The Plague Boom

Like many writers in the pandemic age (it feels like an age, but it’s only been a few weeks so far), I have been wondering how best to respond. Poets and nonfiction writers have been the quickest off the mark, with lyrical or pithy dispatches from around the globe. Novelists are having a tougher time. One friend remarked that she couldn’t continue with the characters she’d been writing anymore because they don’t know this is coming. Writing a book set in the present or future suddenly feels impossible—everything has changed.
I’ve never written particularly current books, cleaving to a dictum that I swear I once heard Walter Mosley proclaim, attributing it to E. M. Forster: “A writer must be resolutely out of step with his time.” I’ve never been able to find it, though—if it’s not on this page of 88 unconfirmed Forster quotes, I’m mostly likely misremembering. Maybe it was Proust? Maybe it was Forster quoting Proust?
Anyway, it seems like a good motto for the practitioners of an art that usually takes years before you have anything to show for your efforts. Unless you’re a speculative writer gifted with eerie prescience or, you know, Nostradamus, it’s just not too likely that whatever you happened to be writing right now includes a pandemic.
And should it?
Is that what the people want? My first activity on getting on a bus or into an airport lounge was checking out what everyone else was reading—one among several pleasures spoiled by e-readers, that is, until everything about that scenario became impossible. A quick survey of my virtual world from the safety and isolation of my home makes it appear readers are currently falling into two camps: those deep in a copy of El amor en los tiempos del cólera or La Peste (in the original, because these are also the people who are learning a new language and posting daily pictures of their coronaconfections: homemade croissants filled with hand-mortared almond paste, etc.) vs. those who want to read nothing at all about disease when they are not online.
Briefly, I thought social distance might give me more time, that I might finally get to the piles of books whose uncreased spines, so many resentfully turned backs, surround me. But it turns out that a pandemic is a serious commitment in its own right: you can’t spend hours daily disinfecting groceries and mail while also becoming a lay-epidemiologist and also finally get around to War and Peace and The Red and the Black and all the rest of the huddled masses. So I’m doing less reading than before but find I’m equally interested in plague and nonplague and non-nonplague literature: I’m still interested in the gamut of human experience, in what’s happening now, and what happened 500 years ago, and what might happen in the coming years, near and far.
Similarly, in the first week of isolation, I outlined three different pandemic novels before reverting to work on the novels I had already begun and whose characters and preoccupations miraculously still interested me. That’s not to say I’ll never get back to my pandemic books—one idea was crap, one has legs but is most likely derivative, and one might actually become a book, in time. But I don’t think there’s any hurry.
In time: as writer Michael Kaan put it (I quote loosely, since this was a comment on someone else’s Facebook feed, so I’m never going to be able to find it again), COVID-19 has a 2% mortality rate, whereas climate change is 50 times more deadly: that is, we do face other, worse threats, if we wait for them. Which is to say some writers, appearing resolutely out of step with their time, might just be taking longer steps.
Just as some people have predicted a COVID-19 baby boom (to which one of my friends responded: I’ve been wearing the same pajamas for three days, eating nachos and watching Netflix. Coronavirus baby boom? Not around here.), there could be a Bocaccio-inspired boom of a literary babies in a few years, written by writers more in step than others of us.
But for me, sheltering in place has started to take on this new meaning: sheltering in the books I’m already making, sheltering in the books that already brick in my bed and office (and livingroom and dining room and shower and easy chair), instead of trying to remake my literary life in the image of my manic news feed.

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