Thursday, September 22, 2022

Current Events: To Write or Not to Write?

The website of WRITER'S DIGEST has an article about whether authors should include references to the COVID-19 pandemic in contemporary fiction:

Should We Write About the Pandemic in Fiction?

The author of the article explores whether it's "too soon" to write about the pandemic or whether readers (and writers) who are worn out after the past three years prefer not to have that weight added to their fictional experiences. "Who would want to read about the pandemic, we wondered, on top of living it? Could we even bear to write about it? Didn’t we all need one long vacation from the subject?" On the other side, she personally felt a need to process the ordeal through stories. "Books make difficulties a shared experience. When we read about something we’ve also lived through, we realize that, thankfully, the story is not just our own." Moreover, in her opinion a present-day novel that didn't mention the pandemic would feel unrealistic; the omission of that element would jarringly stand out.

Most important, for her, failing to mention COVID-19 in a novel with a contemporary setting would violate her duty as an author to write the truth. Leaving it out would falsify present-day reality as we know it.

She makes some good points. On the other hand, one of my publishers decided not to allow references to the pandemic in contemporary fiction, and I believe there are good reasons for their position. First, we hope and trust the pandemic won't last forever. Like the flu pandemic of the early 20th century, it will pass. The disease may (probably will) hang around in some form, but it won't continue to dominate our lives and consciousness. Therefore, including COVID-19 in a story or novel would date the work to a specific period of three or four years. Unless there's a solid plot or character reason to write the piece within that framework, why handicap it that way?

Also, more fundamentally, the pandemic, if mentioned, would overshadow the rest of the story. Any fictional work that includes COVID-19 would have to be in some way ABOUT the pandemic. In that sense, I believe it is "too soon" in the same sense that it's still too soon to mention the September 11 attacks as mere background detail. A novel or story including that event would have to be "about" 9-11, such as Stephen King's novella whose protagonist had escaped dying with his coworkers because he happened not to be at the office that day. I think we can, however, legitimately incorporate such related details as going through an airport security checkpoint, something that's now woven into the fabric of our culture. Likewise, at some point in the future after COVID-19 recedes into the background as an annual nuisance like the flu, if people continue to wear masks in medical settings (for instance) that kind of thing could be casually mentioned in contemporary fiction.

What do you think about referencing contemporary real-life events in fiction set in the present day?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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