June 2, 2020

Coronavirus is now coming for unfinished novels


A few months ago when governments started issuing stay-at-home orders, many thought this would just be a momentary blip, a month of staying home and then we could move on with our lives. Turns out that was wrong. As people are struggling to adjust to the new normal, fiction writers are grappling with how much of the current times to include in their manuscripts.

Alison Flood has written at the Guardian about authors revising their manuscripts to make them more reflective of the current times. For romance and thriller authors, the difficulty is creating a realistic image of the future without creating a dystopian society. Civilization isn’t over, it’s just odd and it’s unclear how odd our future will continue to be. As Holly Watt, author of To the Lions, puts it:

I’m trying to work out where we might be. Might there be a vaccine? Will getting on a plane feel wildly anachronistic? Will journalists working from an office seem weird? How interesting can a book actually be when everyone is sitting in their sitting room in their pyjamas? . . . It feels odd to be writing about people hopping on trains or popping to the pub, but focusing on Covid might make it date hideously. But if you don’t mention it, it is the massive elephant in the room.

Some authors have avoided this by shifting their novel into the before times while others have added references to background characters in face masks. Other forthcoming novels are more directly set in lockdown with the plots that directly relate to the character’s abilities to obey, or not, stay-at-home orders. Authors whose books are about illness are now facing an audience of armchair pandemic experts as they try to decide how much of the current social and governmental pandemic response to include in their manuscripts. It’s a wild world on the horizon for fiction authors.

At the beginning of the pandemic readers were eager to lose themselves in fiction that was wholly unrelated to our current times, but as the lockdown continues authors are facing the need to incorporate this new, weird reality. As much as we love escapist fiction, novels reflective of the current times can help readers feel less alone and assist in processing a world unknown.



Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.