‘Oh God, think of all the Covid books’. If you were on ‘writing’, ‘poetry’ or ‘publishing’ Twitter during any one of the last lockdowns, you probably saw that sentiment a lot. At least, I did. At the time, I remember thinking I was not so bothered about the prospect.
Of course, there are already plenty of Covid-inspired books out there already, memoirs, essays and journals especially, but also poetry. Lots of people wrote a little bit of something every day and presumably learnt something in the process which they now want to share with other people.
I am not that excited to read many of these. But you don’t have to read anything. The world-weariness of a phrase like “I can’t wait for all the Covid books” disguises a kind of social media induced attention overload. Twitter is a constant catalogue of new books you will never have the time to read. But social media makes you think you have less time than you do (or imagine that you have more time than you do, which amounts to the same thing).
In any case the effect of pandemic on literature won’t be straightforward. Look at the Second World War. To put it very crudely, in the aftermath there was a huge appetite for fantasy and science fiction, but also a new kind of ‘kitchen sink’ realism. Perhaps they would have happened in some form anyway, but the war must have had something to do with both: the sense of disorientation, but also the bomb it put under class relations.
And though it is tempting to read the 50s, 60s and beyond through the lens of what came next, many poets in this period must have been ‘war poets’ in their own way. To live, to be young, during total war, would be to have your whole outlook on life shifted and shattered.
Someone like Gavin Ewart, for instance, today best known for his ‘light verse’ , burst on the scene as a teenager in the 1930s, went to war, came back and got a job in advertising, and didn’t publish again until 1964 (after which, he published a lot).
Rather than worry about all the inevitable books about the pandemic, it might be worth thinking about the books which won’t be written, because nothing else is on people’s mind, or because what they had been going to write doesn’t make sense to them any more, or even because their whole life has changed and writing doesn’t seem a priority right now.
To put things very crudely, again, we are good at remembering wars, but perhaps less good at remembering their aftermaths. We see the casualties, but we don’t always see the long-term impact on the people left behind. I don’t think Britain likes to see itself as a war-torn nation: war is something that happens only to soldiers, and only in other places.
I don’t think people like to see literature as circumstantial, either. It is more gratifying to everyone involved to talk of stories or poems as things which change lives, rather than something made by them. Think of all the Covid books implies a kind of (completely understandable) despair that the pandemic ever happened. It did. But we can still choose how to respond.
While I’m Here
- One collection of poems I’ve read and enjoyed which (in part) responded to the pandemic was Sean Wai Keung’s sikfan glaschu: more about that here.
- Thank you to Dave Bonta who included an excerpt from the last blog on his Poetry Blog Digest. I really recommend digging around Dave’s website/s.
- Speaking of war, I am about halfway through this pretty remarkable (and chastening) footage of an RAF attack on Berlin. My grandpa was an engineer in a Lancaster like these.