Yesterday, I read a fascinating article by American novelist Ben Winters. I had the pleasure of working with Winters briefly whilst I was at Penguin Random House and found his unique predicament intriguing.
The article, published on Slate.com, is discussing how the global pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19 has basically screwed the plot of his new book, The Quiet Boy. It begins in January 2020 and hurtles towards a finale in July 2020 – in a music festival. Well, that’s not happening any more . . .
So it got me wondering how writers and namely the plots of fiction novels have been affected by the pandemic. It must be soul-destroying to have worked so hard, giving up months if not years of your life to curate the perfect plot line, create the characters that you need and finesse the timeline just so until you have a novel that you’re truly happy with . . . for a global pandemic to make it no longer relevant.
But my question is, does it matter? The role of fiction isn’t about facts. As the dictionary defines it, fiction is ‘the type of book or story that is written about imaginary characters and events and not based on real people and facts’. Of course, the best inspiration comes from the world around us – and no doubt the market will be flooded with coronavirus diaries, novels, etc. (Although I question whether there will be a market for them after we emerge blinking in the sunlight post-lockdown – we don’t want to go through that again *shudders*.) But, what better excuse than the world going a bit bananas around us to make use of this fantastic tool that we have hidden deep in our brains: the imagination. There is no better time to let our minds wonder and think of what-if and how-about.
Winters has a point when he says that ‘Right now, we are in the middle of total and utter upheaval. What reader will accept that my characters blithely go about their business in Los Angeles in the spring and summer of this year we’re in?’ Perhaps we should have more faith in our readers. Every day, fiction asks us to suspend our disbelief and fall headlong into a world that isn’t real, not based on fact, the product of the workings of someone’s mind. Yes, it looks a little like the world we live in, but the fiction form is prism not a mirror, twisting the light of the real world into a kaleidoscope of colour – otherwise the sci-fi and fantasy genres would already be in deep water!
With this in mind, over the weekend, I had the delightful experience of kicking my heels up and devouring Rebecca Serle’s smash-hit novel In Five Years. The whole concept of the novel taking a classic interview question – ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ – and twisting it on its head. The novel is all about how no matter how much we try to plan our ideal lives and how we see ourselves in five, ten, even twenty years time, life has a funny habit of getting in the way. Serle’s characters begin in 2020 and happily work, live, love their way through to 2025 (when it starts getting a little pear-shaped), no mention of pandemic in sight. Of course, when Serle wrote her manuscript, COVID-19 hadn’t reared its ugly head, but the novel is no worse off for it. In fact, it might even be an added strength as it reminds us that although the world looks less than peachy at the moment, we’ll get through it, whatever happens.
Admittedly, there might be a new couple of new courses on the syllabus for future literature students – Pre, Post and COVID Literature – but I’m excited to see what new writing this situation brings us, and whether authors choose to engage or not – some already having voiced their claims of not touching the topic with a barge pole, Anne Tyler and Harlan Coben being among their number. I feel for Winters, who has decided to push the events of his novel back to 2019, but whether you choose to set your next writing project in a world affected by COVID or not, I think the readers are willing to welcome you with open arms. To be honest, we’re just thankful for something to read!