Arts have long served as humanity’s means of processing reality. But as we reel from continued global crises, what stories are going to emerge from these odd and troubled times?
With so many of the arts hobbled by the pandemic, fiction should be thriving. Unlike any of the performing arts, writing is a solitary profession, one that does not require the physical presence of an audience. Even more than pursuits like painting and photography, which can require some collaboration, writing is best done in isolation. We have the ultimate “work from home” profession. But even as it is by nature removed from the world, much of fiction relies on realism, or some semblance of it. We call it “world building,” creating credibility for our characters and their lives. But what kind of world do we build now?
This is only one issue facing writers in this difficult time. In addition to the common necessities of wrangling everything from child care and schooling to health care and shopping, many of us have also had difficulty concentrating. My theory has been that the subconscious, where so much plotting and character-building happens, has been taken over by a silent screaming panic. But as we slowly get back to work, these are the questions we are asking.
I’m sure the current pandemic is spurring some writers, particularly in the horror genre. In two years, I expect a bumper crop of dystopian fantasy. The rest of us, however, face a choice. Do we depict a world in which people interact — as we did so blithely only five months ago? Do we try to set our mysteries and romances in a world of Zoom meetings and masked, distanced meetups? Is it too soon? As Sloane Crosley said back in March: “From an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone’s faces.”
No matter what our conscious choices, reality is bound to seep in. One author I know has posted on social media about her latest manuscript. Drafted largely before the pandemic, she talked about revising — and removing handshakes and embraces, at least between non-family members. These scenes made her uncomfortable, she said.
For me, the choice has been also somewhat predetermined. When the shutdown came, I was already deep into a draft of a gentle mystery, one of the so-called “cozies” that I write. Not only did it feel wrong to change the setting of the book’s reality, even as our own reality was changing, it felt antithetical to the purpose of such a book. “Readers need books like this,” my publisher said, in an encouraging email. In other words, my book should be a comfort — hence, the categorization of “cozy” — or, to quote Eliot, “a fragment I have shored against my ruins.”
I also had a practical concern. The work I’ve just turned in is the third in a series. I have another, darker book pending, as well as a short story that deals specifically with the aftermath of the pandemic, but my cozy is part of a continuum. I tell myself that it is neither wise nor fair to my readers to change too much at this point, never mind that their worlds have changed as much as mine.
As I revise, am I going to remove the hugs and handshakes? I’m not sure yet. But I have noticed another element of reality creep in. Cozies, like all crime fiction, are concerned with justice — we right the world as we write it. But this time around, my amateur sleuth is taking even more on herself. I no longer feel the need to invent an excuse not to involve the police.
Clea Simon’s most recent book is “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.