As we enter our third year of the pandemic, writers of contemporary fiction face a dilemma: to write about the coronavirus or not.* In the past, diseases have formed a backbone for artistic storytelling—tuberculosis in La Bohème, for example, or AIDS in Angels in America—written while the maladies they discuss continued to spread uncontrolled. But are contemporary audiences ready to face stories about COVID? And if they are, what potential pitfalls await authors of those tales?
Taking the market’s temperature
As the pandemic began, books and movies about imaginary contagions flourished. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven rose to bestseller status (and resulted in an HBO Max series.) The movie Contagion was one of the most-viewed films on streaming platforms. Even the nonfiction The Hot Zone (about ebola) enjoyed high levels of renewed interest.
Most television shows took production breaks early in the pandemic, suspending filming while health care professionals determined safe ways for actors and staff to interact on sets. When shows returned, some ignored the pandemic entirely. Others, though, incorporated our new reality, with characters wearing masks. Some shows set in medical facilities (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy) featured COVID as a primary plot point.
Similarly, books have begun to illustrate the pandemic. Blockbuster authors such as Liane Moriarty (Apples Never Fall) and Sally Rooney (Beautiful World, Where Are You) incorporate COVID as plot points, including the need to social distance, wear masks, and otherwise modify behavior to avoid infection.
Genre fiction sometimes trails nonfiction and literary fiction in addressing serious social and cultural issues. Many readers view genre fiction as an “escape,” an opportunity to avoid the most challenging problems of modern life. (In the alternative, though, some genre fiction provides a safe haven for exploring divisive issues such as racism, climate change, and human rights.) Genre fiction is poised to address COVID.
Where do we go from here?
A Google search for “love in the age of COVID” returns more than half a million hits. Most of those are articles, books, and films (along with reviews of same) set during the pandemic. As authors gear up to address the coronavirus, they should consider several points to keep their work responsible and make their stories attractive to readers.
As an initial matter, the pandemic—and our response thereto—is highly politicized. Nearly a quarter of Americans have refused any vaccine; one third are not fully vaccinated with two doses and a booster. (Some of these gaps in vaccination are due to medical necessity or religious objection, but most are grounded in political disagreement.) Similarly, there is a broad range in masking and social distancing behaviors.
These conflict-filled realities can lead to compelling plotlines with strong characterizations. But the authors who write those stories must realize that a substantial portion of their reading audience is likely to be alienated by the stances their characters support. The usual tendency among readers to assume that authors “are” their characters, experiencing and supporting everything those characters do, is exacerbated by the heightened emotions related to the pandemic. More than ever, authors must be aware of the effects their narrative choices will have and be prepared to confront disagreement on social media and elsewhere.
All authors writing contemporary fiction share an obligation to present facts accurately. But those facts are even more important when writing about the highly divisive pandemic. Precise timelines are vital for authors attempting to capture the details of medical treatment, public health recommendations, and social interactions.
Similarly, daily life over the past two years has varied substantially, depending on where a person is located. The virus’s grip has ebbed and flowed, from major cities to rural outposts. While authors might successfully create imaginary locales for their characters, they need to root those sites in specific places, observing the medical realities of those locations throughout the pandemic. Doing otherwise risks completely toppling the realism of a book.
Humor introduces an added complication for authors writing about the pandemic. Some readers will feel that a light-hearted approach is never appropriate for a life-threatening topic. Others will accept a satiric or sardonic approach, but they’ll be uncomfortable with less serious tones. Still others will be grateful for traditional light storylines and the opportunity to uncover positive aspects in the darkest of times.
As authors, we know it is impossible to write the perfect book for all readers. But fiction based during and about the coronavirus pandemic brings that reality home in a stark way. Some books about COVID—factually accurate ones with carefully drawn characters balancing the difficult choices every one of us has faced—will be destined for readers’ keepsake shelves. Others, though, that are slapdash, inaccurate, unsympathetic or—worst of all—unaware of the freighted issues they contain, will likely be discarded by readers both during the pandemic and in the future.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I launched The C Word in 2021. A romantic comedy set during the pandemic, it was originally presented as the first of three volumes in my “Love in the Age of COVID” series. That series has now been renamed “Love in 2020.”