Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

“An Opportunity to Act”

Tope Folarin

Two new literary genres emerged during the opening weeks of the pandemic. The first, the pandemic journal, proliferated almost as quickly as the virus that kept millions of us locked inside; by the summer of 2020 it seemed as if every literary and literary-adjacent platform had secured a roster of writers to opine about their daily habits, fears, and truncated ambitions. Depending on your perspective, the pandemic journal was either the apotheosis or nadir (or both!) of another literary genre — autofiction. Many of the journals, such as they were, sounded similar themes as the autofictional texts that had garnered so much attention over the previous decade, but in a more abashed, tentative key. The autofiction boom had been premised on a tacit understanding between privileged writers and their readers: yes, these writers seemed to say, our lives aren’t especially interesting, not really, but our books feature important ideas, and artfully composed photographs that augment our ideas, and you will enjoy the ride. The pandemic journal, born of the same conceit, appeared at a moment when the stark divide between the privileged few who could spend their time engaging with ideas and the millions of essential workers who were underwriting their comfort — and who, frankly, had always done so, in one fashion or another — grew impossible to ignore.

The second literary genre that emerged during the pandemic proved to be just as virulent as Covid-19, and it developed in response to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. These were the Black Lives Matter statements that were issued by seemingly every corporation, nonprofit, and educational institution in the land. Each statement deployed similar language: painfully earnest, grandiose, and nonspecific, littered with action verbs that had been rendered inert by centuries of unfulfilled promises. Indeed, these statements were so similar in tone and execution that as I read them I pictured a large cash register churning out an endless ribbon of apology-copy, and a long line of executives, scissors in hand, waiting to snip off a CVS-receipt-length strip of prose to post on Instagram.

As the pandemic wore on, certain writers began to write columns in which they implored other writers to refrain from writing about the pandemic until it was a distant memory. (“From an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone’s faces,” Sloane Crosley memorably wrote in The New York Times at the beginning of the pandemic.) Yet writers are an obstinate bunch, and now our bookstores are stocked with shelves of pandemic fiction, some of it authored by our most prominent novelists.

Pandemic fiction has arrived in many different flavors: some writers have opted to tuck their pandemic narratives into sprawling überfictions in which the pandemic plot is but one among many, and others have produced allegories in which our reality is glancingly referenced. Yet the bulk of the pandemic fiction that has been published thus far seems to resemble — in content if not in form — the pandemic journals that circulated in 2020. As Alexandra Alter of The New York Times put it a few months ago in a piece about the pandemic plot:

Many of the new pandemic-themed novels seek to capture the texture of daily life in the Covid era: the corrosive effect of isolation, the tedium and monotony of lockdowns and quarantines, the strain on relationships, the way the virus changed casual interactions and ripped some families apart and brought others together.

Something in the literary zeitgeist has shifted since the pandemic began. Some novelists are moving in a maximalist direction — a pointed rejoinder to the aesthetic deprivations of the autofiction years. Autofiction superstars like Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Sheila Heti have recently published bold and experimental novels, but they aren’t autofiction. Many novelists are writing about the looming environmental crisis. And some writers seem to be working in other modes altogether, modes that defy categorization, at least for now. This feels like an unsettled moment, a caesura before the next literary era arrives.

Whatever happens, it’s likely that fiction about the pandemic will feature prominently in the next era, and we have an opportunity now, before a pandemic canon is formed, to shape the conversation about the kinds of voices and experiences that should be foregrounded. One common assumption about canon formation is that it just happens: over the course of many years the most influential and important books announce themselves, and a critical consensus forms about why certain books have made the cut, and why others haven’t.

But of course a canon doesn’t just appear; human beings write books, other humans publish them, still others read and critique them, and then younger humans decide if those books speak to their lives in a compelling manner. Many of us have learned a great deal from the literature of the Western canon, or the canon of literature about the Vietnam War, or even the emerging canon of 9/11 fiction, but we can also sense the vast negative space of lost knowledge that pulses around these works, the result of a contemporaneous curation process that prized certain ideas and perspectives at the expense of others.

A similar curation process has already begun. Several novels about middle- and upper middle-class Americans enduring a “boring apocalypse” have been published while stories about the essential workers who kept the lights on have yet to achieve prominence. Thankfully, we have ample time to expand the borders of this conversation. This will require all of us working in tandem: critics to review these books, periodicals to publish these reviews (and perhaps forgo the opportunity to publish the 200th review of the latest blockbuster), booksellers to press these books into readers’ hands, and readers to read and spread the word. The most important players in this process, of course, are publishers. Publishers have become especially adept at publishing apology-copy over the years — for their lack of diversity, for their mistreatment of younger staffers — and rendering the copy moot by refusing to act on their words. Here, now, they have an opportunity to conduct themselves differently. They have an opportunity to act.

Tope Folarin is the author of the novel A Particular Kind of Black Man and the executive director of the Institute for Policy Studies.