So what do we write now? by Elizabeth Kay
It’s a poser, isn’t it. If you want to write contemporary fiction, what do you do? Writing anything that is set in the here and now is impossible unless you can publish it the following day, as everything changes so quickly. So you set it slightly in the future, and imagine Covid-19 has gone and everything is back to normal. But it won’t be, will it? We don’t have a clue how the world situation will have changed. So you set it further in the future, but that’s no good as no one wants SF any more.
Historical fiction is still safe, and Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light came out at exactly the right time. Nice bit of lengthy escapism into a world where the plague was an everyday hazard. Not to mention the sweating sickness, which has never been identified but was probably a Hantavirus. That one disappeared as suddenly as it arrived, so let’s hope Covid-19 behaves the same way – which would give us another sixty-five years to wait before it bows out. You could be fine at breakfast with that one, sick by lunchtime and dead by dinnertime. Discrimination was rather more extreme, too, you’d be burnt at the stake for professing the wrong religion, drowned for practising witchcraft and hanged, drawn and quartered if you were particularly naughty.
Fantasy is still okay, but may have run its course for a while. It all seems a bit wishful-thinking and unrealistic at the moment. Dashing around with elves and goblins and dodging dragons doesn’t feel like an escape into anything meaningful, really. The Divide is still available to keep your kids occupied, though!
Non-fiction? Now there’s a lifeline. Can you crochet? Cook? Make paper sculptures or quilts or tapestries? No? Tough. Travel writing? No point, when we can’t go anywhere, and nowhere will be quite the same as the last time you visited it, which is what you’d have to draw on for material. The wildlife will either be more prolific, as the birdsong was in April, due to less pollution and less travel. Or else it will be devastated by poaching, which is almost impossible to control at the moment, or destruction of habitat due to thousands of post-lockdown people tramping all over the countryside and leaving their trash behind. Half the airlines may have gone – and half the hotels, too.
Poetry. Yes, that’s a good one, and N.M Brown’s poem a day during the pandemic has been inspirational. But we all know there’s no money in poetry, just personal satisfaction – which isn’t particularly good at paying the increasingly expensive grocery bill.
Plays? Nope, unless you fancy yourself as another Alan Bennett and do some Talking Heads which you record in your bedroom on your computer. No money in that, obviously, and probably a lot of flack for what you’re wearing or what you weigh if you’re female. Ridicule about the books on the bookshelf behind you if you’re a bloke – Jane Austen, Darren? What are you like?
I’ve got it. Blog posts! All about what’s going on at the moment, from your own personal viewpoint. Time to air your very own grudges, take your hobbyhorses out for a gallop, bang on about the government, the government of other countries, the lack of toilet rolls or self-raising flour. Your own lockdown experiences, about how the elderflowers have been especially prolific this year and the perfect opportunity to make elderflower champagne. Then the amusing bit about how all the bottles exploded. Your attempt at making a face mask out of an old bra, and the way it fell apart over the cheese counter in Tesco. The meringue recipe you tried because you wanted to make a Pavlova and use up the handful of strawberries that didn’t get eaten by slugs. The way you turned the oven on so low that you forgot about it, and came down the following morning to the sort of mess that needs a chisel to clear it away. The strange plants that grew pretty well hidden amongst all the weeds in your front garden, and completely disappeared one night. The entertaining visit from the police the following day. The squirrel that unscrewed the hanging bird feeder, and made off with it on the assumption that it would magically refill itself every morning.
And last but not least, all those books you’ve been meaning to read for years and never got round to. So much easier at the moment than trying to write one!