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  • Dave Butler

The Importance of Being Current?

By Dave Butler

I’m sure that both Pam and Greg -- and many other fiction writers -- have been asked, at least in the last few months: “In the novel you’re working on now, has COVID-19 found its way into the plot? If so, why? If not, why not?”

It’s an interesting question, which got me thinking about whether I should, or shouldn’t in my current work.

As a writer, if you do choose to work COVID into your story somehow, is there a danger that your book will be dated? And if you do include it, will you receive excessive reader feedback because nearly everyone is a self-styled expert in public health and pandemic management? They might say: “your character wasn’t wearing a mask when she entered that store…” or “you lost me when he hugged someone who wasn’t in his quarantine bubble…” or “there’s no way she could jump on that flight to London in the midst of a pandemic…”

However, if you decide not to include a pandemic reference, will they comment on that, on the fact that you’ve ignored the large and potentially-fatal elephant in the room?

It’s a difficult question, with no clear answer.

I know of writers who’ve purposefully shifted the timing of a work-in-progress to an age before this particular coronavirus raced across the planet. This has allowed them to focus on “normal human interactions” (that seems like such an anachronistic phrase now…) that bring life to stories, to plots, to characters and the relationships between them. Being with family, talking, socializing, loving, touching.

I know of other writers who have placed their works-in-progress on-hold indefinitely. They’re unsure if their stories make sense in the environment in which we’re now living. They say they may return to their manuscripts in the future when things are clearer. If things are ever clearer. Whatever clearer means…

But beyond COVID-19, there’s a broader question here. Unless you’re writing historical fiction, should you include current events and current context in your novels? This led me to wonder about other major periods in world history where mankind faced major socio-political, environmental, or financial upheavals. What did other authors choose?

For interest, I looked at novels that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction two or three years after a number of major historic events, to see if those authors focused on those events in their stories (*author’s note – this is not an exhaustive nor a statistically-significant study; however, if there’s a university out there willing to grant me a PhD for this work – or, at the very least, a major research grant – please give me a call …).

The first three Pulitzer-winning novels written a few years after the Spanish Flu epidemic ended in 1920 were set in another time, so that didn’t help. Books winning the award a few years after the Great Depression showed the same approach. Was the reading world back then simply not ready yet to curl up with a story about something they had just experienced?

Jumping ahead to the end of World War II, ‘All the Kings Men”, which won the award in 1947, did not deal with war at all.

But the next two did: ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ (by James A Michener) and ‘Guard of Honor’ (James Gould Cozzens). Maybe that’s the start of a trend. But none of the wining novels published in the few years after the end of the Vietnam War focused on that war either.

Similarly, I could find no reference to the destruction of the twin towers in Pulitzer-winning novels that followed 9-11. So, perhaps the idea that readers take a while to pick up books about painful experiences has some merit to it.

However, that does not explain the plethora of pandemic novels now, some of which are disturbingly prescient. Whether it’s a resurgence in sales of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel ‘The Plague,’ or brisk sales of two current novels – ‘The End of October’ (Lawrence Wright) or ‘Songs for the End of the World’ (Saleema Nawaz) – today’s readers seem fascinated by the very pandemic in which we’re living.

So, after a web-search that did nothing more than add to my to-be-read list, I circle back to the original question – should writers of current fiction include COVID-19 and its impacts in their work?

Except for some long-standing rules of grammar, there's no right answer ... like most things in writing.

However, if the COVID-19 pandemic continues for longer than any of us had originally hoped, and if hand-washing, face masks, six-feet separations, elbow bumps and an absence of international travel become the way we live for the long-term, how can that not become part of fiction?

To be or not to be current? In novels coming to a bookstore near you, you’ll see how this rolls out.

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