Thursday 9 April 2020

One plague or another... Anne Rooney

As Dawn said a few days ago, we all went into this lockdown with fine plans of writing new things. In my case, revamping an outline for a non-fiction book I'm keen to sell and doing some work on adult book that I'm not yet trying to sell as I don't have a clear vision of its shape. And improving my very poor German. Plus working on the few commissioned books that have not been put on hold. But aside from meeting deadlines, that's not what has happened. A good deal of gardening has happened. And a sudden desire to revive a novel I wrote some time ago and my then-agent couldn't sell because 'we don't want historical right now.' Historical in this case is the plague in Venice in 1576.

I found myself drawn back to the book with some enthusiasm for the first time in years. I know I can't be bothered with trawling it around publishers or agents again (I've parted company with my last agent) so it will rot in a drawer. I thought I might self-publish it as something to do. But then I got into an argument with a whole bunch of people on a publisher's website and now I'm not sure. They were denouncing the publication of a book set during a fictional pandemic as 'opportunistic' and 'profiteering' and 'making money out of people's misery'. Are they right? I don't think so. No one is being forced to buy this book set in a pandemic. Profiteering, surely, is making money by price-gouging essentials, such as soap or masks? If you don't want to read a story set in a pandemic, just don't. Personally, I am enjoying revisiting plague narratives now and recognising aspects of the lives described that were previously alien to my experience. Even revisiting a book I wrote myself, I am quite pleased to see that I correctly captured the feelings of self-isolation. (It's not really a book about plague, but plague is the backdrop and isolation and restricted movement are key aspects of it.)

If we believe that people want characters they can identify with rather than a homogenous white, straight, middle-class cast, don't we believe they also want situations they can identify with? And that might include living through a pandemic?

When I was first writing this novel I did worry that I was exploiting the misery of people long dead, and I lit a candle for the plague dead every time I visited Venice for research. But the thought that to publish it would be exploiting victims of the current pandemic had never occurred to me. What do you think? If someone publishes a book set in a plague/pandemic, is that reprehensible? And does it make a difference whether, as in the case of the dispute, the book is about a covid-like disease or something else? (The author of the disputed book wrote the book 15 years ago, so the disease is not a direct reference to covid-19.) Are you reading pandemic literature? I've been revisiting some and ordering some new dystopian fiction. I'm finding it helpful seeing this new aspect of life reflected in fiction. What about you?

Anne Rooney
Out now: How to be an Eco-Hero
Hachette, 2020


Pippa Goodhart said...

I think it's a very odd idea to think that publishing a book set in any plague is 'exploiting' anybody. How? As you say, only a person who wants to read such a thing would buy it. I wouldn't want to read a story of plague just now, but that's me. And I may well want to read it when we get the other side of this present crisis. People love to be outraged by others in order to make themselves feel better. But they're wrong.

Susan Price said...

As soon as Covid was declared 'a pandemic' the sale of Defoe's 'Diary of a Plague Year' went through the roof -- as did Camus' 'Plague.' That's a clear indication that many people are interested in reading about historic plagues and how people reacted then. There's a sort of comfort in it: this has happened before and this, too, will pass.

I agree with Pippa: profiteering is charging over the odds for things people desperately need: medicines, protective clothing. It certainly isn't offering a book that people can buy if it appeals to them, or leave if they don't.

I can't even see how you're 'exploiting' the plague dead. If I write a story about the Battle of Hastings, am I exploiting the men killed there? Or am I telling their story and marking their part in history? -- You are telling the plague victims story for them.

Penny Dolan said...

I cannot think that any historical historical written by you - and with the amount of pesearch you'd have done - would be inappropriate - or whatever was being suggested.

Besides, you seem to suggest the novel's not ready yet, so maybe by the time all the editing is done and over, people will be glad of it as a marker of the past months and more.

However, I must say that whenever I've been in the middle of a worrying time, I don't want to read about it all: I need calming novels that resolve happily, or cosy crime books and even some non-fiction.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Penny. The novel is finished, but the discussion I'm referring to was about a different novel, published by Quercus. The people I was discussing it with don't know that I have a plague novel! I was wondering, though, if it's insensitive to publish plague novels - as they were claiming - or OK. Personally, I feel it's up to each individual whether they want to read such things and if they don't there is no pressure to do so, so I don't see a problem. I was quite surprised others did see a problem so I wondered what other writers thought...

Nick Garlick said...

Stories help us - well, me at any rate - make sense of the world and what's happening and our lives. As the lockdown began, I watched the film Contagion again. If nothing else - I think it's terrific film all round - it illustrated how important washing your hands is. I've read the beginning of The Stand, for another illustration of how viruses spread. I'd read your plague novel like a shot, because it's connected to what's happening now.