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Stanley Johnson’s ‘The Marburg Virus’ is not what we need right now

A mystery virus, transmitted from animals to humans. An epidemiologist racing against time to find a vaccine. Sound familiar?

What I just described, funnily enough, had nothing to do with coronavirus. It is instead the main premise of the 1982 thriller novel The Marburg Virus, written by Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley. It has been out of print for a long time, but was recently picked up by publishers Black Spring for a re-release in the summer. Frankly, on various levels, it’s a terrible idea. 

The situation reminded me of a similarly problematic re-release in recent times: the re-release of Caroline Flack’s autobiography Storm in a C-Cup after her untimely death in February. They have the same motive: capitalising on public interest in recent tragic events in the name of profit. It is insensitive, first and foremost, and in bad taste. A pandemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the UK alone is not an opportunity to rake in some extra cash. Indeed, Johnson was able to send his children to Eton. It is pretty unlikely that he’s going to be short of a few quid.

We read to relax and escape – why would we want to immerse ourselves in a fictional world with the exact same problems as our own?

When questioned over the concern that re-publishing The Marburg Virus was opportunistic, Johnson staunchly defended himself. “I’m a professional writer,” he said. “Is it opportunistic for journalists to be writing about the coronavirus?” 

This is a redundant point. The similarities between him and a journalist end with the simple notion that they sit in front of a computer and string sentences together for a living. Journalists have a public duty which has become even more vital in a pandemic: to keep the public informed. They are classified as key workers for a reason. If Johnson thought, as a novelist, that he was on their level, he is both egotistical and sorely mistaken. 

There is also a reason why a re-issue was not met positively by the first four publishers the novel was offered to before Black Spring picked it up. It is very possible that the idea of reading a novel about a virus eerily similar to the one ravaging the world right now will go down about as well as Dominic Cummings’ visit to Barnard Castle. At times, coronavirus feels like it’s all we know. We read to relax and escape – why would we want to immerse ourselves in a fictional world with the exact same problems as our own? If we haven’t already, we will soon tire of coronavirus news following us wherever we go. It’s difficult to think of why we’d want to submit ourselves to it other than if we feel like torturing ourselves.

It seems unjust that a publisher would deny a potentially better new author their dream in favour of a forgotten 80s novel

I have another, more personal, bugbear with what Stanley Johnson is doing. I am also a writer. I dream of having a novel on the shelves of Waterstones someday. There are many others like me too, many of whom might have been beavering away on a novel while in isolation. By re-issuing The Marburg Virus, Johnson is taking up space on a publisher’s roster and on the shelves that could have been occupied by a new talent. The Marburg Virus has already had its chance at success and it failed. Reviews have been mixed; if it had been better quality, it wouldn’t have gone out of print in the first place. It seems unjust that a publisher would deny a potentially better new author their dream in favour of a forgotten 80s novel. 

Republishing The Marburg Virus is a thoughtless decision that comes across as quite bizarre, especially since it is being released in the middle of a pandemic that Johnson’s own son could have been a victim of. However, it’s entirely possible that the public will see through this as an attempt at profiteering, and consequently the book may fall flat like the first time it was published. The world needs authentic tales of optimism right now. It doesn’t need this book. 

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