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by Donna Huber For the A to Z Challenge, I discussed different book genres/categories. Each day, I gave a few details about the genre/catego...

June 25, 2020

How will the pandemic be reflected in literature?

by Donna Huber

Library archives and history centers across the country have been asking for people to submit their pandemic stories - photos, essays, diary entries, even grocery lists - in an effort to record this historic moment in time. In a recent news report with an archivist at the Atlanta History Center, I learned that there isn't much in the record about the day to day lives of those who lived through the 1917-1919 Influenza epidemic. The person being interviewed said that it was probably due to people not wanting to remember or be reminded of that horrific time in their lives. I have been wondering how the pandemic will affect plotlines of contemporary novels.
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 The Last Town on Earth
Back in March, I put together a list of pandemic fiction. Of the 8 stories I featured, only one was historical fiction featuring the influenza pandemic. I recently listened to the book The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen.

Published in 2006, the actions to curb the spread of the virus are similar to the ones we have experienced. Interestingly the motives and attitudes are similar to the reactions we have seen as well. There is an author's note at the end where Mullen mentions that when he set out to write about a real town that closed itself off from the rest of the world, there was actually very little information available about the town. 

In the last couple of years, to celebrate the 100 year anniversary, several nonfiction books were released. As my curiosity has been sparked by current events to know what lessons the past has to offer, I've recently added two nonfiction books to my Goodreads list, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, which was published in 2004, and Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney, which was published in 2017.

World War I overlapped with the influenza pandemic and there are plenty of historical novels about WWI. Is there something more compelling about writing about war rather than illness?

All of this has me really wondering about the pandemic's impact on literature. Right now we are reading contemporary novels that were written prior to the pandemic, but I still feel a little strange reading about the close contact, going out to eat, and attending large crowd events that the characters experience.

Will we see hints of the pandemic in stories that publish later this year or at the beginning of 2021? Especially in novels where it is quite evident that it is set in 2020, how will current events shape the plot? Or are contemporary authors going to handwave over these events and leave incorporating the pandemic into storylines to historical writers 50 - 60 years from now? 

I can see the pandemic being used as an obstacle for the characters to overcome. There have been some funny dating stories on the internet so Chick Lit writers could have some unique dating stories to pull from that may add a freshness to the typical tropes. Introspective coming of age stories could be particularly poignant with social distancing as a backdrop. Romance authors may not want the characters to contract COVID-19 following a steamy sex scene, but would it be much different than when they have them contract an STD? Police investigations in crime fiction and thrillers could be hampered by the stay-at-home orders (not as many witnesses), witnesses falling ill, etc. Or perhaps because of social distancing, the killer/abductor is more easily discovered or has to go to greater lengths to avoid detection.

What about characters wearing masks, not handshaking hands/hugging, teleworking, grocery delivery/pickup, and all the little everyday nuances that have changed? Every day pieces of life are what enrich a story. The little details flesh out the world the author has created and keeps the characters from feeling like they live in a vacuum. Will present-day set, realistic fiction feel less realistic if the life changes are omitted?

As a reader do you want to read about the pandemic's effects on your favorite characters? Or is it too fresh, too real, right now, and prefer current circumstances to be ignored?

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour

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  1. i already read books that can fit what you are talking about, but they are all fiction. reality?????? i think it's getting to me
    sherry @ fundinmental

    1. But is the pandemic mentioned? Are the characters wearing masks? When I read Nancy Thayer's Girls of Summer they were all going out to eat and shopping. One character even had a trip to China planned. I recently finished the suspense novel The Reflecting Pool where the detective meets with high level admins at the White House and even the president. It is a fictional president but it could be present-day. There were no temperature checks or coronavirus tests. These novels were written before the pandemic, but going forward should novels set in present day incorporate what we are living through or just ignore it?

  2. I hadn't really thought of this, but you make such a good point. Seems like the writing world can't just ignore the pandemic. It's such a part of everyone's lives now.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction