Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year describes events of 1665: the Great Plague of London. From the title, as well as the writing style, one might infer that it is, indeed, an up close and personal account of his experiences during that a period when nearly seventy thousand people died.
But Defoe published the book in 1722, some fifty-seven years after the fact. He was a child of five when that particular spam hit the fan, and he relied on accounts of older relatives for both stories and details, as well as, like any author of fiction, on his imagination.
When the Covid-19 shelter-in-place was first imposed on many parts of the country (as is so often the case, California was a leader: life as we knew it came to a crashing halt on March 17th of this year), I was ready to ride it out. The first news I got was good: I went to my local Jewish Community Center and saw a note that the gym would be closed for two weeks. Hooray! What a defensible excuse to avoid a thirty-minute Stairmaster climb!
I had to keep that relief a secret, knowing that, for millions of people, this has meant job loss, children to homeschool, and worse. But that still left some millions with enough financial cushion that they could think, finally—I have time to write that novel!
Enough people not only had that idea, they acted upon it—so much so that the topic reached the culture aerie that is NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. On the July 13th broadcast, host Peter Sagal said that a literary agent had made a plea on behalf of her colleagues that people stop submitting their quarantine novels. “[She] told NPR that, first, if you wrote your novel in less than three months, it probably reads like it was written in two months.”
One could argue that making fun of the crushed dreams of aspiring novelists isn’t really nice, but you can’t argue with their conclusion. It’s about perspective.
I’m a classic movie fan, and my fave of faves are those made about World War II during World War II. My mother-in-law, who worked at a hotel in Los Angeles during that time, once said, “You have to remember that we really didn’t know who was going to win.”
That’s what gives those movies their special slant. It was propaganda, but it was propaganda for the good guys. These movies are about sacrificing for the greater good, for saving humanity from fascism. Number one on my list is So Proudly We Hail, because it was made at a time when the war was going badly for the U.S. in the Pacific Theater, and it centers around a group of (yes, female) nurses, putting themselves in harm’s way, and it ends with Claudette Colbert realizing that there are more important things than her love life. (Casablanca=same moral.)
If you’re interested in another decade of Hollywood propaganda, look at the 1950s. One example: in Bigger Than Life, James Mason takes too many prescription steroids, because, although he has a job as a schoolteacher and a side hustle, he can’t afford to go to the doctor. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose, amirite? When the high school coach, Walter Matthau, suggests to Mason’s wife, Barbara Rush, that she get a job to help out, she replies indignantly, “Do you think I would do that to him, Wally? Let him feel like he can’t take care of his family?” Read #1: Undermine his masculinity that way? Read #2: Women have to stay home because putting kids in daycare is a Commie thing. And no, I am not reading into this! The Wikipedia entry, while acknowledging the film’s initial financial disappointment, also summarizes Francois Truffaut’s and Jean-Luc Godard’s analysis of it as a critique, inter alia, of the overuse of prescription drugs and the abominably low salaries of public school teachers. Then again, the French love Jerry Lewis.
I digress. I’m famous for it. But we were talking about movies, at least, which are also fiction, only, unfortunately, a form that requires multiple people in the same space, unless Zoom-in-gallery-view is all we have to look forward to. The shelter-in-place immediately closed down movie theaters. (Anyone old enough to remember Polio Summers? Not I! But I heard about them—and there was no Netflix. The horror. The horror.) Hollywood postponed blockbusters, and then, as the pandemic dragged on, quietly moved them to streaming platforms.
In the past month, filming has restarted on various movies and television shows.
Production companies are coping by filming in locations with looser restrictions (no one will be filming in San Francisco), and you won’t see crowd scenes. I’ll be very interested to see what propaganda (did I say “propaganda”? I meant, “messages”) come out of Hollywood (did I say “Hollywood”? I mean “Georgia”) this time around. There may be a lot of historical settings, but stories are always seen through the lens of the time in which they are created.
But back to the “pandemic novel” that literary agents don’t want to see. Unlike journalism, which documents the day-to-day, and the hour-by-hour, a novel needs deep roots in the time and place in which the story unfolds. We need perspective. Maybe not the fifty-plus years that Defoe had, but a lot more than the six months we’ve lived through. If I’d written a quarantine novel in late March, there would have been several chapters devoted to toilet paper. Early on, Amanda Urban, doyenne of literary agents, was quoted as saying that publishers are wary of novels about the pandemic because “we don’t know what the narrative arc is.” Let’s hope it has a happy ending.
Image by Saiyabatulhamdi
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.