Literature in the time of pandemic – What we can learn from our media escapes during global crises
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Writing about the Covid-19 pandemic can often seem gruelling and unrewarding. There’s a general sense certain topics are completely exhausted, even whilst they are still occurring. However, there comes a time when historical moments are immortalized in literature, and with the distance of accumulated time and experience become more palatable. The primary feeling of annoyance will subside into something nobler, telling the next generations of the sacrifices that were made, the people lost, or the toll it took on mental wellbeing.
Currently, however, the pandemic and its various taglines can simply be aggravating. It is interesting, then, to consider when literary texts, film, and other forms of media should begin to reference the pandemic. Shows like Greys Anatomy instantly began to assimilate Covid-19 into its seventeenth season. For those who watch TV or read as a form of escape, this decision might seem strange. Surely in a time when all information is expressed alongside the buzzword ‘unprecedented’, forms of entertainment media should offer a respite from the world’s chaos?
This need for escape may well have been a factor in the BBC’s huge success with Normal People, a TV show based on Sally Rooney’s 2017 novel. However, in the new Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney focusses on the idea that it justifies its interest in ‘fake people who have fake love affairs’ in the wake of ‘enormous historical crises’.
Rooney began writing Beautiful World, Where are You in 2018. It was revised and published in 2021, its last chapters addressing the pandemic. The novel focuses predominantly on the lives of friends Alice Kelleher and Eileen Lydon and their respective romantic relationships. Through an epistolary format in which the female protagonists mostly communicate through email, Rooney moves between the ‘fake love affairs’ of the fictional characters and wider social issues, such as overconsumption under capitalism. The narrative of the novel functions like a lens which constantly zooms in to the trivialities of our day-to-day lives and back out again to the world at large which the characters despair of as being in collapse.
The novel poses questions about what the function of media should be today. Is it morally dubious to spend time considering the microscopic romantic issues of unknown people whilst the world faces crises such as the pandemic? It reflects a conflict we often see between the feelings of individuals versus what is regarded as the greater good. Whilst staying inside saves lives, this isolation can also be challenging to those who struggle with their mental health; targeting the concerns which press in around us can often make us neglect those that creep up inside. The pandemic has led us to ask what we consider the predominant issue of the moment to be, and at what cost to personal wellbeing. Rooney’s focus on the quiet, desperate lives of her characters in the wake of global warming and the pandemic is a nod to this conflict.
Many of us read to escape our challenging present. However, Rooney’s subtle reference to the pandemic acknowledges the gravity of global issues and the role of literature in reflecting current affairs, even while she reminds us that our immediate experience of ourselves and our wellbeing shouldn’t be forgotten.