By Mark Alpert
Here’s my latest dilemma: I’m writing a scene that takes place in a bar, involving two characters huddled close together. And while I’m writing the scene, I’m thinking, “Hey, shouldn’t these characters be wearing masks? And standing more than six feet apart? Now that I think about it, should they even be inside this bar at all? I mean, these characters aren’t idiots. They should know that what they’re doing right now isn’t very smart.”
My fiction is realistic in the sense that I imagine it could actually happen in the real world. And thanks to Covid-19 (and our government’s very inept response to the pandemic), the real world has radically changed over the past several months. So does realistic fiction have to change too?
Of course, writers of pre-2020 historical fiction don’t have to worry about this. Nor do writers of science fiction or fantasy, unless they’re imagining alien planets or magical lands that are enduring pandemics similar to ours. But many (if not most) thrillers and mysteries are assumed to take place in the present day. And if the characters in those novels aren’t taking pandemic precautions, a reader might think, “Hey, the world in this novel doesn’t really look like the present-day world. Does this book take place in some alternate reality where Covid never happened?”
It was easier to dismiss this problem in the early days of the pandemic, when many of us thought the crisis would subside in a few months. But Covid-19 has been spreading across the globe for almost a year now, and most epidemiologists agree that the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. We’re in the beginning stages of the long-dreaded autumn surge, and the new coronavirus is spreading like wildfire in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, and the Dakotas. Even here in New York City, where we managed to beat back the virus through widespread mask-wearing and social distancing, the number of infections is rebounding. Doctors have developed better treatments for Covid, but the disease is still killing nearly a thousand Americans every day, and the death toll is likely to reach unbearable heights this winter.
Our great hope is that drug companies will develop a safe and effective vaccine that’ll protect us from Covid and bring our lives back to normal in 2021. But even the best vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective. For example, the CDC says that annual influenza vaccination reduces your chance of getting the flu by only 40 to 60 percent. What’s more, the flu vaccine is least effective for older people, probably because it’s harder to activate their less-than-vigorous immune systems. For the coronavirus vaccines that are currently under development, the required threshold for efficacy is only 50 percent; that is, the FDA will approve a vaccine even if it fails to protect half the people who get it.
A vaccine that’s only 50 percent effective can nevertheless be a very useful tool for restraining the pandemic. Cutting the vulnerable population in half will definitely curtail the transmission of the virus. But the new coronavirus is now endemic in the U.S. — that is, it’s firmly entrenched across the nation — so it will be extraordinarily difficult to stamp it out. Even if, by some miracle, every American is vaccinated by the end of 2021, many of the unprotected people will still be dying of Covid. Because a significant percentage of vaccinated people will still be capable of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus, everyone will need to continue to wear masks and avoid crowded bars. The precautions can be safely abandoned only after the infection rates have dropped to a barely detectable level.
How long will that take? Obviously, the process will be much faster if the coronavirus vaccine is more effective than the flu vaccine. If it has the same efficacy as the routine childhood vaccines — which are about 85 to 95 percent effective — and if the new vaccine causes no serious side effects, then maybe life can get back to normal in 2022. But those are big if’s. My best guess is that we’re going to be living with this crisis — and adapting to it — for the next several years.
And novelists may need to adapt too. Now, I know that the problems of a few thousand fiction writers don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. Personally, I’m much more worried about the health of my parents than the realistic accuracy of the novel I’m working on. But our profession does have its noble aspects, and one of them involves our ability (if we’re skilled enough) to hold up a mirror to our world. I believe John Steinbeck made America a better country by pointing out its inequities in The Grapes of Wrath. I believe Mark Twain helped clarify our nation’s ideals by dramatizing the evils of slavery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In other words, the best fiction doesn’t ignore reality.
Right now we’re in the calm before the storm, bracing for the viral onslaught that’s likely to overwhelm hospitals in many areas. And we’ll still be immersed in this struggle a year from now, when the first wave of novels written during the pandemic will go on sale. (It usually takes traditional publishers about a year to prepare a novel for publication. That was the case with most of my ten previous books.) A contemporary thriller might manage to successfully avoid the topic of Covid if the author makes it clear that the action is taking place before 2020. But if that distinction isn’t clear, there’s a danger that the novel will seem outdated and out of touch to an audience of readers living in a remade world.
Some Covid-influenced short stories are already available for perusal. I really enjoyed Lorrie Moore’s story, “Face Time,” which appeared in the New Yorker last month. I also liked Roddy Doyle’s story, “Life Without Children,” which the New Yorker published just a couple of weeks ago. (Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Doyle, author of The Commitments. Check out my review of his latest novel, Love, in the New York Journal of Books.) Even if you don’t want to mention Covid at all in your novels or short stories, it still makes sense to avoid certain scenarios that will probably seem jarring a year or two from now. To cite an extreme example, don’t write a scene featuring a bunch of 80-year-olds paying a visit to a disco. Pre-Covid, such a scene might’ve seemed cute and funny, but under the current circumstances it feels callously ignorant.
And then there’s the opposite problem: anticipating how your novel will be received five to ten years from now, after the pandemic finally subsides to a manageable level (God willing!) and no longer influences so many of our thoughts and behaviors. It’s interesting to note that there’s very little cultural record of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide (including about 675,000 in the U.S.) and yet is barely mentioned in the novels, plays, and movies of that era. Ernest Hemingway and other novelists of the 1920s wrote brilliant books about the lingering effects of World War I, which killed far fewer Americans, but there’s no equivalent of A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises to record the societal impact of the Spanish flu. It’s a strange omission that I don’t really understand.
I suppose if there was a world war going on right now, we might be more alarmed about the conflict rather than Covid, and in future years the memories of that war might overshadow the pandemic, even if the latter proved to be much deadlier. And then there’s the fact that the influenza virus mutates so rapidly. After 1920 the Spanish flu subsided quickly, partly because so many people developed immunity after being exposed to it, and partly because the virus swiftly mutated to a less deadly flu strain that we still live with today (namely, the H1N1 strain). Viruses are subject to natural selection like all other living things, and a viral strain that quickly kills its host will be less successful at reproduction than a strain that makes its host moderately sick for a long time, coughing and sneezing and spreading viral particles all the while. Therefore, a virus that’s new to humans (having just made the jump from animal to human hosts) will tend to become less lethal over time, and the length of this period of adjustment will partly depend on how fast the virus mutates.
All the available scientific evidence indicates that the new coronavirus mutates more slowly than the influenza virus. That’s good news for the vaccine makers. Because the RNA of the coronavirus won’t change so much from year to year, a vaccine that’s effective in 2021 will probably continue to work almost as well in 2022. But will this sluggish mutation rate also slow the transition of the new coronavirus to less lethal strains? I have no idea.
So my advice is to stay on the safe side. In all likelihood, we’re going to be avoiding crowded bars and movie theaters for a long time, so try to avoid putting your fictional characters in the same situations (unless you inform the reader that the scene is taking place before 2020 or on another planet). And let’s hope like hell that at least one of the coronavirus vaccines under development turns out to be more than 80 percent effective. I don’t want to keep wearing masks for the rest of my life, and I’d rather not put them on the characters in all my future novels.