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How will COVID-19 change our writing and reading culture?

On Monday I went to my first, and I hope only, funeral in the time of coronavirus. The service was for the father of a woman in my church life group. It was held at a pavilion near a pond at the cemetery. Although a few close family members hugged one another, generally we kept our socially approved distances and did not shake hands. We obeyed the new strictures although all of it screamed defiance to Southern culture and the way funerals are supposed to be in the South.

I couldn’t help thinking how much this would be repeated over the next—how many?—months. I learned today that our college will only hold online classes in the summer, or more specifically, all currently scheduled courses will be taught online. I will not see my colleagues, whom I normally see daily, until August.

I also can’t help wondering how all this will affect writing and reading. The current climate has happened so suddenly when we remember that in the first of March we had only just heard of COVID-19 and people were making jokes about Corona beer and the virus. It’s like an ice age descending on us in days, an ice age of no contact and strained relationships and wary expectations of normalcy in the future.

I think writing will or at least may change in six ways due to the pandemic. I think it already has. Not being a prophet, I’ll use the subjunctive mode rather than the future tense, but I have the courage of my convictions here.

1. It may change language and humor. Christine Rosen, a member of the podcast team for Commentary Magazine said yesterday that she was tired of hearing the word pandemic used for everything now—applied to politics and artistic culture. Will we get a new set of clichés? And what will be considered funny in the future? Will we see humor differently because of our new awareness of the fragility of life? I don’t mean joyous laughter or humor that operates in a realm of kindness. I mean meanness, self-satisfied irony, and dark humor.

2. It may change our method of writing. Right now we—or a lot of us—are anchored to our computers. They are a life-line and a prison. Our only option for seeing people in any close contact is on a screen (yuck, by the way).

We always have the creative option of using pen and paper, preferably a spacious, inspiring journal with thick, creamy pages. We have the time (whether we use it or not). Don’t we want to write the way Dickens, Austen, Dickinson, Twain, and Yeats did? Perhaps the keyboard will become such a burden that we long for a different mode of expression. Perhaps the keyboard will become such a friend that it feels a part of our body.

Method, of course, is not just how the hand expresses the mind and heart. Method is how creative ideas come to us, how we build character and world, how we structure story, and how we revise and edit. Will those change because of the next three on my list?

3. What does this time of pandemic do to our attention span? I know I am not the only easily distracted person. We crave news—what’s the latest numbers, what about supplies, what’s up with toilet paper, when will there be a treatment, when will be free again, what will President Trump say next (to infuriate or encourage, a true litmus test of a hearer’s state of being)?

I decided I had ADD a long time ago; the Internet worsened it, but now my distractedness is off the charts. If I watch a movie, I stop to read the biographies of the actors on Wikipedia or Although I did finish and publish a short Bible study I was writing last week, getting back into my novel is harder than making myself clean the toilet.

4. How will the pandemic change our content? I think the anxiety we are feeling will not disappear for a long time. Will there be an avalanche of COVID-19 or pandemic novels and movies to add to existing canon? Will apocalyptic novels move from zombies to respiratory ailments? Will Young Adult books move from authoritarian governments that squelch creativity to authoritarian governments that forbid human contact? What will Margaret Atwood do with this? (Not a fan, by the way. The concept and fear of The Handmaid’s Tale becoming reality is the most paranoid nonsense I can imagine.) It’s hard not to envision some 1984ish, oppressive, isolation-themed works of fiction. At this point I have to point out that the Southern hemisphere has not even begun to be affected by this (except perhaps in Australian). We in Europe and the U.S. think we are the only ones touched by COVID-19. But who knows what will happen in Africa, Southern Asia, and South America, where there is more poverty and less health infrastructure? Will the writers of the bottom half of the planet produce the greatest works because of it?

5. A fifth quasi-prediction I will make is that the pandemic will change reading. After this period of enforced sedentariness is over, no one is going to want to read a book. (We’ll all need to lose weight!) Assuming we have maintained our mental health through this, we are going to want to be outside or go to something where people congregate. Reading is by nature an isolated activity for us, although it wasn’t for the ancient world, where there was no such thing as “silent reading.” Everyone read out loud, even when alone. Isolation might become a habit; I think rather that people will prefer to embrace each other face to face, for at least a while, than be in a comfy chair reading.

Anyway, I’m not really convinced everyone is reading more now, as we are sheltered in place. It would be nice to see if there are more Amazon sales and downloads! My numbers certainly are any different.

Worse, few are going to have disposable income to buy books just to have them. Kindle or online reading may be preferred due to the cost. (I read a lot of old novels that are in free PDFs or epub format from Planet World or other such services.) Will readers want to read something light or something dark? If readers and reading change, writing will be affected.

6. Sixth, will our motivation to write change, given all these factors? If there is less likelihood that our countrymen and women will read, will there be a reason to write? Will there be any money in it? Will the juice of profit and praise be worth the squeeze of agonizing through another work?

Yet I know, as much as I would like to sell one of my stories to a producer for some real money, I don’t do this for money. I do it because it must come out. Writing will continue; profitable writing may diminish, but I think it already has for many. We will write because it is who we are

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