November 27, 2021
Ali Smith, Sally Rooney, Roddy Doyle … is there anything can we learn from the first Covid-19 books?
Inside story: the first pandemic novels have arrived, but are we ready for them?
• ‘It was a call to arms’: Jodi Picoult and Karin Slaughter on writing Covid-19 into novels
At the start of the second world war, authors asked themselves if they were going to write about their unprecedented times, or if they should be doing something more useful – joining the fire service, becoming an air raid warden. The phoney war, with its uncertainty and dread, proved hard to write about, but the blitz brought new experiences and a new language that demanded to be recorded or imaginatively transformed. Elizabeth Bowen began to write short stories, somewhere between hallucination and documentary, that she described as “the only diary I have kept”. Set in windowless houses populated by feather boa-wearing ghosts, these are stories that take place in evenings “parched, freshening and a little acrid with ruins”.
When lockdown hit last March, some writers offered their services as delivery drivers or volunteered at Covid test centres. Others attempted to make progress with preexisting projects, blanking out the new world careering into being in front of them. But nothing written in the past 18 months can be entirely free of Covid, with its stark blend of stasis and fear. And now, as we see the work made by writers who confronted it head on, questions emerge. Do we really want to read about the pandemic while it is still unfolding? Do we risk losing sight of the long view in getting too caught up with the contemporary?
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