INTRO: This blogger's eyes recently caught a very perceptive literary essay by British university student Grace Robinson in The Varsity student newspaper at Cambridge University, a campus publication read widely by the student body there and, it seems, far beyond thanks to the worldwide reach of the internet. Born in 1996 in Blackpool, a seaside town in Lancashire on the northwest coast of Britain Grace graduated this June. For her undergraduate degree, she told us, she studied Modern and Medieval Languages and Literature, with an emphasis on French and Italian languages and postcolonial Anglophone and Francophone literature.
This interview was conducted via email.
-- Dan Bloom in Taiwan
Chronicling coronavirus: Who will we want to pen the pandemic?
And subtitled: Grace Robinson explores the impact of coronavirus on the literary scene.
QUESTION: Do you think a new literary genre might arise for novels and plays and poetry collections about life during the 2020-2025 pandemic, before, during and after? I'd be interested in hearing your ideas on this. Tell me more.
GRACE ROBINSON: I'm not sure that the creative response to the pandemic will emerge as a genre of its own, but perhaps more as a theme which spans genres, languages and countries. I imagine that, like a creative response to any major cultural or world event, this will continue for years to come, as different perspectives and voices come to light. I am, primarily, interested in how the publishing industry will seek to tell all the stories of the pandemic, not just those of writers with the space and time to set about chronicling their experiences now. This has become even more pertinent in recent weeks, as the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests have sparked new interest in inclusive publishing and reading habits, and the power of literature to educate and inform us. Of course, the renewed momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement is itself becoming part of the pandemic's narrative, and will surely make its way into stories that seek to capture the cultural zeitgeist of such historic times. For this reason, predictions of what the literary response to COVID-19 will look like are still so difficult to make: we are still living through it, and I believe that only with the distance required to process the events will writers be able to craft holistic accounts of the pandemic.
These novels will appear in the UK of course, and in the USA and Canada and Australia, too. And the pandemic novels of the future will also be written across genres, from sci-fi and cli-fi to thrillers to memoirs and autofiction and young adult novels, too. Stage plays. Movie scripts. TV series from Netflix and Hulu and the BBC. And writers will be putting pen to paper on this subject in India and Sweden and Italy, too. In over a dozen languages, Japanese and Chinese and Spanish and French among them. What do you hope to see from these future novels? Might you be writing one yourself in future days?
GRACE ROBINSON: I certainly think everything you've mentioned here will manifest at some point over the coming years, and the creative response to the pandemic will be long-lived. I imagine intersections between the pandemic and what you call 'clifi' will be produce popular and thrilling content - there's plenty of scope for pandemic-era dystopian narratives, whether on page, stage or screen. Personally, I will be interested in the depiction of the pandemic in literary fiction, which will undoubtedly emerge in a few years time. I would like to read stories which unveil the hidden realities of lives lived during times which currently feel completely surreal. In my Varsity article I talked at length about Ali Smith, whose 'Summer' will publish in August and which I await with bated breath - I imagine she will be the first British writer to chronicle the virus and its ramifications in her work. I do have a few ideas myself in terms of pandemic-era tales, so may very well put pen to paper in the coming years!
How does the covid pandemic intersect with the climate crisis, if at all? Your thoughts?
The COVID-19 pandemic absolutely intersects with the climate crisis, as a dramatic fall in global emissions has been a by-product of the near-global shut-down induced by the pandemic. It's incredible that demands climate activists have been making for years were inadvertently met within days, and raises many questions about why nothing was done sooner, and how easy it can actually be to effectuate change when deemed necessary. It is, however, far too soon for climate activists to begin celebrating; as lockdowns across the world ease up, the grim reality of a return to "business as usual" seems ever more likely. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that the positive climate action brought about by the pandemic does not go to waste.
You recently published a very good article in the Varsity which was on the global Google News site where I found it. What has the reaction been to that article so far?
The article has been relatively well-received, although was published around the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement began to gain momentum again, so much of the media focus shifted to cover that. This is a testament to how quickly things can change, and how difficult it seems to pin down now exactly what the literary response to the pandemic will look like - the political landscape now is vastly different to when we first got in touch nearly two weeks ago.
Alison Flood at the Guardian newspapear recently wrote a good article on how some British writers are dealing with the lockdown and the pandemic in their novel writing? What did you think of her article? Any particular anecdotes she mentioned that stand out?
I enjoyed Alison's article, which focused on the changes that authors are currently having to make to their writing to address the pandemic. The different approaches were interesting - some were completely revising their narratives to encompass the many cultural signals of the current situation, whereas some have decided to shift the setting of their books back a few years to avoid the issue completely. The article certainly raises interesting questions for narratives which don't deal directly with the pandemic, but necessarily brush up against it: how much action can there really be when characters can't touch one another? Writers having to shape and re-shape current work is obviously one of the early challenges the pandemic will pose to literature; writers who begin brand-new pieces during this time will naturally feel their work immediately influenced by the current state of affairs.
Just for fun, and as a possible buzzword for newspaper editors and publishers, I am calling these new novels about the pandemic as part of what I have dubbed Corona-Lit and created a hashtag on Twitter for it at #CoronaLit -- what other genre names might appear later? Pandemic-Lit? Pan-Lit? Any suggestions that are serious or just in fun?
I see that #CoronaLit is being used quite a bit on Twitter now, and that seems the most zeitgeisty name there could be - for now!
What motivated you to want to write the Varsity piece you wrote on pandemic novels and what did your editors say when you submitted it?
As I wrote in the piece, my thinking was very much influenced by Ali Smith. I read the third instalment of her seasonal quartet, Spring, in April, which got me thinking about the novel's capacity as rapid-response unit in times of political turbulence. I imagine that Smith will be the first British author to chronicle the pandemic in the fourth and final installation of her series, Summer, and I'll be incredibly interested to see who will follow suit, and how the response will pan out across genres, and across the world.
DAN BLOOM: Thank you, Grace, for taking the time to do this interview online with me. I like your thoughts here.
GRACE ROBINSON: Thank you, Dan, for reaching out to me.