As an English student, much of my time is spent convincing myself that literature is necessary. The idea that the literary world is intrinsically linked to the world of current affairs underpins my own motivation to read and study; we need novels and poetry to grieve, to understand, to find comfort. And yet, when faced with the aftermath of a pandemic which swept through the world on a global and on the most personal of levels, we’re left with a nagging thought – will we ever be ready to relive it?
A ‘COVID-19 novel’ felt, perhaps, inevitable as lockdown began. The wave of ‘lockdown productivity’ and the concept of experiencing a new kind of reality, where we were left simply to nothing but our own thoughts, seemed ideal for dusting off the old manuscripts or experiencing sudden inspiration. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine”, a favourite though dubious fact, led to the idea that every author, now suddenly blessed with time, would finally get around to putting pen to paper and producing their magnum opus. Indeed, even as early as the very beginning of lockdown, literary agents and publishers were receiving soaring numbers of submissions. An Irish publishing house, Tramp Press, reported in March that they were averaging twice as many submissions per day as novelists finally turned to their forgotten projects.
The question, however, remains how far these novels can directly tackle coronavirus and the catastrophic path that it cut through life as we knew it. Lockdown, a novel first written in 2005 by Peter May, marks the start of a possible surge in mainstream literature surrounding the pandemic. Finally published during lockdown for the first time in 2020, May described how he “told [his] publisher about it and my editor just about fell out of his chair. He read the entire book overnight and the next morning he said, ‘This is brilliant. We need to publish this now.'” May’s novel is described as “inescapably relevant” by The Scotsman, and its publication history suggests that literature can perhaps provide a mechanism to ground the surreal nature of the pandemic by finding similarity in fiction. Dismissed in 2005 for describing what seemed impossible, Lockdown now finds itself as the first publication surrounding coronavirus to take the apocalyptic energy haunting the news and make it digestible for the public.
Another significant publication surrounding COVID-19 was intended just for kids. Coronavirus – A Book for Children originated as a free digital information book for primary schoolers produced by Axel Scheffler, iconic illustrator of The Gruffalo. Now being taken to a wider physical release, it appears to me as an interesting building block in the ongoing construction of the pandemic in literature. Scheffler discussed how he “asked [himself] what I could do as a children’s illustrator to inform, as well as entertain, my readers here and abroad, about the coronavirus”. Unlike Peter May’s Lockdown, which has an eerily familiar yet fictional illness dominating its narrative, the children’s book incorporates the hard facts surrounding COVID-19 into the classic comfort and warmth of Scheffler’s illustrations.
It is this blend of COVID-19’s harsh reality with the everyday that has characterised many of our approaches to the outside world as we move forwards and out of lockdown. The mantra of the “new normal”, of masks and distancing in the most mundane of circumstances, is beginning to be drilled into the public, and it is this idea that will most likely have the strongest impact on literature. In past examples of global crises, the presence of the after-effects was keenly felt in the writing produced. World War One allowed for the gritty, detailed, and graphic poetry of Wilfred Owen, alongside the birth of modernism, as seen in the evocative presence of the war in novels like Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Both Lockdown and Scheffler’s illustrated work suggest that it is inevitable, just as it was after the First World War, that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt in every aspect of our reading. As these new works begin to shape the literary identity of COVID-19, they have reiterated to me that directly or indirectly, literature comes from experience. After months of quarantining, of Zoom calls and empty supermarket shelves, it feels foolish to suggest we’ll emerge from this crisis as the same people as we were when we entered it. Consequently, our writing must also change: children’s books becoming laced with traces of social distancing; our dystopia centred around flu and vaccinations.
Coronavirus has turned the experience of reality into one we may not recognise anymore. As we settle into our new normal, I look forward to the manifestation of this in our novels and poetry. Will every new publication centre around London under lockdown and a mysterious flu-like disease? Perhaps not, but in a society touched by mass grief, isolation and separation, will our new publications start to reflect the impacts of the pandemic? I would say yes.