We’re living through a pandemic. Must we read about one, too?
A few months ago, I posted on Twitter this excerpt from someone’s book review:
“This novel is set in Virginia during two time periods: the early 1940s, and the summer of 2020. Chapters alternate between the two time periods. The story was enjoyable, but every time I came to a chapter set in 2020, I asked myself, ‘When is the author going to say something about COVID-19?’ The answer is — never. I found that very disturbing and distracting. The author apparently wrote the book before the pandemic and made the assumption that summer 2020 would be just like other summers, with large wedding parties, no social distancing, etc. Bad assumption.”
I don’t know this reviewer. She wasn’t talking about my book. But it still hit a nerve — for me and a number of other writers out there.
Obviously, it’s a little absurd to assume that a writer can be a mind-reader. Most traditionally published books are years and years in the making. I don’t think it’s a “bad assumption” to not be able to predict, in your fiction, a global pandemic that kills millions of people, disrupts daily lives, and destroys economies.
That aside, here we are. No excuses now: Writers definitely know about the pandemic. So what now? Do we incorporate covid-19 into our novels? Do readers actually want to read stories set during this time? God help us, are we obligated now, as the reviewer above suggests, to relive it in fiction?
As Washington Post Book World critic Ron Charles says, “The only downside to this damn pandemic finally ending will be having to read all the novels about life under lockdown. Remember when every book felt duty bound to shoehorn September 11 into the plot? Here we go again…”
Like Ron, right now, I have zero interest in writing or reading about the pandemic. I write novels about domestic suspense, and you might think the pandemic would be a good fit for these kinds of books. People have to stay home, stay isolated, all while there’s an invisible danger lurking that you never know when will strike. Being stuck at home for months on end with only your closest family can drive a person crazy (so I’ve heard, anyway), and isn’t that fodder for heightened tensions and violent actions?
But, alas, I like my characters to go out into the world and do things. Interact with people. Read facial expressions. How are my characters going to go to a bar and drink too much and meet a spooky stranger when everything’s shut down? When going to the grocery store is an anxiety-inducing event, the possibilities for real tension just sort of feel, well, anti-climactic.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. Or that it won’t be done. I’m guessing there are brilliant writers out there right now crafting wonderful novels set in these crazy times. And they will find an audience. Michelle Richter, my agent at FUSE Literary, seems open to pitches about pandemic-set books if they are the right fit for her.
“If something is set this year and is about the quarantine experience, sort of like a locked-room crime, maybe,” she says. “But a medical thriller about covid? Nope.”
One of the most avid readers I know, my friend April Kaminski, is also open to reading books set during lockdown. “It is such a strange time of disconnection with other humans, and I’d be so interested to hear what the experience could have been like for others,” she says.
However, she also admits it might not be for everyone. “I wonder, do people want to hear about a horror story they actually lived through, or only invented ones? I might feel differently if someone I loved died from covid-19. It might be too painful to dwell on.”
Her point is a good one. DC-area writer P.J. Devlin’s brother David died of covid-19 earlier this year. Before he died, P.J. had been including references to the pandemic in her work-in-progress, but after his death, she went back into the manuscript and took them all out.
“I don't want to write about it or read about it,” she says. “I've had enough of it.”
Dru Ann Love, who runs the popular blog Dru’s Book Musings and loves cozy mysteries, has also had enough. “For cozies, especially, I think authors should stay away from it. Or if they must mention it, make it seem like it was in the past.”
But even darker writers of thrillers and suspense novels are shying away. Writers like Tana French, Jennifer Hillier, and Andi Bartz have said during virtual events that they want to avoid setting books in 2020. Instead, many authors have chosen to set their books earlier to avoid dealing with it, which might work for a while, but we can’t have every book from here on out set in 2019.
Perhaps the solution is to just skip ahead and set everything in 2025, safely away from the horror that is this year. However, then we risk missing some other unprecedented global crisis that will wreck our book reviews. I can imagine readers will complain that the books set in 2025 didn’t mention the Magical Unicorn Invasion or the Great Pasta Shortage.
In 20 years or so, this point will probably be moot. By then, we’ll be ready to curl up with an escapist historical novel set in 2020; we’ll have gotten enough social distance from masks and lockdowns and toilet paper shortages. Maybe it will seem nostalgic and unreal that we had to cancel Halloween, teach our children through computer screens, and endure a leader who mocked science and politicized health precautions.
Yes, maybe — maybe — years from now, when this is all behind us, when it doesn’t require a Xanax to watch a movie in a theater again, we’ll want to read about the pandemic. Until then, give me a good ol’ book about 2019. Or better yet, just don’t mention the year at all.
[Editor’s note: This marks the final installment of “Long Story Short,” which husband-and-wife authors Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski debuted on April 13, 2015. The Independent is grateful for their hard work and looks forward to hounding them into writing features and reviews in the years ahead…]