March 30, 2020

Looks like everyone suddenly found time to finish that novel


(Public Domain)

Agents are reporting an inundation of submissions in recent days.

As told to the Guardian:

Literary agent Juliet Mushens, of the Caskie Mushens agency, usually receives between 10 and 15 appeals for representation a day from new writers. Last Monday alone, she received 27.

It’s unclear if people are really knocking off prose at a rapid pace or if the stakes in hitting send just seem much lower all of a sudden, but the Guardian cheerfully points out that editors and agents probably have more time to read them in any case. (Thanks, Guardian!)

But would-be novelists want to know: should they be writing about “pandemics and apocalypse” to land a deal? Should they be “shoehorning the coronavirus into their plots”?

Literary agent John Jarrold and HarperCollins editorial director Phoebe Morgan are begging you not to.

“I am only one editor, but I am advising my authors not to add pandemic into contemporary novels,” says Morgan. (Count me in, so now we have two editors putting out the advisory.)

Her reason? She doesn’t think readers will want to read about it “when they’re trying to escape.”

Another one to consider: the consolidation of our cultural horizons.

The scale of a pandemic reflects the degree to which our world is interconnected, right? And another thing our rapidly consolidating, industrialized, global economy has foisted on us is an increasingly monolithic and progressively more anodyne culture, right? Think: movies produced in Hollywood that keep things very big and empty with their foreign distribution deals in mind. Or just think about the last few Netflix originals you watched.

Disney produces live-action Mulan and Netflix distributes Love is Blind for the same reason that COVID-19 is global—scale. This is not to equate the two, but to point out that the forces that produce art that has no meaning distribute them on the supply chains on which pandemics travel rapidly throughout the world.

Nobody here is turning coronavirus into a metaphor. (I swear, I’m not!) It’s just that we were already experiencing the suffocating unity of the world in other terms before it came to us one and all in concrete form. If you were lucky enough to only have experienced the depredations of globalization as nagging feeling up to now—something evident in our culture or something to worry about abstractly—now you can no longer avoid the ache.

To create something original has never seemed more impossible. If it was once the case because entertainment conglomerates are more efficient and scalable content doesn’t need to do anything but sell, it is now doubly so because our minds are one in the worst way possible—struggling alone, together, thinking the same thoughts that add up to nothing.

So don’t not write a novel about coronavirus because the market will be flooded with them or because novels are for escapism (not sure I’m on board with the latter, anyhow.)

Avoid it because you should only write one that defies the structures that keep pulling us more aggressively into the entropy of eschatology, not one that replicates them. For your own sake and for your readers.

The Guardian also provides some tips in their article. Here’s one: “Finish and edit your novel before submitting anything to agents”.

Definitely do that, too.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.