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What do we write now?

V0042005 The dance of death: the careless and the careful. Coloured a

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in a comment that I had two virus story ideas I didn’t know what to do with. This prompted a reply from Carl Reed to say that he’d withdrawn his poem Pandemic from an upcoming collection, “fearing accusations of tastelessness and/or vulgar opportunism.” I applauded Carl’s decision, adding that if my stories were finished, I certainly wouldn’t release them now.

But such concerns won’t stop many from writing about pandemics. Confinement has already led to a steep rise in submissions to literary agents, and agent John Jarrold, who specialises in science fiction and fantasy, expects apocalypse scenarios to feature prominently. Phoebe Morgan of Harper Collins cautions against it: “I am advising my authors not to add pandemic into contemporary novels. My reasoning: I don’t think anyone wants to remember this when they’re trying to escape. Fiction is fiction.” The concern there appears to be more commercial than ethical, and she may not be right anyway: the film Contagion, for example, has seen a surge in popularity. Either way, a glut of books on the same theme is likely to be counterproductive, and it will be some time before the better ones get to stand out from the dross.

I have no intention of moving my stories further up my list of priorities, but I have been noting a few references about the current situation which may be useful if and when I do tackle them. I’d already done a hefty amount of research into the science, so most of these articles relate instead to human behaviour – which is what in the end matters most in a story. What we’re seeing now is real life examples of such behaviour in action, and I must admit that as a writer, it’s the morally repugnant behaviour that fascinates me most. Stealing face masks, internet scams, deliberately coughing over people, slashing ambulance tyres – on one level I simply shake my head in disbelief and despair, on another I’m intrigued by the psychology behind it.

There’s nothing new here. Albert Camus explored these issues in The Plague, published in 1947, in which the disease itself acts as a metaphor for the pestilence of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Camus describes a wide range of behaviour, from the selfish to the stoically resistant. While the book is concerned with moral choices, he avoids excessive condemnation or praise: the selfish aren’t decried as despicable, nor is Dr. Rieux, the book’s main protagonist, extolled as heroic. While one behaviour is to be preferred, and eventually prevails, both are understandable reactions to the absurdity of the human condition which the plague merely throws into sharp relief.

One reason I undertook a pandemic story was my annoyance at The Walking Dead. Yes, it was packed with suspense (though even that was wearing thin by episode 972), but I found its depiction of human behaviour shallow and Manichean. With its unrelenting message that man is a wolf to man, it was some way off the subtlety displayed by the likes of Camus. But then I guess that consideration of political and ethical choices doesn’t have viewers gripping the edge of the seat quite as well as a horde of zombies. It’s those very choices, though, which I’d like one day to explore.

To end on a more practical note, Kevin Brennan wonders how you deal with this pandemic in any book purportedly set in the present. With the normal world upended, how do you handle that if your novel takes place this year or next? My current WIP is set in 2018, so I’m not facing that issue – but perhaps some of you are? It remains to be seen if the world will durably change when we emerge from this, and if so, how. Right now, what a novel set in ‘the present’ will look like is anybody’s guess.


23 thoughts on “What do we write now?

  1. This is a thoughtful and timely post. I very recently read a “modern day fairytale” written last year but set in 2020. The MC time travels and most of the story takes place in the 1800s but in the beginning, the MC goes to bars with her friends and, obviously, makes no mention of the pandemic. I suppose it’s best to either set your book so far in the future that you won’t be around to see how close you are or in a recent, past year.

    Liked by 4 people

      • Yeah, what was Orwell thinking?

        Sed in mane alia (as trouble makers everywhere like to say), maybe stories set in a specific future year say more about the time in which they are written than about the probability they will prove accurate when their time comes. A warning for a future to avoid or hope for a future to come or just an alternate escape from reality.

        Liked by 4 people

    • A good example there, Saramzerig – though I suppose a reader would make allowances for not being able to predict the future. But someone now wanting to write a book that’s set in the present can only write one about a pandemic related theme, such as isolation. If it’s about baseball, as in Kevin Brennan’s example, there’s a problem.
      Absolutely right, Sue – and that was certainly Orwell’s intention.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I.C. “No Pun Achieved” Kreisberg publishes Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine from his home “a 10-15 minute walk from the most overrun hospital in the hardest hit borough of the hardest hit city of the hardest hit state.” New York City.

