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Gigi Will Know: Is it OK to write fiction now without mentioning the pandemic?

Or does that feel dishonest and stale given the current state of the world?

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Is it OK to write fiction now without mentioning the pandemic at all? Or does that feel dishonest and stale given the current state of the world?

—Glued to the Tube

Dear Glued,

Oh, hon. I think it’s a good idea for us to take some time here and revisit the whole point of fiction. We read to get to know someone else’s experience and sometimes to dive more deeply into our own, and some places around the world are not as badly affected by the pandemic as we are here in these United States. New Zealand, at this writing, is ticking along pretty well; Taiwan has been doing great for months. And, indeed, as we’ve seen over the course of the last year, some places even here in the U.S. want to operate as if the pandemic doesn’t exist at all. So, I would take a look at your setting, first and foremost. And then I would take a look at your story. If your story is about someone who’s deeply involved in the medical profession, it would make less sense not to mention it, for instance.

But that’s not actually your question. Your question is whether or not it’s “dishonest.” It is not dishonest; in fact, I’d argue that it’s real world, even if you’re writing realistic fiction. In fact, unless you’re writing fiction that’s specifically set in 2020/2021 and you call it out as such, then what’s to stop a reader from assuming that it’s not set in the relatively recent years but before the pandemic?

For another perspective, let’s look at 9/11. There are plenty of contemporary works that do not mention the event, even though it changed a lot about how America and the world runs. Works set in the immediate aftermath might mention new security regulations, for instance, but the event doesn’t always play a massive pivotal role in the narrative arc.

Not every narrative should revolve around a huge event, even if it is global. Because sometimes, characters are so wrapped up in their own worlds that even big events won’t register on their personal Richter scales when measured against the day-to-day concerns that crop up. If you’re writing a story you’ve specifically pegged as taking place in October 2020, say, and your character’s best friend is undergoing a medical emergency, and the pandemic is throwing a huge spanner into all the works, then, yes, you should mention it. But not all fiction going forward is going to mention the pandemic.

And that, friend, is not only reality – it’s likely what folks want to see because sometimes we read fiction to escape from our reality. Just to cover us, I spoke to a few editors and agents, and they say they are still acquiring fictional works that do not mention the pandemic. Finally, I urge you to think of those poor editors…really, who wants to read COVID-fiction all day long? No one. Not a single one, trust me.

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Keep calm and write on,

—Gigi

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