Reflecting on the current wave of pandemic essays, Sally Olds asks ‘what can writing do?’ in this meta-essay on the economics of writing during a crisis.
When I get the email asking me to contribute a text to this project, I am in bed. It’s 3pm, a Wednesday, and I am scrolling numbly through various feeds. In quarantine, as others have pointed out, it’s always 3pm, and I have come to believe that Wednesdays are the 3pm of weekdays. So I am in bed and it is 3pm squared.
I think, first, about writing a coronavirus-take on the coronavirus-take. By corona-take I mean writing occasioned by the coronavirus, the cottage-industry of reflection and opinion newly sprung up around COVID-19. Novelists are publishing headlines about hope in dark times; the personal essayists are essaying personal experiences; the socialists have their articles on insurrection. On the steps of Parliament House, conspiracy theorists are sloganeering anti-mask sentiment, and the anti-fascists pen anti-anti-mask articles in response.
The philosopher Vincent Le has a scathing read on the philosophy version of the corona-take, which, as he writes, tends to issue from those closest to canonisation (read: chaired, tenured, comfy). In each case, COVID-19 supplies the X of whatever equation the writer has been working out for years. The event philosopher wonders if COVID-19 is the event. The state of exception philosopher claims that COVID-19 is the trigger for a state of exception. The preeminent philosopher of communism—you get the idea. You can minimise your risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus by staying indoors. Corona-takes, on the other hand, are a subsidiary pandemic from which, short of turning the modem off at the wall, there is no quarantining.
As always in a crisis, some of the responses take the form of a question: what can writing do? Writers and artists ask it at the best of times, maybe at all times, more or less constantly (question: when did writers first ask after the value of writing? Have we always done it, or has there been an uptick, say, in the last forty or fifty years?). And when a crisis hits, the question sharpens itself against particular problems: what can writing do in a pandemic, in a revolt against police brutality, in an economic depression? Olivia Laing has a new book about it, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, and in The Guardian she offers a response to COVID-19. I quote its final paragraph in full:
It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith. It’s easy to give into despair. There’s so much that’s frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said. We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch. Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.
These sentiments are representative of what I’ll call, for the purposes of this essay, ‘Stream 1’. Stream 1 writers answer What Can Writing Do (WCWD) with a bingo-card of evocative refrains. For Laing, it’s ‘hope’, ‘faith’, ‘interconnected[ness]’, ‘welcome’, ‘enchantment’, and ‘resistance’. Elsewhere, it’s ‘resilience’, ‘imagination’, ‘possibility’, and, of course, ‘empathy’—literature, in the Stream 1 imaginary, is the world’s largest empathy-manufacturing plant, where writers clock in daily for meagre pay but untold spiritual rewards. This is the language of literary festivals and awards-recipients, of ten-part Twitter threads and book blurbs. It’s the holding-pattern of a Romantic belief in the genius and the Muse, in books as edifying, a jumper-cable from the writer to the reader. Reading is an experience ‘of incandescence, of being changed, of becoming a little wiser to whatever life throws our way’, in the words of one festival director. According to another, literature can help ‘halt the clock’ as we tick towards global catastrophe. Remember when Alain de Botton briefly became a pornographer, attempting to make erotica that coupled the erudite and the base, the human and the brute? In theory, his ‘Porn as Therapy’ would offer a fuller picture of how desire works, restoring the context that hardcore porn excises or so hamfistedly discards when the clothes come off. In practice, across a series of high-res photographs and florid captions, a woman masturbated to Spinoza’s Ethics. (If you want to see Stream 1 WCWDD, What Can Writing Do Discourse, at its most audacious, go to the School of Life’s ‘Books as Therapy’ page and click on the politics section; ‘Porn as Therapy’ has apparently been scrubbed from the archives—a regrettable business decision given that porn consumption has risen in rough proportion to the severity of corona-restrictions).
