Since exams ended, I’ve been reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, a modern series of novels set during the First World War. Today, the literature of WWI is a vast collection of poets and authors, both contemporary and modern. The period and its literature have prompted countless dissertations, essays, books and other scholarship, not to mention modern fiction and drama set during the war and its aftermath. It plunged people all over the world (to greater and lesser degrees) into a totally different way of living, and its impact was felt for a long time afterwards, from mental illnesses to the continuation of rationing.
This is, of course, a monumental period in human history and, like so many events of the past, its literature could come to be a defining feature.
For a long time, as an ordinary person, it was easy to think, optimistically, that the Covid-19 pandemic wouldn’t last very long, but since then it has become abundantly clear that life will not be absolutely ‘normal’ again for a while. This is, of course, a monumental period in human history and, like so many events of the past, its literature could come to be a defining feature.
In many ways, the literature of and about WWI, at least from an Anglophone perspective, has shaped our interpretation of it. Who can think about the war for long without bringing up the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon or Isaac Rosenberg, or a modern novel like Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks? The biting tone of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, held against the patriotic writings of Rudyard Kipling or Rupert Brooke, seems to define how we think about the opposing philosophies of the conflict. Not only that, but literature is a means by which we uncover the lesser-heard voices of the period, such as female poets like Mary Borden and Nancy Cunard, or Sarojini Naidu, whose poetry poses complex questions about our understanding of the Indian involvement in the war.
I’m sure that in a few years we can expect a slew of novels written during the pandemic to appear in bookstores, some of which will be set during the period itself.
I suppose the question is, then, what would a ‘literature of coronavirus’ look like? During lockdown, it’s been said many times that people at home have been busy working on novels, poems, plays and even podcasts. An abundance of text, audio, imagery, film footage and graphics is being produced as I type this – arguably, I’m contributing to it right now. During WWI, poetry proliferated because it was short and lent itself to the unpredictable structure of a soldier’s day-to-day life. Lockdown has given many non-key workers so much spare time, it seems likely that longer works of fiction will be common. I’m sure that in a few years we can expect a slew of novels written during the pandemic to appear in bookstores, some of which will be set during the period itself.
Of course, a defining feature of today, especially in a world where physical contact is limited, is online resources. This doesn’t just include blog posts and online newspapers, but even spaces like Twitter, which constantly produces intensely up-to-date bits of text about people’s lives and experiences at the moment. Will social media ever count as literature, then? Will future schoolchildren read collated and bound collections of tweets from 2020, broken into chapters like ‘Before Lockdown’, ‘Self-Isolation’, ‘Zoom Calls’ and ‘Global Protests’? Maybe Durham will get a few mentions in a small section called ‘Dominic Cummings’, full of commentary, support, criticism and even memes about his actions in April 2020.
What would be the key thematic elements of the literature of coronavirus? Where WWI literature addresses combat, mortality, mental health, sensibility and social class among numerous other themes, pandemic literature might emphasise isolation (of course), interpersonal connections, multiple forms of loss, physical and mental health, digital and human relations, the multiplicity of experience, racism and the power of protest. This period may well become the setting for numerous dramas and novels of the future, which will not be written for decades, if not centuries, under the genre ‘historical fiction’.
It’s a strange feeling, to realise we are living through and making history, in so many different ways, at the moment. This time is being scrupulously recorded in diaries, blogs, Twitter accounts, newspapers, poems, podcasts, novels and everything else. I wish good luck to literary scholars of the future, because compiling any kind of anthology of Literature in the Time of Corona is going to be a monumental task.
Image: klimkin via Pixabay