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Are we ready for COVID-19 as a central theme in literature?

A collection of pandemic-related literature.
Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

Nearly two years after the start of COVID-19 social-distancing protocols and lockdowns, the pandemic is still a thing we think about — and live with — daily. Its constant presence and the way it has changed our world has had an impact on everything, including literature.

I, like I'm sure many others, had no interest in reading books about plagues generally or about how we were dealing with COVID-19 more specifically over the last two years. But as this pandemic seems like it will eventually turn into an epidemic or become endemic, I have started freeing myself up to read about these topics beyond daily news — and to start looking back, and forward, with literature that either mentions COVID-19 or features it a central element of its narrative. And from the slew of books coming out this year, it seems like other have too (or at least publishing houses think they have!).

Pandemic fiction and nonfiction began more quickly trickling into our libraries and bookstores in the second half of 2021, and has since found a growing presence. We've seen novels like Louise Erdrich's The Sentence, Catherine Ryan Howard's 56 Days, Amitava Kumar's A Time Outside This Time, and Sarah Hall's Burntcoat. There have also been anthologies like COVID Chronicles: A Comics Anthology, Lockdown: Stories of Crime, Terror, and Hope During a Pandemic, and And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the Covid-19 Pandemic (the latter two of these actually came out in 2020). All directly address the pandemic and chronicle how it has affected our lives, relationships, plans, and productivity.

Still, it was Kristen Radtke's Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness -- exploring the way loneliness and the forced seclusion that came with the pandemic was affecting us — in mid-2021 that suggested pandemic writing might offer us a map to start dealing with the aftermath of what's happened, as well as its lingering effects and ongoing presence.

And the first two months of 2022 have made it clear that COVID as a theme in both fiction and nonfiction is here to stay — at least for now. Peter S. Goodman's Davos Man out in January, for example, homes in on how the impact of billionaires like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, Blackstone Group's Stephen Schwarzman and BlackRock's Larry Fink affects the world — but it also discusses how they became much richer during the pandemic. And we've seen more passing references to pandemics, such as in in Kim Fu's Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st and in Hanya Yanagihara's To Paradise, which includes a section taking in place in 2093 — a time in which there are various plagues all over the world.

However, Laura Kipnis' Love in the Time of Contagion and Margaret Peacock and Erik L. Peterson's A Deeper Sickness: Journal of America in the Pandemic Year might be the two books that truly announce the arrival of literature with a central goal of helping us understand the psychology of the pandemic as it relates to relationships and dealing with each other, in the case of the former, and to understand the pandemic in a political, social, and cultural context in the case of the latter.

Peacock, a media and propaganda professor at the University of Alabama, and Peterson, a professor of science and history at the same institution, took notes on everything that was happening in the news as well as on social media during 2020. The result is a book that presents these notes as a day-by-day journal and shows that there were things already brewing — things like racial tension and the opioid epidemic — that contributed to making the pandemic even worse. The book, which is both an alarm and a call timely call to action, ultimately names three factors that the authors consider made America a much "sicker" place than it should have been in 2020: "(a) entrenched racial hierarchies; (b) an economic structure dependent on individual accumulation of wealth and widespread consumption of ephemeral goods and entertainment; (c) distraction, cognitive dissonance, and an intentional historical amnesia that prevented the majority of comfortable, well-intentioned, middle-class, white Americans like ourselves from doing anything about the first two issues."

If Peacock and Peterson focus on the country at large, Kipnis looks at the problem in your own home, a much more immediate, personal place.

"If you're reading this you recently survived a massive worldwide extinction event, congratulations," she writes to kick off Love in the Time of Contagion. Then it immediately tackles the anger that has been a "normal" part of life:

"Have a nice big helping of residual simmering rage (so great for the immune system!) at being abandoned by our 'leaders,' at the profiteers and incompetents and liars, at a cleverly murderous microscopic entity that wants to exploit you as a host and strip your organs for parts. Along with grief about everything that was lost. About everyone who was lost."

Kipnis book is about the way we change as rapidly as the virus itself, how things like narcissism — which she claims was also a pandemic even before COVID — and other "unhealthy dynamics" rot relationships to the core, and how spending more time in the company of our partners became something very different in the last two years. "It's not just viruses that mutate, so do we," states Kipnis — and those changes weren't good.

When things get dark, we're told love always helps, but what happens when love starts to fail because of that darkness? Love in the Time of Contagion is a funny and incredibly timely investigation into what the pandemic has done to our relationships and our ability to love. At the core of the book is the idea that the pandemic revealed a lot of ugly truths about our nation, but that it did the same to our relationships:

"Recently I asked a shrink I know if she'd noticed any themes among her patients during COVID times. She said everyone had a fantasy that other people were doing better. The singles envied the couples, the couples envied the singles, the people with kids envied the people without kids, and so on. All her patients had regressed in different ways, which I entirely understood (meaning "entirely identified with.") Between COVID lockdown and the flailing government response it was like being locked in your bedroom with a sibling while a crazy abusive parent rants in the living room making shit up and changing the story. Everyone felt deprived of something essential, said my shrink friend. There was so much loneliness, no less among the coupled."

Love in the Time of Contagion might offer a blueprint for an entire series: Work in the Time of Contagion, Loss in the Time of Contagion, Trauma in the Time of Contagion Anger in the Time of Contagion, Horror in the Time of Contagion Friendship in the Time of Contagion, etc. One way or another, it looks like all of these, and many more, are coming.

We are naturally inclined to stay away from things we find unpleasant, and there's a chance pandemic literature strikes some readers as precisely that. However, the narratives we've seen so far have shown that the pandemic can be a starting point for any story — and that writing about it can be a way of processing trauma, an exercise in trying to understand its impact on our psyche. This literature can add to a growing map of work that helps us navigate not only recent history but also our present and immediate future.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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