23 August 2021

The Pandemic—A Touchy Subject for Writers

I wrote the following piece at the end of the first year of the pandemic, and I've had to rewrite this introductory paragraph twice—once when large numbers of Americans got vaccinated and were repopulating restaurants and flying across the country to visit their grandchildren and now, again, when the Delta variant of the virus has forced those of us who thought the pandemic was almost over to realize it's on the way to becoming chronic.

Some writers took the year of freedom from distraction the lockdown provided to hole up and write prolifically. Others were so distressed by the isolation human contact and the global ambiance of fear, death, and chaos that they couldn't write at all. Fiction writers were certainly in no hurry to tackle the pandemic in their work, whether as theme or primary subject or as the fabric of reality in "the present."

Poets were not so hampered. Waiting to have something to say, I came up with my only pandemic poem very late, just in time to be included in the anthology When the Virus Came Calling (Golden Foothills, September 2020). I read a significant number of 2020 short stories, including entries for the Derringers, and only a couple mentioned it. As for novels, I don't remember seeing any references in 2020. When Donna Leon's latest Commissario Brunetti book, Transient Desires, came out in March 2021, it referred delicately to the pandemic as if it were already over:

For years we Venetians had wished the tourists to disappear and give us back our city. Well, we'd had our wish, and look at us now.

At around the same time, a mystery reader who happens to be a writer posted on DorothyL:

I’m curious as to what folks are thinking about the intrusion of the pandemic into our reading. Are any of you welcoming it (maybe as a way to process)? Are we all avoiding it?

I responded, as is my wont, truthfully and without thinking of looking around for the thought police:

I've been working on a short story that takes place in New York during the pandemic. Everyone wears masks, and the amateur sleuth investigates via Zoom, phone, and walks in the park with witnesses and suspects, keeping social distance. The case looks like an accident and is given short shrift—no autopsy or further investigation—because the morgues are full and law enforcement has more important things to do. It's been fun to write, but I don't know that I'd want to do it for the length of a novel or even additional stories.

No one criticized my comment, but when I heard someone say they didn't want to read anything about COVID-19 because it evoked pain and suffering they had no desire to dwell on, it made me think twice about my use of "fun." Next, I saw submission guidelines to a journal that stated pandemic stories, like erotica or sword & sorcery, would be a "hard sell," just short of "hard passes" like torture or child and animal abuse.

Hey, wait a minute! How can we veto a whole category of literary work that writers' imaginations have barely begun to process? What assumption does avoiding the whole thing make about what pandemic stories will be about?

The analogy that leaps to my mind is the child abuse story, which is so easily banned unseen by editors trying to appear "correct." The flaw in their reasoning is that they can only imagine stories in which children are being graphically and disgustingly abused. As my anthology Me Too Short Stories amply demonstrated, abused children can have a voice, a chorus of voices. They can even survive and grow into women who fight back without becoming the pulp-fiction fantasy action figure with a big bust, two guns, and a skimpy bathing suit.

I think the stories of courage and loss, pain and survival we saw in 2020 need to be told by those who need to tell them, and only those who want to read them have to read them. But illness and death were not all that happened during the pandemic. The part of 2020 that I used, the part I dared call fun to write, was how we New Yorkers went about our business under abnormal conditions—wearing masks, maintaining social distance, using Zoom to congregate, and somehow making the best of it. For the purposes of crime fiction, I asked myself: How would that affect an investigation, both official and unofficial?

One more example of how many different ways writers may find to explore the pandemic: A masterful short story I read blind, so I can't tell you who wrote it, but it was a puzzle story in which an amateur sleuth solves the crime without leaving her house, because the extended lockdown has left her agoraphobic. I could appreciate how brilliantly the author rendered the agoraphobia, because I've been in lockdown too.

So far in 2021, I haven't observed much more willingness to address the pandemic in fiction than in 2020. But on DorothyL, readers, many of whom are writers, have been discussing a shift in their reading habits. Some of them are reading less crime fiction—and these are hard core lifelong mystery lovers. They are turning to other genres for a variety of reasons. I can't help wondering if I'm the only one for whom crime fiction is too dark for these dark days.


  1. Thought-provoking take on the situation, Liz. It may be worth noting that Boccachio wrote the Decameron (which may have inspired Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) using the premise that the characters isolated during an outbreak of plague and passed the time by telling the 100 stories to their fellow captive audience.

    As for some of the other hard sell topics, it depends on how they are handled and who is reading them. I've seen stories in which animals were killed or abused (off-stage) as a crucial part of the story. Ditto children, but that's even more delicate. I have a story floating around now in which a child MAY have been abused, and the uncertainty is key to the story. It hasn't sold yet, which isn't surprising.

