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Pandemic continues to be important to novelists

Despite differing opinions, it's likely that writers will continue to feature the pandemic in their works.

2022 was a promising year for fiction, with overall book sales rising by 9 per cent, according to Publisher’s Weekly, 60 per cent of which was in fiction. A quick survey of this rise shows young adult fiction rising by 35 per cent and adult fiction by 25 per cent.

Already by early 2020, novels on pandemics were sought out and offered as lockdown readings. Popular among them were Camus’ ‘The Plague’, the Italian ‘Decamaron’ and Ahmed Ali’s ‘Twilight in Delhi’.

Intriguingly, the pandemic continues to be at the centre of much of the fiction written last year. At times dystopic but often hopeful, the pandemic has given endless opportunities for fiction writers to deal with a world which came to the brink of disaster but also showed human resilience.

Among popular fiction, Jodi Picoult’s ‘Wish you were here’ is a moving novel about a character’s journey of self-discovery on finding herself alone on an island. There is also ‘Covid Chronicles: A Comics Anthology’ edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson that capture pandemic moments like working from home or the social inequalities that the lockdown brought out.

Award winning novelists were not far behind in using the pandemic as a background to their novels. Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Nights of Plague’, for example is a historical fiction about a fictional Ottoman island in the early 20th century where the plague gives rise to simmering factional rivalries. Although set in the past, the novel works with current social and political divisions. Adding the pandemic to this mix only creates a strange sense of contemporary relevance.

A respectable companion to Pamuk’s novel is Isabel Allende’s ‘Violeta’. This novel traces the life of Violeta del Valle who lives between two pandemics. Told in the form of letters, the novel outlines the life of a woman who has seen major social events in her lifetime.

Moving on, Paul Harding’s ‘This other Eden’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Old babes in the wood’ use the stark realities of the pandemic to weave stories of human suffering and endurance, making it very difficult for us to forget the dark days of the last three years.

There is much that has already been diagnosed about the pandemic. ‘The premonition’ by Michael Lewis and ‘Vaxxers’ by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green both retrace the steps of the early days of the pandemic to show a struggling and upended world and the race to find a cure. The misinformation, the scepticism and the hope are all well developed in both books which are still relevant today as most of the issues remain with us.

The jury is still out on whether the pandemic should be used as a prop for future fiction. Some argue that not everybody likes to be reminded of the painful few years spent in isolation, but others suggest that it is impossible to ignore this dramatic event in the 21st century. Either way, writers are likely to continue to use the pandemic as an important background for fiction and non-fiction for some time to come.

The writer is an Associate Professor in the department of English Language and Literature, Sultan Qaboos University.

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