Essay: On the future of reading and writing under the shadow of the pandemic by Saikat Majumdar
At a recent webinar, Alexandra Pringle, executive publisher of Bloomsbury UK, described the books she believed were on people’s wishlist while living under the indefinite terror of the pandemic. An important desire was for the unreachable, for the things people cannot do now – go to places that are gloriously, shockingly different from the quotidian reality of their own lives. The literature of escape, if you will. One particular book that stood out on Pringle’s list was Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, which transports readers to the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, to the sand, sunshine, and all things distant from the ailing and confined reality of English lives right now.
The pandemic ironizes our lives. Just as it turns into alien reality before our eyes, we long for the unattainable Other. Art is after all, the impossible-to-resolve tension between the alien and the familiar. We long to empathize with everything we recognize from our own lives – the emotion of that familiar anxiety, the character of that gossipy neighbour, the love or loss we recognize as our own. At the same time, we long to be shocked by the cold hand of the alien, whether it is the fear of ghosts or of a gripping futuristic dystopia. During that same webinar, on being asked how he was holding up under the pandemic, Sayantan Ghosh, senior editor with Simon & Schuster India, referencing the fatal play of the self and the other in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, said that every morning, he felt like a giant beetle.
The truth is as eerie as allegory. When we watched Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) on Netflix, the sensation of the other becoming the self was bone-chilling. Watching with us, my six-year-old son had all his muted questions about the importance of washing hands kick into zombie life as people foamed at their mouths and died within days of touching the wrong doorknob or shaking the wrong hand. What should have had the intoxicating alienness of art was now hyper real. Not just lives, the pandemic also ironizes our relationship with art.
Now, we hear of people returning to the classics. With lives confined, suddenly the books left for the days after retirement seem manageable. Indeed, with financial security scattered across society with staggering disproportion, those lucky enough to hold onto their livelihoods might experience this as temporary retirement. The length of a War and Peace or Les Miserables seem less formidable now that the hours extend indefinitely in every direction. Still, lives are confined in the most literal sense, clasped at throats, air-passages near-strangled.
Is the sudden return to classics a hidden intimation of mortality? Of being haunted by those lists: “The 100 books you must read before you die”? Are we going to die? Suddenly, the big picture matters more than anything else. We call up old friends to whom we haven’t spoken for ages, family members with whom we’ve bitterly parted company. We pick up classics, read the unread ones, reread those already read. Big picture, big books.
What about writers? What are they writing? What will they write? There seems no huge anxiety to write a classic, perhaps cannily so. Who can tell what ruthless ravages time will bring, what acid erosion of memory, culture and civilization? Journalism and commentary have predictably made the COVID-180 degree turn: in newspapers and magazines, in the last couple of months, there has been precious little that’s unrelated to the pandemic. Several have set up coronavirus newsletters that are delivered to your inbox every morning. “Today’s must-reads” are all infected by the pandemic.
Is this a reality check for writers of imaginative literary forms such as fiction? Recent trends have sometimes forced fiction and journalism to be indistinguishable. So much has happened in India alone since the beginning of 2020: the worst communal riots since Gujarat 2002 that happened in the nation’s capital are now being followed by the strategic arrests of members of the minority community as “instigators.” The political conscience cried out for imaginative responses to contemporary reality, but so did the market. The topical has always been the wind in the sails of journalism, but now it fans the flames of fiction too.
A disruption of nature, a pandemic is certainly not without human intervention. It is redolent of the world of classical Greek tragedy, where hostile nature rains retribution on hapless humanity. But being modern entails human agency: we are no longer passive sufferers but enforcers of tragedy; a Macbeth rather than an Oedipus, who caused an epidemic without being aware of it. The pandemic and its human response, the lockdown, has been embroiled in intense political decisions. The sharpest image has been that of the bloodied, pus-filled feet of the thousands of migrant workers who have walked home. Many have died on the way. The pandemic has traumatized a homeward turn. To those to who have a home, and those who can reach there.
The event has revealed to us the fragility of the worlds we write about. It is a reminder that a true commitment to reality must not be confused with the transient need to exploit the topical for attention. The real will endure – as indeed will the political patterns that led to the suffering of migrant workers. But the ephemeral instinct to fictionalize news will eat humble pie. In a flash of dystopian lightning, the real has turned unreal, and the fictitious has metamorphosed into reality.
The admission of the precarity of the real is always the best bet for fiction.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird and The Scent of God. He is @_saikatmajumdar on Twitter