Thursday, 19 March 2020

Week Forty-Six: Fiction in the Age of Coronavirus

We live in unprecedented, rather than interesting, times. In a few short weeks, ordinary life has become, well, extraordinary. Not to mention frightening. We have no idea what will happen next. Worst of all, some of us may die, or have loved ones who will die, a grim new reality made clear to us by politicians and news bulletins alike.

As writers, and especially perhaps as genre writers, we are accustomed to presenting the everyday and mundane in our novels, as an anchor for the otherwise outlandish world of our plots. As part of our skill set, we construct an accepted - and acceptable - fictional version of 'reality' as our characters know it and as our particular genres demand.

But what should we do when that 'everyday reality' has shifted sideways - almost overnight - and is now far from anything we have ever known in our lifetimes? When our realistic characters are now more likely to be in lockdown for anything up to half a year, and therefore unable to commit or investigate murders during that time frame, to meet friends or loiter in cafes, go to concert halls and theatres, travel anywhere beyond the end of their garden path - if they're lucky enough to have one - have sex, or fall in love? When apocalypse has actually become a thing?

We are at least used to the solitary life as writers. Self-isolating holds fewer terrors and issues for us than most other people working from home, I should imagine.

But as writers we are faced with a choice, it seems to me.

We stick our literary fingers in our ears - 'la la la' - and pretend we still live in that Other World, the one we inhabited roughly three weeks ago, and write characters who fit that lifestyle, despite the fact that it's becoming harder to envisage going out for a latte or booking a flight to Greece or dropping a book off at the library or sticking a knife between the vicar's shoulder blades ...

Or we accept that the world has changed, and therefore set our books in a speculative future world, when (hopefully) the coronavirus crisis has passed but is definitely still a thing. A world where characters may well be happy to murder each other - perhaps more so than ever! - but police are less well-equipped to investigate because of reduced numbers or shaky infrastructure, when sleek, Armani-clad executive heroes are few and far between because even the biggest companies have lost billions, and friends are less ready to shake hands or air-kiss on meeting, or new lovers to fall into bed together (just in case the infection is still around), and the world is financially on its knees.

 One of my writer friends said recently that it was becoming harder and harder, as she wrote her current novel, to remember what used to be normal everyday behaviour in a normal everyday world. Because that life and that world are both rapidly slipping away from our memories ... We are already adjusting to our new reality. Soon, even the most insistent coronavirus denier will find it hard to depict our world before the plague with any confidence, nor will readers believe in their now unrealistic reality.

And yes, what about reading fiction?

It seemed at first that people were eager to reach for plague fiction, for disaster and apocalypse novels, out of a ghoulish desire to mock this new reality with previous fictional versions of it.

But actually, it seems to me that people want to read about apocalypse because they are experiencing it first-hand, and instinctively need a fiction that reflects their strange and uncertain new reality.

Of course, as the horror continues, that urge may change. People may grow weary of finding reality in their fiction, and will turn to fantasy instead. Even though that 'fantasy' may simply be a contemporary book set before the virus, in the comforting pre-2020 world they remember ...

I think we ignore coronavirus at our peril as writers. (Though agents and publishers may well ask us to, fearing the saleability of any genre fiction that flirts too closely with reality.) Even historical writers may find themselves instinctively choosing plague periods for their next novels. Of course, we may all have pre-corona novels in hand, and can't suddenly introduce global death and disaster partway through a light-hearted romance or a chilling murder mystery, even though that is exactly what has happened to all of us, out here in Corona Land.

All of our lives have been INTERRUPTED by the virus and nothing will ever be the same again. How could it be?

We won't all come out from self-isolation or lockdown in four to six months and find life continues as usual. The virus may slow, but it won't disappear completely. And by then, many things we once took for granted - food chains, coffee shops, street vendors, household names, even global transport infrastructure - may have been irreparably damaged by a long income freeze or simply gone bust in the meantime. And some publishers and bookstores may even be on that list ...

I don't have any answers, I'm afraid. I only have questions.

But when we've finished writing our current books, do we continue in the same vein, as virus 'deniers' in fiction terms at least, on the grounds that most people, terrified by what is happening around them, must inevitably want to read about a world BEFORE the virus, because they find that lost reality easier and more comforting to experience?

Or do we start to write books set in the real world, in the post-virus world, where our characters and their choices reflect our own uncertainties in the age of coronavirus?

P.S. My latest publication is UNDER AN EVIL STAR (oh, a prediction!!) out last month, first in a new crime thriller series.

Only 99p/99c for the ebook.

Please consider buying if you'd like to support my writing. Thank you.

Under An Evil Star on Amazon UK


Under An Evil Star on Amazon com (USA)

1 comment:

  1. I've come to the conclusion that my WIP (set June-September 2020) and almost ready to go to printers, will be set in a slightly alternative 2020 - there is corona virus, people do still horde toilet rolls but the key character is still doing her GCSEs. I can't change 2020 for 2019 as there are other topic things I need to include. Hoping readers will forgive me - there will be an author's note! I might stick to historical fiction rather than time slip in future - assuming there may be a future!


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