As someone who chose to earn a livelihood making chicken scratchings on bits of paper, you’re probably used to deluding yourself on a daily basis. Your motto is: Everything is fine. Global supervirus pandemic? New material. Starvation and despair? Old friends. That article you read by the CEO of a publishing powerhouse prophesying the death of literary fiction? Just an echo of assorted uncles who lauded your mid-20s bravado in turning to the writing life while hustling their daughters past you toward the nearest plastic surgeon.
It didn’t discourage you then; why allow it to do so now?
Because everything is no longer fine. The art of fiction – which has survived religious purges, VHS, cable television, political anti-intellectualism, cripplingly low profit margins, the naked populism of Chetan Bhagat, and the explosion of web-streaming entertainment – will not survive the coronavirus.
Fiction at its finest offers escape most fantastic from the tyranny of the here and now.
A skilled storyteller such as yourself opens a portal to a foreign world, populates said world with objects both familiar and unfamiliar, and invites the reader in for a novel experience. The reader willingly suspends disbelief, navigates this foreign world, and trusts that you will reward them for their adventurism with an emotional payout.
The writer’s job is to seduce; the reader’s, to be seduced. But escape and seduction are by their very nature transitory concepts. Fleeting. Ephemeral. Personally, stealing an hour to read on my commute to work or before bed is happiness. I respond with deadly force to any trespass on my limited reading time because I feel I’ve earned it.
But what happens if those limits were to be removed? If there was no commute, or work, and waking and sleeping hours turned fluid? What if, instead of having to steal a page or two, you could frolic like a pig in shit in entire piles of unread fiction for ten, twelve hours each day? Well, then, Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Listen. Beginning the week of March 25, 2020, which was the day India went into nationwide lockdown, I conducted a vast and unprecedented scientific study in my bedroom (sample size: one). I gathered together freshly laundered sweatpants, a bunch of greasy snacks, and six of the paperbacks from my tsundoku. And then I went to town on them. I tore through Sally Rooney’s Normal People in about four minutes, raced past Larry McMurtry’s Comanche Moon, and came to a stuttering halt midway through your own extravagantly titled My Heart Is An Autumn Wanderer.
(This is not a critique of your work – I was, at the time I quit, deeply invested in knowing whether your bicurious protagonist gets with the girl or guy or both or neither in the end.)
The trouble was that the act of reading itself no longer felt either pleasurable or purposeful.
If, at any point prior to the lockdown, god herself had set aside her happy hour caipiroska to promise me (a) that humans would henceforth have as much time as they wanted to read storybooks, and (b) that they would not enjoy it, I would have known exactly where to suggest she put her divine swizzle stick.
She would have been right though – my initial excitement at the glut of leisure reading time quickly morphed into anxiety. I mean anxiety” in a lexical rather than a clinical sense. An uncomfortable feeling of nervousness or worry about something that is happening or might happen in the future. Anxiety is the shrimp-paste of feelings; no matter how powerful your distractions, or whatever else you may be feeling, its bilious green flavour taints everything.
Flinging any amount of lovesick teens or saturnine cowboys at it will not help. Near the end of my homemade experiment, reading a sentence was accompanied by lots of heavy breathing and middle-distance gazing; actually finishing a book, a task that assumed Sisyphean proportions.
Why? I don’t know. Perhaps reading works as an escape exclusively from pedestrian problems such as boredom or exhaustion or nothing-new-to-watch-on-Netflix. Maybe it fails utterly once the problems reach a certain higher pitch and intensity. I don’t remember my Anne Frank very well but I’ll wager anything you like that she wasn’t consuming storybooks hand-over-fist up in that attic.
It is not my intent to compare tragedies – in terms of bodycount alone the Holocaust threw an incomparably long shadow across the sands of history – but whether it’s the coronavirus or the immigrant crisis or armed conflict with neighbours or rising suicide rates or earthquakes or a plague of locusts, or all of them put together, there is an undeniable sense, shared by conspiracy nuts and the cognoscenti alike, that the year 2020 signals closing curtains for Planet Earth.
(And for anyone who believes that this is a freak accident, rather than simply the first in a series of increasingly frequent viral outbreaks which will see us fleeing indoors like vampires at dawn, we observe a moment of silence.)
Right. So indie publishers are shutting shop, the reading habit is dead, and oh, also, the world is ending. That manuscript you’ve started writing about the mercurial cricket captain who moonlights as a private investigator stares accusingly out at you from your screen each morning, and its main question is this: WHAT IS THE POINT OF YOU?
Before you reach for the rat poison slash hempen rope slash sharp object, here are three things to consider.
One, up-skilling. Or right-skilling (or whatever the current “it” corporate jargon is). As a craftsperson, you have the ability to redirect your creative energies in a hitherto unexplored direction. Picasso didn’t start off mixing up eyes and mouths – there were a whole bunch of Blue Periods and Rose Periods that came before which were a reflection of his changing world, both inner and outer. He sculpted. He wrote.
A true master experiments in his or her métier. Your métier is not fiction; it is words. Write genre fiction, if the literary variety no longer interests your readers. Write screenplays, write graphic novels, write poetry. Write ketchup bottle labels if you must, but do keep writing. It is a privilege and a gift. If you switch to selling insurance at the first hint of adversity, then writing was never your thing to begin with.
Two, opportunity. By this time next year bookshops (and television home screens) are going to be absolutely lousy with COVID-themed content. Expect entertainment options to be crowded with hard-hitting Wuhan documentaries, unauthorised biographies of Jacinda Ardern, and loads of thrilling stuff involving one man’s search against all odds for the rare antibody that can save his dying daughter – but only a handful of seminal works will stand out.
One investigative report, one docuseries, one novel. You write that one novel. The course of history is influenced not so much by those who do different things, but by those who do the same things differently.
Three, stories. The world needs stories. Human beings need stories. We need stories of zombies too, sure, but mostly we need stories of courage, of kindness, of hope. We need to hear what other people hear, see what they see, smell what they smell. We need to feel not-so-alone.
Anne Frank may have rapidly matured of necessity in the fiery crucible of war but she was still a fifteen-year-old child. People haven’t read and loved her diary for 75 years because it is a literary triumph; we love it because it transports us. We hear the tramp of jackboots in the street, see the world through a crack in the floorboards, smell the meat the Wehrmacht roasted to lure people out into the open. For seconds, sometimes entire minutes at a stretch, we assume the flesh of that little girl hiding in the attic.
In that sense of revelation, of a momentary transcendence, all of the most powerful writing is haiku – offering us a glimpse quickly snatched away of what was, what is, and what could be again.
In closing I’ll leave you with this quote, widely attributed to Hemingway. When asked about his method, he said [of writing]: There is nothing to it. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Whatever your opinion of his craft or his private life, you have to admit ol’ Papa had a fine ear for the soundbite. So, dear writer, bleed. Bleed for us all. Write hard and clear about what hurts.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.