Alain de Botton is low-hanging fruit, but claims of the therapeutic and/or educative function of literature are pure Stream 1, and they run untrammeled across all manner of high- and low-brow corona-reading lists and opinion pieces: ‘Romance fiction got us through the GFC and World War II. Here’s why it could help us during COVID-19’; ‘Apocalyptic fiction helps us deal with the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic’; ‘Coronavirus Comfort Reading: Books to Make You Feel Better During a Pandemic’. When I hear ‘books in a pandemic’, I think of what Maria Tumarkin says about ‘storytelling’ in an essay of hers from 2014. This was the boom-time of The Moth and This American Life, of long-form narrative podcasts and essays, and we are still living and writing in its aftermath. Sometime in the last decade, if not every few weeks, you will have heard that stories are the best thing we humans have to make meaning, to connect across differences, to change minds, heal the teller, and transport the listener. Only, as Tumarkin finds, some things get lost along the way: ideas that don’t fit the narrative, for example, or that don’t facilitate the requisite climax-epiphany at the end; events (like corona) that are too complicated and weird; the thinkers and writers who can’t or don’t want to massage the knots out of something that never resembled a story in the first place.
Stream 1 promotes writing as an abstract moral imperative, in which ‘storytelling’ and ‘books in a pandemic’ are cleaved from all terrestrial entanglements: the production and circulation of literature, the workers in printing factories, the couriers who transport the books, the staff who sell them. Transplanting this high-mindedness to the contemporary capitalist metropole shows its pitfalls. When, in the first months of the virus’ spread, Waterstones employees in London were forced to keep working in stores teeming with customers panic-buying books ahead of lockdown, the managing-director James Daunt—who was self-isolating after a trip to the States—argued that the stores should stay open because they provided an ‘important social resource’ with ‘real social benefit’.
The benefits, in Stream 1 WCWDIAPD (What Can Writing Do In A Pandemic Discourse), include ‘historical empathy and perspective’, and connection to others across time and place—that’s Michiko Kakutani in a pandemic-literature literature-review for The New York Times. ‘Connection’ is a Stream 1 fixture, but during lockdown it comes into its own. ‘Stay together, Australia,’ exhorted the Prime Minister tearfully at the start of quarantine. As Paul Preciado observes in one of his corona-takes (Stream 2ish; there is a Stream 2), connection during quarantine means forging an alliance between health, home, and the technologies and platforms that host content and communication. The jumper-cable theory of literature pre-existed coronavirus. So did the jumper-cable theory of the Internet. In quarantine, writing, reading, and publishing move even more online. When the viral take tells you to stay connected, there is something a little redundant about it, the medium and the message amplifying each other to an identical pitch. For companies like UberEats and Amazon, we are ‘finally, a truly captive user base!’, as Amber A’Lee Frost writes (Stream 2), or in Preciado’s words, ‘horizontal workers’, i.e. working from home from bed, laptop open to Zoom and phone on the pillow.
Every so often, a writer will roundly denounce writing’s complicity with the CIA, the embourgeoisement of culture, middle-brow dogma, the ivory tower, the festival circuit, or the current funding model, and these denunciations are Stream 2 staples, forming a resilient substrate of WCWDD. Luke Carman and Robyn Annear are both canonical Stream 2ers; their essays on literary cliques and literary magazines, respectively, caused huge uproar in Stream 1 circles a few years back. You will find that Stream 2 writers take up Stream 2 positions with a vehemence proportional to the oversaturation of Stream 1. If Stream 1 says ‘necessary’ and ‘vital’, Stream 2 will counter with ‘pointless’ and ‘indulgent’. Stream 1 is complacent when it comes to politics but starry-eyed about writing—the one standing in for the other—while Stream 2 salt-circles writing off from the field of political action. A good chunk of Stream 2 is composed of writers from (Stream 1’s language) ‘the margins’, who tend to have a sharper understanding of how the game functions, having observed it from a clarifying distance.
Often, Stream 2 gives writing an earthy ballast, answering Stream 1’s romanticism with a series of hard-nosed adjectives. Writing is work, and writers must be treated and paid accordingly. Writing has or produces values, and not just nebulous spiritual ones, economic ones; like all workers, artists and writers are necessarily exploited. For Stream 2, WCWD becomes: what can writing do that a brick through a window can’t do better? Here’s Tony Birch in a recent interview, reflecting on WCWDD: ‘When people, for example, talk about climate change and the role of writers and artists—I believe in that. But if people ask, “Do we write more climate change fiction?” I say, “No—we fucking get down on the picket line.”’ At the end of The State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had been planning to include a chapter on ‘The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917’. Its writing was ‘interrupted’ (the scare quotes are his) and indefinitely halted by the October Revolution. In its place he left a now-infamous postscript: ‘It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.’ Writing, in this view, has a preparatory role to play, and a reflective one, but not an active one, and must be abandoned when it’s time for the fight to begin.
