The Great Pandemic Novel Will Not Be About the Pandemic

By Alissa Jones Nelson

If someone asked you to list the necessary tools for global transformation, fiction might not be high on your list. But perhaps it should be.

At a recent Counterpoint event, the panelists (including myself) were asked to speak about whether and how the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to transform how we live together on this planet. The pandemic has certainly demonstrated just how quickly we can change how we live—when we think we really need to. But the pandemic is also part of a much larger problem: how humans treat the planet and its “resources,” how we see ourselves as separate from the rest of the planetary community, both human and non-human.

The pandemic is easily personalized. By now, each of us is connected to someone whose life has been dramatically affected. Climate change is less localizable. Timothy Morton calls the climate crisis a hyperobject—something we can’t really get our minds around, something we can hardly even grasp as a “thing.” We have lots of information about it—indeed, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the facts—but information doesn’t necessarily inspire action. Radical transformation requires us to feel a dramatic need for change.

Imagination without facts is dangerous, but facts alone are not enough to generate or sustain change. If we’re serious about transformation, it’s going to take more than reasoning to get us there. Now that we know large-scale change is possible, how can we inspire people to invest the same energy in addressing climate change as they have in responding to the pandemic? One answer is to tell stories.

A few weeks ago, Counterpoint published a blog post on the COVID-19 “apocalypse.” Catherine Keller and John Thatamanil point out that the term apocalypse derives from the Greek apokalypsis, which doesn’t mean the end of all things, but rather “unveiling” or “revelation.” In this sense, fiction is a kind of apocalypse—it reveals us to ourselves, and it intimately, viscerally unveils others’ experiences of the world. A good story can make those experiences matter to us in ways that information, rational arguments, and political debates cannot.

So what stories might we tell about our current crisis? Consider Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Junichirō Tanizaki. All were literary-canonical “great” writers who lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic and published novels in its aftermath, in the mid-1920s. But none of them wrote about their experiences of the pandemic directly. Instead, they gave us great works about what they saw on the horizon—stories that are still relevant, novels we’re still reading 100 years later. In response to crisis, they shared their visions of the future: dystopian, utopian, or something in-between.

Fast-forward to today. The novelist Jenny Offill (Weather) asks how we can “tell a story about climate change that carries the same visceral force as our own private emotional dramas.” In other words, how can we personalize it? Because personalization is what provokes people to care enough to act. When it comes to realizing our planetarity and inspiring transformation, writers like Max Porter (Lanny), Richard Powers (The Overstory), Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), Elvia Wilk (Oval), and Thalia Field (Experimental Animals) are addressing these themes in diverse ways. We need more stories like these.*

We also need to remind ourselves that our current crisis is not new. As Justine Bakker put it in her Counterpoint blog post, we should not forget that for many (if not most) people—especially the victims of structural racism and neoliberal economics—“crisis” is “a more or less persistent (if shifting) state of affairs.” There is also value in dystopia right now—in storytelling that helps us see what is (or should be) disturbing about our world. The planetary community needs a gut-wrenching look at where we are as well as a compelling vision of how things could be different.

When asked recently about the immediate future of the novel, literary agent Emma Paterson said, “I think there could be … an emphasis on story and building other worlds, particularly past worlds.” I think she’s right, but I hope we’ll also focus on building future, even fantastic worlds with an eye to transformation.

As the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong observes, “We often tell our students, ‘The future’s in your hands.’ But I think the future is actually in your mouth. You have to articulate the world you want to live in first.” The poet Cathy Park Hong tells us that a writer’s job is “unsettling an audience and provoking a participatory response.” Fiction enables us not only to understand and envision, but to feel the fabulous, fantastical ways we might re-world our world. It draws imagination and emotion into the project of seeing ourselves anew.

Ursula K. Le Guin was a master of this. If we think of the story as a technology—as Le Guin did—then we might redefine the ways in which “technology” could save us from this and other crises. Maybe it’s time to circle back to our old technologies.

With reference to Le Guin, Donna Haraway writes, “storytelling might well be fundamental to organizing and promoting cooperation in human evolution.” It “collects possibilities of recomposing lives and making new sorts of kin in hard times.” We need the skill of storytelling in our present moment, as we seek to (re)learn how to organize, cooperate, recompose, and make new kin.

Too many of our stories tend to be human-centric. We need to work harder to be what Zadie Smith calls “outward-facing” writers, looking beyond ourselves, faithfully presenting the experiences of “others” without being “colonial in spirit.”

This will not be easy. When Richard Powers was writing what became The Overstory, he originally wanted to write a novel entirely from the perspective of a tree, but he couldn’t quite make it work. In 1974, Thomas Nagel wrote an article called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” which J. M. Coetzee riffed on in his 1999 novel The Lives of Animals.

Nagel argues that it’s impossible for a human to truly understand the bat’s experience, but Coetzee’s main character disagrees. She says the question is sympathy, a faculty which “has everything to do with the subject and little to do with the object, the ‘another.’” Objectively understanding the bat’s experience might indeed be impossible for a human being. But imaginatively understanding the bat is certainly possible, even necessary—and what’s more, the onus is on us, the storytellers, those who seek to understand.

In this context, storytelling need not be limited to the realm of fiction, or even creative non-fiction. As Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work shows, storytelling is valuable in communicating scholarly work too.

If our understanding of planetarity and the consequences of ignoring it depends as heavily on our imaginations and our emotions as I believe it does, then our responsibility as storytellers is to be outward-facing, sympathetic subjects, to take up these challenging themes, and to do it well. Any lasting change as a result of this pandemic—and the larger planetary problems it points to—depends on the stories we tell.

* This list is a distillation of my own reading over the last year, and it’s admittedly partial and limited. I would love to have readers flag work that should be added to this list in the comments below.


Alissa Jones Nelson completed her PhD at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews in 2009. In 2011 she began her #alt-ac career, working first as the Acquisitions Editor in Religious Studies for De Gruyter and then as the Senior Editor and Head of the Publishing Department for the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. She now works as a freelance writer, editor, and translator, based in Berlin. You can find out more about her work here.

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