Too soon for Pandemic Fiction?
By Mary Karayel and Kira Orchard
At the height of the global pandemic last March, the last thing I wanted to do was read pandemic fiction. There was enough fear-mongering, misinformation and uncertainty in the real world that I did not need it in my fictional worlds! However, many people turned to pandemic literature in 2020, and classic pandemic novels such as Albert Camus’ The Plague and Boccaccio’s Decameron, as well as more contemporary novels like Contagion and Station Eleven, all had an increase in sales. Whilst I couldn’t see the appeal during the pandemic, other people used pandemic fiction to make sense of the new normal we were living in.
Some writers capitalised on the upsurge of interest early into the first lockdown and the republication of Stanley Johnson’s novel The Virus perfectly exemplified this. Originally published in 1982, Johnson’s novel follows the story of top epidemiologist, Lowell Kaplan, tasked with saving New York City from “the outbreak of a mysterious and deadly disease.” The novel was long out of print, but Black Spring Press republished The Virus in May 2020 with a new preface from the former conservative politician in which Johnson suggests there were lessons to be learnt from his novel that applied to COVID-19. Whilst not “covid” literature, Johnson’s explicit links to the contemporary pandemic within his fictional exploration of Germany’s epidemic of the1960s made the book newsworthy and boosted his sales measurably.
Kissing the Coronavirus by M.J Edwards was the first piece of explicit COVID-19 fiction I read about. The humour-erotic novella, released in April 2020, depicts an epidemiologist who falls in love with Coronavirus personified. Clearly tongue-in-cheek, Edwards describes how COVID-19 has the power to take Dr Alexa’s “breath away,” parodying the romantic trope with the symptom of the virus. Whilst readers may find the material insensitive, many reviewers commend Edwards for the novella’s ability to make people laugh during such a bleak time.
More books detailing COVID-19 are coming slowly but surely. Non-fiction books educating the public about the virus and the creation of vaccines led readers to books such as Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking: The UK’s Human Story of Covid and Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green’s Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus.
But what about fiction? There have been many children’s books released to help children navigate the world of COVID-19 and how they can stay safe, one of which being Coronavirus and Covid: A book for Children about the Pandemic by Elizabeth Jenner. Other notable fiction books that reference or explore COVID-19 are a collection of short stories called Together, Apart for young adult readers and Kitty O’Meara’s And the People Stayed Home.
Whether we think fiction exploring the pandemic is insensitive or comforting, opportunistic or informative, too soon or perfect timing, this is a trend I think we will all be watching for the next decade, at least.
Whilst we are waiting for the emergence of new epidemic related fiction, especially for older readers, here are a few recommendations we have compiled to satisfy those wanting to read more dystopian pandemic literature today:
Blindness by José Saramago features an epidemic where the affected individual suffers from “white blindness.” The novel becomes a story of two sides and a division forms between those affected by the blindness epidemic and those who can still see. Saramago won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his contributions towards European literature, so there is perhaps a deeper message to be read here about how society treats those with impaired sight, but also perhaps a metaphor for following others blindly.
Emily St. John Mandel’s popular novel Station Eleven chronicles how all of civilization as we know it ends as Swine flu wipes out the world’s population. This novel tells the story of survivors of the pandemic and navigates how each of their lives interacts with one post-apocalyptic acting troupe called the “Travelling Symphony.” The book jumps between points in time within its narrative, exploring the interconnections of characters.
Out of the three recommended pieces within this article, Severance by Ling Ma is perhaps the most recognisable exploration of pandemics. A virus with flu-like symptoms originates from the Chinese province Shenzhen and causes those affected to become stuck in a repetitive zombie-like state. The main character, Candace, uses the empty streets to take photographs and make art out of the dire situation before joining a group of survivors for safety.
We each dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic differently: some of us took solace in escapism with books that dealt with nothing pandemic related and others found comfort by specifically delving into fiction that almost resembled our reality. Through the COVID-19 crisis, the literary world has been an extremely cohesive and accessible way to explore those emotions that make us human, such as loss, devastation and grief. Whether you choose to immerse yourself in learning about deadly diseases, or choose to hide away in a fairy tale castle with fantasy creatures, there is something to be said about how epidemic fiction will go forward as we enter a period of recovery from such a colossal event.