What Will Happen to the Novel
After This?

On the Inevitable Post-Pandemic Genre

It was only three days into our self-isolation that my husband turned to me and said: “Isn’t it depressing that we already know Ben Lerner will write the best American novel about this?”[1]

“The real question is,” said a novelist friend that night on FaceTime, “will anyone even be interested in reading about this once it’s over? I, for one, am already sick of it.”

In the Times, Sloane Crosley published a brief essay about the inevitability of a coming storm of coronavirus novels. “For writers, as the tentacles of the coronavirus unfurl each day, everything is copy,” she writes. “But what happens when every writer on the planet starts taking notes on the same subject? Will we all hand in our book reports simultaneously, a year from now?” She warns of the dangers of writing about tragedy without waiting for enough time to pass (and she’s not alone: “If you’re writing fiction about this, please don’t,” Amber Sparks tweeted. “Give it twenty years.”), but thinks we’re all going to do it anyway.

Well, maybe we are, and maybe we aren’t, but let’s dispense with a few things right away. Despite the persistent narrative to the contrary, many people do not have an abundance of free time right now. Lots of people, particularly those with children, and particularly women, have significantly less free time. (“Take notes during this time!” well-meaning writers chirp on Twitter. “Keep a diary of how you feel every day! It will be a record of these times!” Who knew the pandemic was going to come with this much homework?)

And those who do find themselves with free time may not be feeling particularly creative—persistent existential dread is really not that conducive to creative work, in my experience—especially if that free time comes because your job (and therefore income, because America) has dissolved. The Starving Artist ideal we all love so dearly is mostly a myth, and always has been. When you have to work all day to satisfy your basic needs, it’s hard to write the Great American Novel in the hour you have left before sleep. And that’s at the best of times. This is, of course, a large contributor to mainstream literature’s entrenched upper-middle-class whiteness, but that’s an essay for another time.

For now, let’s start with as simple an assumption as Crosley’s, which is that writers, as a species, will continue to write, through and after this.[2] What, then, will the novel look like on the other side? Surely we aren’t all writing pandemic novels. Or maybe we are, even if we don’t think that’s what we’re doing.

”Post-pandemic fiction” may well be characterized by a distrust of capitalism and authority, and an acceptance of corruption, instability, and danger as a shimmering, distorted baseline.

It’s a given that large-scale traumatic events do and must impact the art made in their wake. WWI helped usher in the modernist tradition, and many still widely read literary classics were written in response to its violence and social upheaval—Mrs Dalloway, The Waste Land, A Farewell to Arms, etc. WWII spawned a literary boom, particularly for American literature, which was being newly internationalized, and its readers in turn exposed to works in translation. There are still a zillion books set during WWII published every year. After 9/11, we got a lot of bad novels and a few good ones. Most of them feel, in retrospect, a little cheap. Maybe more time will change this. (In my opinion, the best art about 9/11 is still the memorial at Ground Zero: the only words it needs are the names of those who died.) The financial crisis was relatively quiet, fiction-wise—though Emily St. John Mandel’s recent The Glass Hotel is a very good novel in part about a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. The Trump-related novels and stories have been trickling out, too, though most of us aren’t ready to pay much attention to them.

Of these historical events, the closest comparison for the coronavirus pandemic, at least in the United States, and especially in New York, where I am writing this, is 9/11. Like 9/11, the pandemic hit us without warning—or to be more precise, hit us with lots of warning that our government ignored. Everything, it seemed, changed in a moment. One day, we felt secure in our relative realities, and the next, we were revealed to be hopelessly vulnerable. Like 9/11, Covid-19 has, and will, change the way we think about ourselves, and our country, and our society.

But of course, 9/11 also isn’t an exact model for the coronavirus pandemic—nothing is, at least nothing most people alive today have witnessed. Right now, unlike after 9/11, almost everyone in the country is feeling this acutely, every day—which is not to say that people across the country did not mourn 9/11, only that for most people outside of New York City, daily life was not affected. And now, unlike after 9/11, there’s no obvious enemy to declare outside our own bungling government (though boy, the racists will try). Maybe more importantly for our purposes here, the pandemic is simply less comprehensible, less categorizable, than 9/11. It’s as destabilizing as Trump’s election, only without the absurdity. You can compare it to the Spanish flu all you want—it’s still too big to fully wrap our heads around. The prevailing feeling is one of uncertainty. Everyone’s plans have been canceled. It feels like the future has been canceled.

To that end, I actually think we’re getting a little taste of how we’re going to feel when we stop denying the facts and effects of climate change. I’ve been thinking a lot these last few weeks about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, in which the earth has more or less decided to reject humanity, and is doing its best to shake them off—though of course, humanity continues to cling. That’s what it feels like right now. It feels like nature has finally had enough.

I say all of this only to consider how these specific-yet-ubiquitous feelings might turn up in our novels in the years to come.

Actually, the Covid-19 books are already appearing. “Authors battle to publish the first Covid-19 bestseller,” read one headline. The apparent winner of this battle is Scottish writer Peter May, whose pandemic novel Lockdown was rejected by publishers in 2005 for being “too unrealistic,” but who managed to get it published this week, for obvious reasons. Then there’s Slavoj Žižek’s PANDEMIC!: Covid-19 Shakes the World, whose publicity copy reads:

As an unprecedented global pandemic sweeps the planet, who better than the supercharged Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek to uncover its deeper meanings, marvel at its mind-boggling paradoxes, and speculate on the profundity of its consequences, all in a manner that will have you sweating profusely and gasping for breath?