What can writing do? And what could a denunciation of WCWDD do? Maybe it could reach a few festival directors and make them think twice about using WCWDD when programming their festivals. Or maybe I’m missing the point and WCWDD of any kind sells tickets, helps whole industries stay afloat. Indeed, Stream 2 denunciations often take place in Stream 1 settings, which continue untroubled or even galvanised by the critique. Naomi Riddle, in a recent Stream 2 appraisal of post-corona arts, writes that:
Writing about dissatisfaction with the arts and its institutions is a genre in and of itself, with a receptive home in the Twittersphere. It’s another form of signalling that generates its own cultural capital, and it’s most often received with a kind of benevolence.
Riddle’s piece ends in a frank analysis of the ‘current situation’ in Australia. We are nearing the point at which the arts as it stands must collapse or self-correct. She wants the former: the stomach-dropping moment—the point of no return, the brick suspended mid-air—capable of turning a ‘community’, scare quotes hers, strung along by the elusive promises of funding and fame, into a clear-eyed body politic. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but she’s talking about something like solidarity, or a collective coming-to-consciousness (what good is 'working' without the 'class'?). Writing, art, and critique can lead us to this horizon but they can’t make us cross it.
Stream 1 discourse is the hyperbole of an industry on the defensive, gutted by years of systemic underfunding, and, as if that wasn’t enough, a pandemic-recession ready and able to finish the job. If the question implies a public to which it must respond, both Stream 1 and Stream 2 WCWDD function as a kind of penance for continuing to write, for being rewarded for writing, in times of such austerity and chaos—is it a coincidence that the most grandiose Stream 1 apologias are reserved for occasions when money changes hands?
It’s as if we struck some terrible devil’s bargain: this newsroom for this many corona-takes, this many permanent jobs for this many one-off commissions. The two are connected, of course; under- or unemployed, without stable positions or incomes (BuzzFeed News goes, then a dozen regional newspapers, then several literary magazines miss out on funding), writers are working double-time to produce texts that respond to the coronavirus. Why? All of the above, and a few more reasons off the top of my head: 1) temporarily liveable dole payments, affording ample time to write, 2) an opportunity to graft your existing interests and practice onto the virus, resulting in a fresh angle and the fractal-like infinity of exceedingly specific corona-takes, and, 3) a host of government, institutional, and philanthropic coronavirus response packages that pay you to produce work that responds to the coronavirus.
A third stream of WCWDD would have to avoid the hazards of the first two—Stream 1’s idealism and Stream 2’s scornful pragmatism. It could do so not by harmoniously combining each stream, or tempering each one’s excesses with the other’s, but by intensifying them, toppling them over into hyperbole. Has anyone claimed—as physicians did during the Black Death of the mid-1300s—that listening to pleasant tales and songs sung sotto voce can literally prevent COVID-19? (WCWD would become ‘what can’t writing do?’ and the answer, for Stream 1, would be ‘nothing' and its hegemony would be complete). Stream 2 would demur and dig its heels in, changing the conversation again. What if we all stopped writing? What if WCWD became WCWDFW (what can we do for writing?) or even WDWDA (what does writing do, anyway?), as in, what does writing make happen, and what do we learn by tracking these effects? What if we’ve got the relationship between writer and public all wrong, conceiving the writer always as an individual addressing a crowd, and not—as they are, or could be—just one among many on the picket line?
I’m imagining these contradictions heightened to the point where a useful confrontation could take place, both sides gargantuan, a fight in the vein of the Sperm Whale vs Giant Squid videos you can watch on YouTube. There would be no survivors, and in their place, there might be a new contender.
—Sally Olds, June 2020
Sally Olds is a writer from Queensland living in Narrm/Melbourne. She has written for AQNB, recess, and un Magazine, among other publications, and has collaborated extensively with Precog, an experimental club night held in Narrm. She is a sessional tutor at the University of Melbourne, where she recently completed an MA.