to imagine being able to capture the full range of the
wartime experience without having consumed both. Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust will never be as widely
read as the shoot-em-up stuff. But I don’t think I could write about war
without both.

Molin’s metaphorical take is valuable, if only for
its obvious truth: a well-rounded diet includes both raw and cooked foods. It’s
a valuable lesson for any writer: don’t limit what you read (or write for that

49 Writers board member Matthew Komatsu is just trying to find a balance. You can watch him flail on Twitter (@matthew_komatsu) if you like.

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