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Is it too soon for pandemic fiction?

As long as nothing goes wrong (fingers crossed), bookshops will be reopening their doors on the 12th April. I can’t wait – ordering online just doesn’t feel the same as browsing the shelves and flicking through actual, non-virtual pages. However, after months of closures the question arises of what will actually be on said shelves. Many authors adopted the idea of having a “productive” lockdown (especially during the first one, when we were all marginally more motivated and optimistic), so alongside publishers grabbing the chance to publish “relevant” and “timely” novels, many predict that the answer to this question is a brand-new genre: pandemic fiction.

Okay, so it’s not actually a new genre – there’s a huge array of books based around fictional and non-fictional plagues sweeping the globe. The zombie novel is arguably a supernatural pandemic subgenre, while classics such as Love in the Time of Cholera and A Journal of the Plague Year draw direct inspiration from outbreaks. English Literature students will remember studying Pale Horse, Pale Rider in what feels now like an ironically apt syllabus choice, mere weeks before lockdowns hit the UK. But we’re certainly seeing a boom in the category since the unignorable global crisis that we’ve now been facing for over a year. When Waterstones reopens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shelf or table dedicated to Covid-19-relevant reading. Even so, there’s a divide in public opinion as to whether the demand for this sort of work matches the enthusiastic supply.

Taking advantage of the situation to rush out novels about the cause of that grief seems, perhaps, a little tone-deaf

With publishers wavering in their decisions of whether to jump on the pandemic-fiction train, readers too seem to be split in whether they want to see this genre or not. A survey by Penguin last year found that over 60% of those questioned stated that they didn’t want to read novels about Covid-19, with 25% doubting that they’d ever want to. A mere 5% were actively looking for pandemic fiction. However, despite this research, we’re still seeing Covid-19 fiction hitting the shelves.

While many readers are choosing escapism and a way to exist, however briefly, in a non-lockdown world, there’s clearly a market for novels set in the here and now. While it may seem masochistic, this too could be a type of escapism; reading about how other people might deal with governmental restrictions, social distancing and the dreaded Zoom meeting could provide a sense of solidarity and connection, at a time when isolation is such an issue. However, not all Covid-19 fiction takes a lighter approach to the topic. Ali Smith concluded her seasonal quarter with Summer, deemed by The Guardian as the “first serious coronavirus novel”. Despite rave reviews, do we really want to read about tragedy as we’re experiencing it in real time?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shelf or table dedicated to Covid-19-relevant reading

It’s inevitable that we’ll see Covid-19 in fiction. Major global events are always written about, whether as the focus of a text or in passing references. This is something that will be part of our collective memory and consciousness, and it’s not something that can, or will, be ignored. But is now the time for pandemic fiction? I’d argue not. Historically, works about plagues and other horrific world events often emerge quite a while after the events themselves. With time comes distance, and often an ability to write more sensitively and interestingly about a particular time. Right now, it feels a little exploitative; we’re still suffering through the pandemic, with the worldwide death toll rising and many countries once again going into lockdowns. As countless people grieve, taking advantage of the situation to rush out novels about the cause of that grief seems, perhaps, a little tone-deaf. Maybe that’s one reason why publishers are holding off the barrage of manuscripts they’re undoubtedly receiving, waiting to gauge the public reception before they unleash them on the world.

Literary agent Kate McKean predicts that while publishers and readers may be hesitant to publish these books now, the floodgates will open with “a three- to five-year lag, in a way as it happened with 9/11 fiction”. With the response to global tragedy appearing to be, for many, to write a book, it appears that readers will have much of the genre to look forward to – or dread – in coming years.

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