    Our own Writers Co-op member, Adam Stump said, “The Covid testing center opened at 8AM. I called at 8:01 and they answered on the first ring. I simply said, “This is Adam Stump, and I—“ The woman on the line said, “Stop right there. You said you’re Adam Stump? You’re the top name on my list to call. We got your report and referral from the ER and want you in as soon as you can get here.” I’ve never had such celebrity treatment!” Adam has since (almost totally) recovered.

    Curtis Bausse is, you know, living in France. Also hard hit by the pandemic. “No going out without a certificate, which we print and sign ourselves, saying where we’re going and why it’s indispensable. Otherwise a fine of 135 euros.”

    Ian is publishing issue 2 of the magazine this week. Adam continues to have short stories accepted by publishers. Curtis is busy editing Vol 3 of The Rabbit Hole anthology series. And I am at long last getting into my next novel.
    All of which may suggest that the pandemic will have no significant, long term effect on we who live the writing life or on what we write. That life’s ups and downs are merely background.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Look at fiction written around 1920. How much of it featured the 1918 flu pandemic? None that I recall. But many focused on WW1. So I think as soon as this is over it will be forgotten. And any stories focusing on it also.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Interesting point. Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (which I haven’t read) is said to be the best fictional account of the flu. But there weren’t many, as this article points out: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/flu-novels-great-pandemic-180965205/
      The war, on the other hand, was a man-made horror which ravaged Europe for four whole years. Though it killed fewer people than the flu, it was packed with suffering, cruelty, tragedy, heroism, self-sacrifice, stupidity… That it eclipsed the flu (and continues to do so) in its impact on the collective imagination is no surprise.

      Liked by 4 people

    • @MIKE VAN HORN I recall being surprised when I first heard of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic -amazed, really, at the devastating effects it had on communities. One story was written by a postman who walked deserted streets to deliver mail to people who never came out while he was there. A nurse told how people were left on stretchers on the floor next to a bed, until the occupant of the bed died. I’m guessing, but maybe we tend to celebrate wars we won and erase true horrors from our collective memory.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Curtis, I agree with your sentiment wholeheartedly. I’ve found it absolutely impossible to have actual conversation or sharing of ideas through the medium of social networking. Everything is knee-Jerk and lacking any semblance of nuance. Question anything and you become an anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorist. Go along with the administration’s reports and you’re a closed-minded bigot. Report a death toll and you’re a fear monger.

    I understand that writers deal with things by writing them. However, the things I’ve read during quarantine that discuss the pandemic are what you state: stark condemnations of one side or the other. As people are doing what they can to survive and keep their sanity intact, I think that grace should rule the day. Let us avoid either extreme and be gracious when dealing with one another. And, for heaven’s sake, let’s stop submitting so many pandemic stories. In the glut of submissions, I think we’ll find in their midst very few jewels that will stand the test of the year 2020. We’ve only just begun and already it’s passé.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. BTW, the next piece I’m cleaning up for submission is a flash fiction about a close encounter of the third kind. 😁

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks, Adam. I quite agree that it takes a while to digest and reflect upon big events and set them in perspective. Though apparently there’s already a Spanish sitcom about living in lockdown which is reasonably well done. We live in an instant society.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. DocTom says:

    Hmmm…I think the acceptance/rejection of an apocalyptic plot turns on the immediacy of the event to the individual. Currently, there have been a number of global climate change stories (Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Shipbreaker”, and “Drowned Cities” despite being YA are excellent examples) which nobody complains about, I assume because despite the danger involved, nobody sees any impending risk to themselves. When Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy hit, the entire world wasn’t locked down. On the other hand, events that have intensely affected large percentages of a population are often intentionally forgotten once they are over. For instance, Matthew Brady, one of the main photographers responsible for documenting the American Civil War, went bankrupt following the end of hostilities because no one wanted to be reminded of it. A “fun fact” is that large numbers of his important wet plate negatives were destroyed because they were auctioned off due to his bankruptcy and ended up being used as glass panes in greenhouses where sunlight gradually bleached out the negatives.
    Be that as it may, post-apocalyptic stories have been with us forever, only the nature of the cause has changed. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s it was always survival in a post nuclear war landscape (beware of the mutants!). Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the apparent end of the threat, the cause has simply changed to invasion from outer space (although there has been a major overlap going all the way back to Wells invasion from Mars), and now, the zombie apocalypse. In each case, humanity is brought to the brink of extinction, but, of course, survives due to our strength and pure pluck. For the individual, it’s easy to envision yourself as one of the truly heroic survivors. This probably accounts for the major increase in gun sales in the U.S., where many see themselves heroically fighting off others while trying to protect their homes. Unfortunately, in the case of the corona virus the individual is faced with a one-on-one struggle (and you can’t shoot a virus). The result is a truly terrifying situation as compared to a pass-the-popcorn scary story. Dr. Fauci will not appear at tomorrow’s press conference with a few billion doses of a vaccine in tow.
    [Aside to Curtis: The Walking Dead is an excellent example of popcorn horror, especially since they can keep you guessing regarding who will survive. That show has killed off more well-liked characters than a shelf full of Russian novels. And btw, as someone trained in the sciences, I personally found their explanation for how the virus worked in a season 1 episode at the CDC totally hilarious. It just goes to show that if you take something based on magic, e.g., zombies, and try to give it a scientific explanation it just looks silly. And naming the last surviving scientist at the CDC Edward Jenner was a stroke of genius – the writers were probably laughing their asses off!]

