Things are moving far too quickly, and not just from an epidemiological perspective. Yesterday was approximately six and a half years ago. For writers, as the tentacles of the coronavirus unfurl each day, everything is copy. But what happens when every writer on the planet starts taking notes on the same subject? Will we all hand in our book reports simultaneously, a year from now? The nature of tragedy is that it takes more than it gives, but it’s also produced some of our most iconic literature. The Great Depression brought “The Grapes of Wrath.” The Spanish Inquisition helped inspire “Don Quixote.” Cholera gave Camus “The Plague” (so to speak). Shakespeare, Twitter has been quick to remind us, wrote under quarantine. There’s something comfortingly glib about art-shaming in the midst of being told you’re a vector for death. The Accidental Murderer: And Other Stories.
From an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone’s faces. After all, “Don Quixote” was published about a century into the Spanish Inquisition. Art should be given a metaphorical berth as wide as the literal one we’re giving one another. Right now we are distracted and anxious beyond measure, but things will settle (how much and when remains to be seen), and then? I think of the opening scene of Noah Baumbach’s first film, “Kicking and Screaming,” in which two young writers start taking notes on a fight as they’re having it.
“What if I want this material?” asks the boy.
“We’ll see who gets it first,” says the girl.
We all know how limited this kind of get-it-while-it’s-hot writing will seem in the future. That’s never stopped us from doing it. It’s not stopping me from indulging in a version of it right now. Look at the narratives that came out in the years immediately following 9/11. They have not aged well. Really, we’re only just now nailing World War I. But like everyone else, writers feel the need to distill life as a means of surviving it.
Our particular era strikes me as especially susceptible to this impulse. Part of the reason is that our response to disaster (terrorist attacks, hurricanes, school shootings) is to get out there and declare the death of irony. Like Steve Carell’s character on “The Office,” who declares bankruptcy by screaming, “I declare bankruptcy!,” you can’t just cry sincerity because you want a shortcut to perspective or because you want to keep your jokes inoffensive. When the coronavirus has passed, we will say, sincerely, perhaps for the first time in our lives, Our long national nightmare is over. But this will not be our final use of the phrase. It will be a caption on the Instagram post of someone’s post-quarantine haircut, I promise. Yet in the moment, we feel the need to prove our solemnity on social media by setting a universal mood, and this is poison to actual book writing.