Ignore, focus or avoid? How authors are tackling COVID-19

Many of us enjoy getting lost in historical novels, often set in periods of history when great change was taking place. Contemporary fiction is usually less rooted in a specific time – often focusing on the miniate of human existence or the fallout from smaller, personal events.

So how should authors of contemporary fiction handle plotlines in a time when we are literally living through history? As authors, is it sensible to set our novels in the current day with its lockdowns and masks and plastic gloves when we have no idea what the world will look like once our books hit the shelves? Or should we ignore the viral elephant in the room and write our books in an unspecific modern era, where it’s okay for characters to interact and touch, and where a visit to the supermarket isn’t an epic and dangerous journey?

This is a question that many authors, agents and publishers are wrestling with as manuscripts destined for publication in the next year fight to find a fitting way of handling the absurd plotline we’ve been dealt in 2020.

Can we avoid COVID-19?

It would be fairly straightforward to set a novel in a socially distanced world, or to add vague references to a previous lockdown. The main problem with including coronavirus in current manuscripts is that we have no idea what the world they will be released into will look like. It’s hard to address the issue of the pandemic without having all the facts – and to do so would be to guess how the story ends (and if the journey so far is anything to go by, probably get it entirely wrong).

My second novel, Perfect on Paper, was written before coronavirus was a thing. But as it’s due for publication in May 2021, when it came to editing I considered slipping a few references to a vague earlier period where my heroine had worked from home, and the family had spent time in lockdown.

I soon realised that by doing so, I would be left with the dilemma of whether to include aspects of social distancing in my characters’ current lives – making predictions about an uncertain future.  So is it better to ignore the crisis entirely? “It’s a question I’ve been asked by some of my clients,” agrees David Headley, literary agent. “I’ve always asked them, ‘is it important to the story? Is it necessary to mention it?”

“The advice I’ve given is to do what feels right for their book,” says Harriet Bourton, Orion Fiction publisher, “a maxim we’d apply in any other scenario.”

Jenny Geras, managing director of Bookouture, has meted out similar advice to her authors: “for the most part, unless COVID or lockdown is central to the plot of their book or unless they feel strongly otherwise, we have been advising our authors to avoid setting their novels during March-July 2020,” she agrees.

So what are writers doing?

Writers already working on ideas or manuscripts when the crisis hit have chosen to address the COVID problem in different ways. Author Clare Mackintosh has decided to avoid references to coronavirus altogether. “Although my new book is technically set this year, and all dates mentioned align with the 2020 calendar, the year is never explicitly mentioned. I don’t want to write about the pandemic, and this particular book - a locked-room thriller set on a long-haul flight - would be especially tricky in a COVID-19 world,” she says.

Other authors, like Laura Pearson, are taking a side-step by setting novels in 2019, the halcyon days when the words coronavirus, lockdown and furlough were barely acknowledged in our vocabulary. “Since COVID came into our lives, I’ve been working on two different novels,” she says. “One is set over a 20-year period and ends just before all this started, and the other is set over a short period and is contemporary but I’m imagining it as 2018 or 2019. So I haven’t tackled COVID in fiction so far.”

Author Jenny Éclair was already working on ideas for her next novel when coronavirus hit. Fortunately, she hasn’t had to find a way to include hand-sanitiser and toilet-paper shortages into the narrative, as she’d already opted to set her plot in the past. “I was approached to write a YA fiction sometime last year and this is the only project I fancy sinking my teeth into at the moment,” she says. “Fortunately, the idea I’ve been tinkering with involves setting at least half the story in 1975, which is when I was a teenager. Despite all the 70s rubbish, it’s been a nice place to revisit! At least it feels safe for my characters to get on buses and snog.”

There will no doubt be a future time when a big coronavirus-themed thriller will hit the shelves, but this is likely to be when the value of hindsight means readers will be enthralled by this peculiar time because it has been confined to history. But despite Lawrence Wright’s pandemic thriller The End of October - released in April (US) and May (UK) - proving popular, with the crisis still impacting our daily lives, a novel based on coronavirus may feel too close to home.

“I think I’d like to write a novel set in the midst of lockdown someday, but not until I have the advantage of retrospect,” agrees author Susan Allott. “Until then I’m dodging the issue entirely be setting my latest novel in 2008.”

“I’ve seen lots of readers comment that they’re not going to want to be reminded of [the crisis] when it’s finally over,” agrees author Mark Edwards. “I think, for a while, we might see a lot of novels set in 2019, or an alternate COVID-free universe.”

Agent Susan Yearwood suggests that one way to make use of our shared experience in literature is to address issues that the coronavirus has raised, rather than focusing on the pandemic itself. “Perhaps writers may include aspects of our current experience… we may encounter isolated characters and how they cope with a sense of dislocation from those close to them, how simple tasks in life can be disrupted to the point of distraction,” she says.

When it comes to writing a novel with a virus at its centre, writer Clare Fuller may be first past the post with a contemporary virus-related thriller, having started her current manuscript in pre-COVID times, only to find some of her imagined narrative coming true. “My current work in progress has a virus as a background factor,” she says. “I started writing it last year before any of this happened. It was always about a pandemic, but then this pandemic overtook it and I’ve had to adapt.”

Sadly, as with many things in the current climate, there seems to be no easy solution to this writerly dilemma. But the path of least risk for authors of contemporary fiction seems to be to hop back a year or more into what now looks like an amazingly simpler time – and hope that readers have resumed something resembling normal life by the time the novel hits the shelves.

But rather than appearing completely out of touch with reality, it may be wise to follow Mackintosh’s example by acknowledging the virus separately rather than keeping our works completely sterile.  “I don’t acknowledge the crisis in my novel, but I do talk about it in the author’s note,” she says. “It feels wrong to ignore it altogether.”

Gillian Harvey is a freelance writer and author. Her debut novel Everything is Fine, published by Orion, is out now.