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks for the informative comment, Doc. I wasn’t aware of the Brady story. It’s true that it took a good while before the Holocaust, though known about, permeated into the culture.
      Also true about the plucky post-apocalypse survivors. They make for good characters to identify with, and the situation allows for a wide range of opposing opinions and behaviour. Though the urge to run off and buy a gun is, as always, utterly baffling to a European.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Peter Thomson says:

      “You can’t shoot a virus”:


      The Black Death left a remarkably small literary legacy (it’s off-stage in the Decameron). Defoe is all that comes to mind from the C17 episode. Smallpox is mostly a cosmetic issue in C18 novels.

      Continuing suffering is hard to write about . One pertinent remark is that the true horror of the human condition is not what people can do but what they can get used to.

      On the other hand, one of the most poignant sentences I’ve read is from a Russian memoir, that in the 20’s typhoid epidemic/famine Mother’s would bury their children with mingled grief at the death and relief that there was one less mouth to go hungry.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Some classic pandemic literature may come out of the current crisis. However, I think time needs to elapse before that happens. At some point, I expect that parodies of the current “covid lit” movement will begin appearing.

    As for me, I’ve been researching a novel set in 1968, and I plan to continue with it because those characters’ stories are what I’m interested in.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for the link, Tom. Yes, I think the idea that people want to escape into other stories is wrong. There’s a hunger for accounts that help us get our minds around it, whether scientific or fictional. But I still won’t rush to get my own out.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Doctom sparked a thought: maybe the writers who will be chronicling this pandemic are not working in the medium that (most? some?) of us here are? His mention of the 1950s-1970s made my mind instantly spring to Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone,” which I watch quite a lot. This pandemic–or at least this current iteration thereof, April 2020–might well be covered in the coming months and years in film and television (or perhaps theater), which seem in some ways the prevailing media of the day, rather than written literature, whether genre as in sci-fi, dystopian, or fantasy or in literary fiction. I think the pandemic will, however, lead to an explosion in nonfiction of many subgenres (academic to more accessible to laypeople)–especially now that seemingly large swathes of the population have taken to writing for fun, for relief or self-expression, out of boredom, or for money.

    As a side note, I seem to recall Pepys did at least touch on the bubonic plague in his diary, though I’ve no idea if his work was as contemporarily popular as Dafoe’s. [Again, other media are perhaps more ripe for working plague into the plot, even mordantly: Who can forget “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with its one-liners, visuals, and dialogue centering around the plague and bringing out the dead?]

    Finally, there’s apparently an assertion [at least among some Elizabethan scholars] that the plague concentrated the creative mind and that, as the plague declined, so did the quality of playwrights’ (such as Shakespeare’s) writing. An interesting quote from Doctor Johnson along this line is that “Depend upon it, Sir . . . it concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully when he knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for joining in, Leigh – a very perceptive take. I’m sure you’re right – there are probably dozens of film and TV projects underway. Perhaps the theme with the most potential, whether in writing or film, is confinement – there are so many different situations and it’s brought into focus inequalities both within and between countries. Neighbourliness – or lack of sometimes – is another theme. As ever, it’s down to human relationships, and while medics fighting to keep people alive is what grabs our attention now, it’s probably not the most promising story-telling material.
      Regarding Pepys, the diary wasn’t actually published till the 19th century, and since then has been mainly read, I think, by academic and historians.


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