Someone recently asked me how I think COVID-19 has influenced writing. Specifically, this person wondered whether I was seeing stories from workshop participants that deal with “the years of living in fear and losing people to the virus,” or whether everyone was avoiding thinking about the pandemic and writing uplifting stories.
I want to be careful not to speak for other writers or to make categorical statements about trends. I can only speak from my own experience, and I’ve seen a bit of work that has the pandemic in the background but not too much that addresses it directly. What I have noticed is an interest in dystopic fiction, and perhaps living during the COVID pandemic has contributed to that trend.
We live in frightening times. A mutant virus can attack us. Wildfires can make our air unhealthy. Carcinogenic “Forever” chemicals are in our public water supply. Gun violence is rampant. Much of this used to be unthinkable and relegated to imaginative fiction that we read for the purpose of escape. Now the imaginative as become all too real. Perhaps our insecurities and fears are being expressed in dystopic fiction set in what we used to think of as times very far removed from our own. The distance, however, between the present and the future is rapidly shrinking, and now this dystopic fiction has become the new realism.
Writers constantly confront what makes our lives unstable. Stories address the personal dramas at the heart of our relationships. Some do this against a broader canvas that includes the cultural, the political, the theological, the historical. Think of the work that finally dealt with WWII (From Here to Eternity), the Vietnam War (The Things They Carried), and 9/11(Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Eventually all writers must dramatize in whatever way they choose, the central human problem—enduring in the face of mortality. When William Faulkner gave his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he did so at a time when nuclear extinction was on everyone’s mind. He claimed that due to this fear young writers had “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Faulkner went on to express his faith in human endurance:
It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I see this as the writer’s obligation—to keep talking, especially in the darkest times. “The poet’s voice,” Faulkner said, “need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” No matter the form the fiction takes, if it’s to be as Faulkner claimed, “worth the agony and the sweat,” it must ultimately grapple with all that presses down on us. I have no doubt that the COVID pandemic will continue to make its way onto the page. As with anything that threatens our existence, it also, in the hands of the good writer, reminds us of our majesty.