My first novel, Delphi, takes place during the pandemic. As soon as I say that, I imagine your reaction – you can’t imagine anything more boring, since you just experienced it; you turn to fiction to escape; it’s too early; pandemic fiction is ubiquitous and already “finished”. The suspicion that writing a novel during lockdown was a distraction for the underemployed middle class also gives this topic a special tinge (Zadie Smith wrote in Imitations: Six Trials that there is “no big difference between novels and banana bread”).
But fiction speaks of society. How do we write contemporary fiction without acknowledging the force that has reshaped all of our social interactions in recent years, from our professional lives to our closest relationships? Any contemporary novel that doesn’t acknowledge the pandemic is just alternate history or fantasy.
It should be acknowledged that there has always been anxiety around the concept of writing about “now”. Writer’s block, in times of historical change, seems to be a recurring problem – it can be hard to be inspired by what you’re going through because it feels too real or unaddressed. And is making a sellable text out of a larger tragedy inappropriate or flippant?
Adorno said: “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, while I remember very well Martin Amis who wrote: “After a few hours at their desk, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were contemplating reluctantly change jobs. In recent years, another problem has been cited: reality has simply become too improbable for fictional realism to keep pace. Ian McEwan’s remark after 9/11 that “American reality always exceeds imagination” sounds increasingly true.
In the world of poetry, where I have spent most of my adult life, we are also aware of Ezra Pound’s assertion that literature “is the news that remains the news”, and one wonders if the texts will date. Will the reader of the future understand our allusions? I know of a publisher who refuses to publish poems containing brand names, and it’s certainly true that pop culture jokes can quickly go stale (as a writer watching the mayhem of this year’s Oscars, I couldn’t save myself from being appalled, everything else aside, Chris Rock made a joke about GI Jane in 2022).
How do you write contemporary fiction without acknowledging the force that has reshaped all of our social interactions in recent years?
Another concern writing about now – very legitimate I think – is that in the middle of something it’s hard to see its true form. How are we going to end our story or draw the right conclusions? Poet Hannah Sullivan worked on a poem about the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 and talks about it in an interesting way. There were urgent and moving responses from poets at the time, such as the collection of Jay Bernard Surge (2019). But, once the immediate moment passed, Hannah felt she had to wait for the public inquiry before she could finish her own poem: for the fullest possible truth to emerge.
Certainly the best novels of the Second World War, by Waugh honor sword series to The tin drumwere only published in the 1950s, (along with my favourites, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5 appeared in the 1960s), while, War and peace was written 50 years after the French invasion of Russia. Can clarity only come after the dust has settled?
But if these are the risks, are there also benefits to writing now? The first and most obvious benefit is that no one has written about it before. And, relatedly, writers won’t have read many accounts of it already. Describing the current moment makes literature more likely to be first-hand, fresh, devoid of clichés, and even wholly original – new forms and styles often arise to fit the times.
Think of how the First World War enabled modernism to smash the Victorian era and extract something new from the ruins of Europe. You’ll never be the first person to write a poem about a daffodil, but you could be the first to write about working in a supermarket during Covid-19, or today when [insert X] past. The novelty of the subject – the radical emptiness of the page – can be a source of inspiration
Secondly, the urge to testify animates many artists, which means that the pandemic has been felt as an opportunity to be seized. We are living in extraordinary times, in which a series of enormous world events are occurring simultaneously. Aren’t we happy that Fitzgerald witnessed the Jazz Age and Steinbeck witnessed the Great Depression? I always remember Anna Akhmatova’s introduction to Requiemin which she recalls (in the excellent translation by Stephen Capus) how:
During the terrible years of the Yejov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the Leningrad prisons. Once, someone “recognized” me. It was a woman who stood next to me in line, with bluish-colored lips, and who, of course, had never heard my name. And now, waking up from that state of numbness that characterized us all, she asked me softly (because everyone spoke in a low voice at that time):
“And can you write about it?”
And I replied:
And then something like a smile flickered across what was once his face.
Avoiding modern times can then be an abdication of responsibility. Turning away from the news is political in itself. Writing about nature is an example: you can say you want to write about the eternal – the rose, the lamb – but that is claiming that nature and the seasons are eternal and unchanging. Writing poetry about nature without the sound of climate catastrophe in the background is itself a form of denial and complicity. There are no apolitical poems or novels; no writing that is not a product of its time. Writing on a desk, a romance, a vacation, it’s completely different after 2020: flirting, dating and the airport are each charged differently.
So if we accept that there are pitfalls but decide to do it anyway, what are some strategies writers can use to successfully engage with current affairs? The first is to embrace the idea of the poem or novel as a diary – if you don’t know how the story will look at these events, you can at least capture what it feels like to live in that minute. I’m shocked at how quickly people have normalized the pandemic and our governments’ response to it – how easily they erase these months of lockdown as a time when “nothing happened”, when in fact the unthinkable happened. So one of the things I wanted to do with Delphi was to write it before everything became faded and familiar.
All we know we have is the other and this shared moment, which we must try to witness, love and understand.
I really enjoy poems that have a diary texture, like Frank O’Hara’s Lunch poems—far from the names and brand names that date them, they read like tiny time capsules, transporting me to 1950s New York of Lady Day, construction workers and cheeseburgers. by Louis MacNeice Autumn notebook (1939) feels significant, capturing as it does the rise of fascism before it knew how events would unfold, much like Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlinalso published in 1939. Recent novels like Olivia Laing CrudoJenny Offill’s Time and Patricia Lockwood nobody talks about it all have that same intense, pungent energy: a sense that even the writer doesn’t know, at the time of writing, how this historic moment might unfold.
These books also all rely on another related strategy, which is not to write about the story head-on, but to let events creep into the edges of the story.: think graham greene The end of the case, in which an adulterous affair is intensified by the backdrop of the Blitz, or that of Virginia Woolf Waves Where Mrs Dalloway, which are and are not “war novels”. At Sally Rooney’s Beautiful world, where are youthe confinement at the end took me – as it took all of us – by surprise.
And there are other ways to reflect your era once you’ve let go of realism. Poets often use allegory or metaphor, and novelists can too – George Orwell farm animal allowed him to reach an audience that would surely have strayed from a short story about the events leading up to the Russian Revolution. His novel 1984 similarly creates an alternate world, albeit projected into the future. As 1984 reflects 1949 by examining how its political arguments might play out, so Sarah Hall’s brilliance burncoat and that of Hanya Yanagihara In Paradise recently entered the pandemic-enlightened market imagining alternative plagues, then thinking about how they might reshape the world.
At the same time, I have to admit that I’m a little tired of sci-fi novels about climate, pushing concerns farther into the future as they do, and wondering if fiction needs to find new ways to s engage with the sixth mass extinction happening right now. That is to say: there is perhaps no future. All we know we have is the other and this shared moment, which we must try to witness, love and understand.
Delphi by Clare Pollard is available from Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.