Not Wanted: Coronavirus Novels (At Least, Not Yet)

In the latest issue of Literary Review, literary critic and novelist D J Taylor has an article entitled “Why I Won’t Be Writing a Coronavirus Novel”. This begins with his fears that some half baked ideas may already be forming in the minds of the literati which will not, based on previous experience with novels dealing with apocalyptic events, advance their careers. He offers the example of several novels written during and just after WWII which, while considered good at the time, have not become classics: for example Julian Maclaren-Ross’s short story collection The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944) and Monica Dickens’ The Fancy (1943). The great WWII novels had to germinate over several years:

…the great British ‘war novels’ took years, and sometimes decades, to complete. Unconditional Surrender, the final instalment of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, hung fire until 1961. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy petered to a close in 1965. The Military Philosophers, the last volume of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence to deal with his hero Nick Jenkins’s wartime career, emerged as late as 1968. Part of the reason for this delay lay in the fact that it took Waugh and Powell a certain amount of time to establish the ideological framework in which they imagined the Second World War to have been fought. They were right-wing writers who assumed that the ‘People’s War’ interpretation of the conflict had worked a deeply injurious effect on postwar English life. But another part lay in the authors’ sheer hesitancy, their recognition that vast international crises don’t easily yield up their import and that the best treatments are sometimes those that come in at the obliquest of angles.

He might also have usefully mentioned Waugh’s “phoney war” novel Put Out More Flags (1942) as one of the few contemporary wartime novels that have remained popular. Moreover, Brideshead Revisited was written by Waugh during the last days of the war. He finished his first draft just as D-Day was happening, and it was published shortly after V-E Day in late May 1945. In that book, he proves Taylor’s point that he wrote the wartime chapters too soon because he feared that the “Peoples War” was going to wreck the things he held most dear. But as he recognized 15 years later when he revised his first edition, things didn’t work out the way he expected.

After adding a discussion of some ill-considered novels relating to Donald Trump’s presidency, Taylor concludes his LR article with this:

There are novels to be written about coronavirus, but they probably shouldn’t be written yet. And the novelist who at some point will chasten us with an account of what Trump did to America is probably still in kindergarten.


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