Žižek is donating all royalties from the book to Médecins Sans Frontières, and of course it is not a novel—but the language still feels a little soon.

According to my therapist, the pandemic hasn’t really changed the personal landscape of any of her clients—whatever was going on before is still there, only intensified.

One prevailing opinion is that anything written about this moment while we’re still in it is necessarily going to be pretty bad. “Thinking about all the terrible fiction that will be written about the quarantine,” tweeted Moira Donegan. Phoebe Morgan, an Editorial Director at HarperCollins UK, agrees with my novelist friend—she tweeted that she is “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.”

Still, those currently writing books set in the “present” now have to decide whether they will acknowledge two deadly global disasters—Trump and Covid-19.

English-language literary culture is not a monolith, and as it (slowly, painfully) opens to include books by marginalized writers and works in translation, it is becoming even more diffuse, which is a good thing. But to the extent that it is at all useful to talk about The Novel or, most gently, trends in novels at all, my guess is that, in a year from now, or two, or three, readers and writers will still be craving what many of us are craving right now: escapism and fantasy on the one hand, and catharsis on the other hand. The catharsis may come in the mode of parody, of surrealist critique, or thinly veiled nonfiction.

Maybe we’ll get some novels about the 1918 epidemic, or I don’t know, diphtheria. Maybe we’ll get minute, personal character studies and large, political/social novels about capitalism and corruption and the way it is killing us—and perhaps less of the middle ground of isolated personal dramas and interactions without larger reverberations. After all, at least in the moment, the material for that has rather dried up. Maybe we’ll get another Desperate Characters, or another The Days of Abandonment.

Literary agent Jennifer Carlson, partner at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, told the LA Times she expected to see more nonfiction “about our ever-deepening systemwide global and domestic sinkholes.” In fiction, she said, “I suspect that magical realism and genre bending could do a lot to address current reality—a ‘Calgon take me away’ setup with a firm grip on human ingenuity and undiluted rage.” (If you’re too young to understand that reference, take a gander. You can feel the undiluted rage, all right.)

According to my therapist, the pandemic hasn’t really changed the personal landscape of any of her clients—whatever was going on before is still there, only intensified. That is, right now, we’re all ourselves, but more. We have been stripped of the comforting, blurring patterns of daily life, and have been boiled down to our purest versions. Maybe the same thing will happen to the novel—the trajectory won’t change, only the intensity. After all, we are already in the midst of a boom of isolation literature, particularly written by and about young women—and I do expect we’ll get more of that, if only because more writers will know what it feels like not to see another person for days on end. This, by the way, is not a complaint. Of all storytelling media, literature is already the best at representing interiority—so if the novel turns in force to this formal strength, so much the better.

To use 9/11 as the closest working model again: the best 9/11 novels evoke the atmosphere of the country at the time—and the city in particular—as opposed to the event itself. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is not really about 9/11, but about the way it felt to be alive at that time. And just like 9/11 reverberated throughout American culture, changing the tenor even of media that did not directly address it, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to infect even those novels that skirt it with a mood—”post-pandemic fiction,” characterized by a distrust of capitalism and authority, and an acceptance of corruption, instability, and danger as a shimmering, distorted baseline.

Actually, I predict that the best pandemic novels will be novels that barely mention the pandemic, but rather investigate the weirdness, tedium, ambient anxiety, dread, and uncertainty it has created in so many of our lives. For instance, who is going to write the novel based on the couple who were stranded on their honeymoon in the Maldives, the only guests left at a hotel whose rooms start at $750 a night, totally alone except for the hotel’s entire staff, who cannot go home because of the quarantine regulations and therefore must continue to serve these two people candlelit dinners at/until the end of time, and who, in their boredom/nihilism, “dote on the couple ceaselessly”? A novel about this would have to be a semi-surrealist narrative about loneliness, capitalism, monotony, red tape, rage, mental deterioration, and, I guess, snorkeling. Maybe it could alternate between the perspectives of the couple and a few of the staff members. Maybe it could have a section from the perspective of the hotel. That is the coronavirus novel I want to read. [3]

Finally, this may be obvious, but in the end, the true answer to the question I am asking here is that the fate of the novel is tied to our own: that is, it all depends on what happens to us, and we have no idea what is going to happen to us. If this pandemic lasts a few months and then dissolves, or if we quickly find a way to treat almost everyone who is infected, or if we are able to produce a vaccine, and (importantly) if we are able to learn from this and protect ourselves as much as possible from future pandemics, society, and therefore, literature may be able to smooth over the rough patch.

Many writers will just ignore those few months in 2020 when we were all trapped in our houses and thousands of people died. After all, people still hesitate to insert cell phones into their fiction—in large part, I’ve always believed, because the classics they grew up reading and venerating as the pinnacle of Literature don’t have them. They don’t have this, either. If, on the other hand, we wind up facing years of sickness, fear, and economic destabilization, I think we’ll all have to grapple with it one way or another. Maybe we will anyway. Only time will tell.

*

[1] Very pithy, and probably correct. Though, for the record, what about Don DeLillo, or Ottessa Moshfegh, or Paul Beatty—and hey, Pynchon’s still alive.

[2] “What will happen to the novel” is not the same question as “what will happen to publishing” though both are being asked right now, as they have been asked for centuries, with much hand-wringing. I have no idea what’s going to happen to publishing, but I am spending my extra income ordering books from my local bookstore.

[3] Yes, hello, I am a Virginia Woolf stan.

Emily Temple
Emily Temple
Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.





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