Musings on the upcoming publication of my latest thriller
Novelists, like most people, tend to take a lot for granted. Characters in books may differ in detail from one to another, and may do different things with each other or to each other; but they tend to do it on a known, unchanging stage. The scenery might vary from time to time, much as it would in a theatre, but that doesn’t change the basics. The stage is solid, and the actors simply stride across it, acting out their drama in the foreground.
Then along comes a game-changer like coronavirus. Suddenly the whole context of storytelling is altered. Devastatingly, people who expected to live a lot longer are dying in their thousands. Meanwhile, world travel is vastly curtailed. Friends avoid touching each other. Strangers steer clear of each other in the street. Eating out grinds to a halt. The world economy totters. Social distancing may not always be observed as strictly as our leaders would like, but its very existence has meant a sweeping behavioral change in society. People are talking about a “new normal” which will presumably leave the old normal behind.
As a result, all past fiction suddenly looks outdated. Did couples really kiss when they’d only just met? Did people really flock to rallies, football matches, cinemas, restaurants, bars, marketplaces? Was there really a time when it was safe to go shopping without fearing unseen danger? It’s all so yesterday.
Reflecting the new reality
So what is the novelist of today and tomorrow to make of all this? To ignore it would be to deny reality in a way that verges on science fiction. Yet to reflect it presents a challenge unprecedented in modern times (yes, I know that’s a cliché) in the way the novel has to be thought about and constructed.
Ironically, the only kind of writing that is really immune to the effects of all this is science fiction. Just think of all the books and films that hypothesise a distopian world of disease and disaster. Maybe the new science fiction will end up imagining a world where there was no coronavirus?
Plenty of novels have already speculated about the possible causes of the pandemic. They’ve explored conspiracy theories and pointed the finger of blame at individuals and governments. More will doubtless follow as further information filters out in in the real world about the origins and spread of the disease.
But what about writers with a story to tell that has nothing to do with the virus? Are they now denied the opportunity to show people going about their lives as they did before – eating in restaurants, falling in love, travelling around freely, doing their jobs?
One solution might be for writers to set the action of their books in the recent (or not-so-recent) past, but there has to be a dramatic imperative to do that. To shift the time backwards gratuitously might solve the coronavirus problem, but it would risk leaving a question mark dangling over everything else.
In any case, a bigger question is whether readers would actually want new fiction that disregards or denies the pandemic, and implies that the “new normal” doesn’t exist. It’s one thing to read and enjoy a book that was written before the virus came along, quite another to read one that pretends it didn’t.
All these thoughts have been running through my mind as I’ve approached publication of my latest mystery thriller, Now or Not at All. This was written before the pandemic struck, but is only seeing the light of day now that we know all about it. A part of me almost feels I should be apologising for unleashing a book into the world that doesn’t take account of what’s been happening in it.
I’ve concluded that I can’t re-work the book any more than I can rewrite history. It reflects preoccupations at a moment in time – a moment that appears to have passed. Hopefully it will stand on its merits, regardless of what has happened since.
Where do authors go next?
What I’m wondering now is where authors go next. How long will it be before the characters in novels can stop worrying about social distancing, travel constraints and the sweeping changes we’ve seen in personal behaviour? How long before the fractured stage of our daily lives is reassembled, and we can take previous norms for granted again? I accept that the virus and its aftermath will offer endless opportunities for new dramatic themes, but I’m already yearning for a world where the time-honoured delights and struggles of daily life come back to the fore, and I’m not forced to take account of a once-in-a-generation disaster (at least, I hope it is) that skews the storytelling process.
Past upheavals had much the same distorting effect on literature, and many lasted a lot longer than the experts say this pandemic will. The second world war went on for six years, and much of the writing that came out of it inevitably took it into account. The war didn’t diminish the impact of the best of the work from that period, but it did cast a pall on the subject matter and the contextual backdrop.
Eventually the new peace reasserted itself, and writers were free to turn their attention to whatever other preoccupations interested them. I wonder how long it will be before authors in our generation are equally free to make their own choices of what they write about again, without appearing to evade and dissemble if they disregard the glaringly obvious? Let’s hope for all our sakes, not just for the benefit of literary freedom, that it won’t be too long.