  2. Steve, wasn't that the Black Death of 1348? Now, from our own experience, I have to wonder about the hypothesis that Boccaccio's 100 storytellers were quarantined TOGETHER.

    As for abused children, that's an entirely different issue. I've written extensively about this issue, especially in 2019 when my anthology ME TOO SHORT STORIES came out, especially about the misguided ideas that (1) the topic is better swept under the proverbial rug and (2) the only thing to write about is the abuse itself. The point of the stories in my anthology was the voices of the child survivors. See especially my own story, "Never Again," which I'll be talking about to students in fellow author Ken Wishnia's SUNY Suffolk Intro to Lit classes this fall for the third or fourth time, and which always gets a terrific response.

  3. Afterthoughts: Can you imagine an editor saying, "It's okay to submit a story about the pandemic as long as no one dies?" I can certainly imagine, "It's okay to submit a story about the pandemic as long as you don't mention the political aspects. I think anytime you tell writers to avoid writing about conflict, you're threatening creativity itself.

  4. There have been at least three anthologies of crime stories about covid https://lbcrimes.blogspot.com/search?q=covid I am working on a story that takes place during lockdown. We will see if it sells...

  5. This is a tricky one for me as well. When the pandemic hit, most cozy writers were saying they would never talk about it; it doesn't belong in a cozy. I wasn't so sure -- I thought it might become like 9/11, too horrifying to know how to discuss at first, but eventually, part of our shared cultural experience. And as I worked on the ms. I'm just about to turn in, I realized I had to mention it. Shops closed, people lost jobs, people died -- and everyone views life a little differently. I could not write honestly about Pike Place Market in Seattle and my character's business without mentioning some of the changes. But they are oblique -- she describes the shift to increased mail order and hiring to continue that, but hiring is more of a challenge than ever. A jokester character refers to "the time that must not be named." And so on. Of course, we don't have any real idea how the pandemic will have affected us by summer 2022 when this book comes out, so we're all giving it our best artistic guess.

    1. Makes sense, Leslie. I often say "the Before Time," a phrase I stole from my friend Irish-American historical novelist Mary Pat Kelly, for whose characters the potato famine in Ireland, aka the Great Hunger, of 1845-1852 was the watershed.

    2. "Before" has become a common label lately, hasn't it? I completely understand that other cozy authors might make a different choice. My series is a little darker than most. And of course, we'll see what my editor says!

    3. How about "interesting" or "realistic" rather than "dark"? I don't think Berkley did mysteries a favor by introducing the glass floor in the subject matter of nonviolent puzzle mysteries with an amateur sleuth in a well-defined social setting. Good for you for pushing the envelope (to mix metaphors).

  6. I haven't tackled the pandemic in my writing yet - but it's coming. My characters are dealing with other traumas from their past right now, so... But I do know that I haven't read modern noir (Scandinavian and others) since the pandemic began. When I want that, I'm sticking to James M. Cain et al.

  7. I get it, Eve. Life is noir enough. Though I hope you'll read the stories in Jewish Noir II, not all of which are really noir, when it comes out. My story in it is a historical, no plagues involved.

  8. Liz, I support you (and also congratulations). I don't have patience with thought police of any ilk who can be especially cruel. I recently read of a new author, a teacher, who's being shredded for being racist and sexist. Looking up those pages reveals a very caring woman, a gentle teacher who stumbled into the meanest of social warriors. No question in my mind who seized the moral low ground.

    1. Leigh, you know I agree with you about thought police, though with respect to the pandemic, I think it's more that the editors are being shortsighted and timorous.

  9. When you think about it, ours is a peculiar genre, one that finds entertainment out of murder and mayhem. But the way I see it, we try to make sense out of a senseless world, we seek justice even if we have to manufacture it ourselves. Some comics do the same thing– we laugh at what makes us uncomfortable and what frightens us.

    I've thought that a tweak of Ellis Peters's 2nd Cadfael novel, One Corpse Too Many, could have made the perfect plot for a pandemic story. In her novel, the sickness was man's own thirst for blood and revenge, 94 men executed but 95 bodies. Such might be easier to get away with amongst the modern masks and madness.

    By the way, I envy your poetic ability. Well done.

  10. Thanks, Leigh. One twist of my desire to get away from murder and mayhem is that I've been writing more poetry lately—inspired not by publication of my pandemic poem but by an invitation to do a reading in a residence for people with Parkinson's and dementia, with whom I do want to avoid my more depressing poems about aging, illness, memory loss, and death.


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