A year in which the world was forced to stay at home undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for literary production. The forced introspective qualities of lockdown provided a means for creative expression previously unavailable to a world occupied with forward movement.
Ali Smith’s contemporary novel ‘Summer’ was one of the first British novels to be published that is infused with the social and political conflicts attached to the pandemic. Is this perhaps the beginning of a new poplar and pulp form of literature; the Covid-novel? If we retrospectively regard the history of pandemic literature, there is not an awful lot to go off. The cultural and social stigmas of previous centuries prevented an in-depth description of the body politics of pandemics being explored due to the conservatism of the past.
Despite being a pinnacle episode of the 20th century, the Spanish flu is massively underrepresented in literature, especially when compared to its contemporary counterpart WWI which possesses a pervasive and extensive literary canon. It is arguable that the fallout of the 1918 flu is implicitly represented and explored in various literary forms such as TS Eliot’s modernist poem ‘The Wasteland’ which was written at the time, however, the literary giants of the early 20th century such as Hemmingway neglected to inspect the Spanish flu exclusively.
Despite this, it is unfair to negate the existence of any representation of pandemics or disease in literature. Literature has always been a vehicle through which to explore the contemporary anxieties and social issues of an epoch, and there is evidence of consistent recurring elements of literature that explores issues regarding disease and degradation. A commonality of such writing is often a desire to explore not only the biology of pathogens or germs, but rather how they affect the human condition, and what our responses are or should have been. The distortion of fact and truth is a recurring theme when it comes to the spread of misinformation regarding the origins and politics of pandemics, as is the instinct to displace the blame of the pandemic to a country or entity far removed from one’s own existence. Indeed, we saw this with the outbreak of COVID-19 whereby the virus became racialized in its presentation as the media and government exclusively associated its origins with China, more specifically Wuhan, consolidating the idea that it is the human impulse to remove and displace the blame away from oneself.
However, it is arguable that the best depictions of the effects of a pandemic not only focus on the politics of disease but also inspect the intricacies of the human conditon. Arthur Camu’s The Plague does this excellently, despite being an allegorical inspection of fascism rather than of a pandemic. The novel calls into question if the inhabitants of Oran were ever truly free before the quarantine of the plague and explores how the communal effects of a (global) pandemic can remove the alienation that once existed in society, issues which are highly relevant in today’s society. Indeed, the coronavirus did remove our freedoms, but it also highlighted our enslavements to our habits, and how we often took what we once had for granted.
Perhaps these accounts of previous pandemics can act as a blueprint for our own responses to today’s current climate, as the tandem forces of mass media and literature create an all-encompassing narrative of hysteria and conspiracy. As Camu highlights, we possess the communal ability to resist the isolating and displacing effects of disease and the misinformation that is circulated about it.
A note to end on, is it our obligation as a community to produce our own literary map of how to survive a pandemic of a similar calibre for future generations? Is the mass production of COVID themed literature the best way to achieve this?