Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

Why Aren’t There More Pandemic Novels, Anyway?

It’s weird being in the midst of a pandemic and then watching a film or a show or reading a book set in the absolute present where… there appears to have never been a pandemic. Right? Everybody just gets in elevators and on planes, unmasked; they share food; they cram into crowded bars; nobody tenses up when they’re in a movie theater and they hear someone cough not once, not twice, but three times which to me is always the Bat Signal for, “this motherfucker is about to give me COVID, isn’t he?”

Why is this, exactly? Why does fiction — whether on our screens or on the page — seem to want to avoid the subject? This question popped up on Bluesky (Katie Mack was talking about it, and Sarah Weinman, and then some other authors jumped in) and I find it to be a really interesting question without any single answer, but I do feel like I wanna explore it a little. So here are my (admittedly quite hasty) thoughts —

a) If it’s a book, you have to understand, publishing is glacial. A book you read in the last year was written more than a year before it hit shelves, and maybe even longer ago — as such, it was possibly being written in the midst of the first year or two of COVID, which is to say, during a rather chaotic period of history that is hard to immediately replicate. The story you want to tell may not easily accommodate a months-long lockdown or mask-wearing or even the political shit-show that (by and large) right-wingers turned basic science into. It’s like, once you start talking about the pandemic, you kinda have to talk about Trump and maybe Biden and honestly, a lot of that actual reality ended up more surreal and satirical than your average bit of popular fiction. I mean, we had a president more or less advocating for shoving light bulbs up your ass to burn out the mean-bad virus, yeah? It feels like once you start to get into the weeds on COVID, you’re really really in the fucking weeds and — honestly, current fiction is not up to the task of merely glimpsing our current reality. It’s either a snout-to-tail full-throated turn-your-head-and-cough exam or it’s going to do a weak, watered-down job of it.

b) And, you know, fiction — particularly popular fiction — doesn’t often acknowledge The Big Shit. It just doesn’t. It’s safe to say that most fiction exists in a sort of interstitial alt-universe of each author’s making — most fiction doesn’t sit there and reference the dozen-plus Very Bad Things currently happening, from 9/11 to Trump to Ukraine to Israel/Palestine to school shootings to whatever. They might become background information — something a character says or thinks, or a news story someone hears. But it’s rarely foregrounded, because once you foreground, say, school shootings, now it’s a School Shooting Book or a School Shooting Movie and it’s almost as if the Troubling Topic becomes a subgenre in and of itself.

c) And that means you really don’t want to get it wrong. Or half-ass it. How often have you been watching a TV show where they’re like, “wow this pandemic is bad” during one episode and then by the next they mostly aren’t really acknowledging it anymore? It has this hand-wavey vibe to it. “We acknowledge the Very Bad Thing and made serious sounds and nodded our heads concerningly, but now it’s fixed.” It has that Very Special Episode vibe. “This episode is about Sexual Abuse, but next episode, nobody is going to remember any of this shit, welcome to the memory hole.” On the one hand, I suppose this is actually a fair representation of reality — because in this reality, we memory hole a lot of shit, including but not limited to the pandemic. And certainly both in fiction and in our lives we’ve seen or even experienced that sense of “well of course it’s real, but oops, I forgot my mask and I’m in a crowded grocery store, fingers fucking crossed, I guess, I’m sure it’s fine.” And it usually is fine, mostly, generally, so we grow comfortable and forget to do it more the next time and… so our overall carelessness grows. As such, I guess it’s fair to see that on TV, but it also feels all the more dismissive and shitty, somehow, and so I think I’d prefer to see it not acknowledged at all instead of just half-assedly pointed at as if to say, “Wow, remember that? Glad we dealt with it for one episode. Moving on, now.”

d) I’m very, very sure there is some pressure from publishers and film studios and such to scrape the pandemic from fiction. I’ve struggled with this in regards to climate change — it’s like, climate change is real, climate change is daily, and I often have characters reference it in passing, sometimes in real moments of anxiety and hey, sometimes as jokes. Not because it’s not HUGELY SERIOUS but because people are messy and we often deal with the absolutely worst shit with gallows humor. And I’ve gotten notes from editors that are like, is this too much, should we pull some of it out? Not the jokes — I mean, the inclusion of it at all. As in, if it’s not relevant to the story, why are they bringing this up? Nobody is forbidding me from including it, to be clear, but I think the note is a fair one. I’m writing books that ostensibly are meant as entertainment. I’m not actively trying to bum you out or remind you of the very real nightmares at your door. There’s a lot of talk sometimes about the “responsibility” an author has and I honestly cannot say what that responsibility is — it’s certainly not a hard-coded one, not a responsibility that is a true moral obligation, because that’s a slippery fish. But at the same time it’s kinda hard to try to write about real people and not have them suffer from… real problems and real anxieties and sometimes that means pointing at real shit going on. Which leads me to:

e) I don’t know that I always want to see it. Listen, sometimes I read books as a way to escape the *gestures broadly toward the outside world* — I think it’s fair to say the pandemic was, and arguably is, a mechanism for a certain kind of trauma. It was, and is, traumatic. And while fiction can be a uniquely good place to deal with that kind of trauma, fiction is also a very good place to either come at that trauma at an oblique angle or simply be a portal away from it. I’d argue this is probably why genres like romantasy and horror are both having a moment right now — they are particular forms of escapism. Horror is about the trauma, but not about the specific trauma: it’s like a narrative vaccine where we deal with existential terrors and the varieties of evil but at a way that is either parallel to or perpendicular to our current actual horrors. Side-booted exposure therapy, of a sort. Whereas romantasy — still dealing with and offering some very big feelings — is maybe a more overt doorway out of the current reality in which we live. And while I think some might have a dim view of both of these genres, I think readers are smart people who know what they want and know what their needs are — ironically, sometimes the effects of the pandemic on us (and lo, those effects are many) force us to mitigate the trauma of that time in whatever way we can. Fiction can deal with things head-on, at a side-angle, or by looking the other direction entirely — and sometimes that’s a fault of how we memory hole things, but sometimes I think it’s also a mentally protective measure.

More to the point, sometimes we want to look at a thing and study it.

And sometimes we’re too close to it, the wounds are too fresh — and all we can do is look away.

Meaning, while I think sometimes this is an act of culturally memory holing the pandemic, I also think it’s sometimes just our way of dealing with big, horrible shit. Is that healthy? Probably not? I don’t know? It’s also probably not healthy to sit and think about any one horrible thing all the time? Ennh? You know how a lot of people don’t want to read books where the dog character dies? Dogs actually die, we know. We’re not trying to memory hole the reality of dog death. We already know how absolutely fucking shitty a dog dying is in real life, and I think it’s that we don’t want that in a story we’re reading, particularly escapist entertainment.

So what does this mean?

I have no idea! Like I said, I just wanted to… talk it out, think about it a little bit. See what jostles loose.

I think certainly it’s easy (“easy”) enough for writers of contemporary fiction to reflect our present reality, whereupon there is a pandemic, but it’s more naturalized — vaccines and masks and tests and all that. So if you’ve come here looking for writing advice on that front (ha ha, a huge mistake, you fool), then I guess it would be that. Let the pandemic become background noise in your contemporary fiction because, it’s kind of that now, already, in our reality. (For the record, this is not a sentiment as to how we should view the pandemic as some second-tier, half-existent thing. The pandemic is active and many still suffer from debilitating effects, and if you’re inclined to seek out the work of Ed Yong, particularly on the subject of Long COVID, I encourage you to do so immediately.) I think further, when you do include it, it should be done with empathy, because to me, empathy is king when we write our characters (of any genre!) and the realities in which they live.

I do think discussion around all this ends up (inadvertently, at least) also asking the question again of “What are fiction’s responsibilities and obligations are when it comes to…” Okay, yes, the pandemic, but also, well, anything, really. And I don’t know what that answer is, or if there’s even a single answer. I think when you assign fiction too many obligations as to how it relates to reality, you end up assigning moral rules to fiction, at which point it runs dangerously close to becoming preachy and self-indulgent, if not outright propaganda. I’ve seen some uncomfortable assertions that a character who does bad things is an authorial endorsement of those bad things — which, wow, what? No! We’re not writing instruction manuals over here. We’re writing fiction. It’s a playground, it’s shadow puppets, it’s a safe space to poke at the edges of empathy and fantasy and reality.

But it’s also pretty wacky to suggest fiction exists in a null void with no consideration for how it deals with readers and the reality of that readership. Stories are an echo and they bounce around and reach all kinds of ears and it’s worth thinking about what that means for those who receive the stories and how they’re going to receive them.

Anyway. Fuck. I dunno. This got much, much longer than I thought it was going to, so whaddya gonna do?

The answer, like many things, is probably somewhere in the hazy middle, and I think the best thing we can do is be suspicious of easy answers and of people who demand everything be one way, and not the other. People are messy. Writers are messy, readers are messy, and the world in which we live is real fucking messy, and how fiction presents that mess is not easily designed. We’re all shooting arrows at teleporting bullseyes.

I’d also guess we’ll start to see more pandemic reality reflected in contemporary fiction, but again, in that “background noise” way — and we may also see overall less contemporary fiction just because it’s more pleasant to not deal with reality right now. And honestly, I get it.


Good luck. Also, there’s a lot of COVID out there right now, the pandemic is no fiction, so maaaaaybe put a mask on your face when you’re out there?