Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, a meme circulated in the writing community claiming that Shakespeare penned King Lear while in quarantine from the bubonic plague. What the meme didn’t address, and what would be more helpful for writers to know, was how the theater community changed while Shakespeare sheltered in place. Did theatergoers emerge from their 17th-century homes hungry for entertainment? Did they flock to lighthearted or serious productions after months staring at their walls? Were topical plays about the plague avoided like…well, you know.
As the nation prepares to reemerge from quarantine, the publishing community will face many of these same questions, albeit reimagined to suit our modern age. The pandemic will leave lasting impacts on authors, editors, agents, and readers. What will they be? After speaking with people on all sides of the issue, we have a few predictions.
The Great Pandemic Novel may be a ways off
A well-known fact of publishing: Sales of romances rise during tough times. When life is uncertain, most people want something to distract them, not remind them of the unpleasant things happening in their lives. The question is how long, if ever, people will yearn for distraction. Could pandemic books become a thing in the near term? Or are we a decade away from literarily grappling with the outbreak?
History suggests the latter. The best books about the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 – the cultural touchstones of the past 20 years – hit shelves years after the events themselves. People need space to grapple. Time to process. And this event isn’t confined to a day or a week. The consequences of the pandemic continue to play out months after the virus was discovered. The majority of people aren’t ready to read fiction or nonfiction focused on COVID-19.
Anecdotal evidence bears this out. Anne Bogel, who hosts the book-focused podcast “What Should I Read Next?,” says most of the readers she hears from want a pleasant distraction. “Our community wants to read escapist books that are hospitable to our currently really short collective attention spans. We want books that won’t demand too much of us,” Bogel says.
People dealing with death, financial issues, and job insecurity in real life probably don’t want to read about those things in novels. “Many people are going to look for things to separate themselves from the lives around them,” says Berkley Publishing Group Vice President and Editorial Director Cindy Hwang. “A lot of people look for something that, even for a few hours, removes them from their circumstances.”
Author Morgan Baden is one of them. “I’m currently of the mindset that I don’t want to write or read (or watch or hear) anything about pandemics and lockdowns and social distancing. I want to escape,” says Baden, who started quarantining with her 5-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son, and husband while finishing a book she wrote for Scholastic. “I’m diving into something light and magical with my writing now, and even my reading choices have started leaning towards beach reads and witches. I suspect many readers will feel the same, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of books in the next two to three years that are more based in humor and whimsy.”