Whither literature in the age of the pandemic? The global crisis has turned us all into shut-ins, and we are all suffering a loss – of income, of hugs, of something as banal as a handshake.
While some seemed initially to be coping well – the introvert memes did the rounds in the early days – the jokes could only have lasted so long before the seriousness of the crisis began hitting home as the global death toll continued rising. In a very short time we have had to learn a whole new way of living, and a whole new way of speaking. Social distancing. Cocooning. Self-isolation. Lock-down.
We now have spotlessly clean kitchens in which to ponder our new reality, and so we sit and tweet. The hashtags can barely keep up with the discourse, but for once social media has proved a boon, providing much-needed comic relief or stories of triumph and compassion amid the crisis. Feeling down? Here’s a video of some Italians singing from their balconies. There are dolphins frolicking in the suddenly clean canals in Venice and elephants getting drunk and passing out in a tea garden in China.
Those last two stories proved to be not quite true, a reminder that even in the midst of a globally shared tragedy there is still misinformation circling the internet. Indeed, there is so much noise on social media, even more than usual, that it can be a chore finding both reputable news and solace from that very same news.
In times of crisis, then, people have turned to art, and the art world has responded mightily, from theatre, symphonies and opera live-streamed for free to virtual gallery tours and online art therapy. Here in Ireland the writing community has risen to the challenge in various ways: online readings, online reviews, online conversations. It's a given that we usually have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to literary festivals in this country, so to see a giant hole in the calendar in their place is a shock, both psychologically and financially. For writers whose livelihoods often depend on giving readings, running workshops and teaching, 2020 will be a year many will choose to forget.
That, though, is a problem, as a few Irish writers want us to remember all of it, the good and the bad. One initiative is Pendemic.ie, a platform for people to write and share their daily experience as they live through these odd times. Set up by Wexford writer Joy Redmondhttps://trustword.ie/ following a conversation with Ruth McKee, Liz Quirke and myself about how we were all struggling to rein in the madness and yet how quickly we were adjusting, Pendemic is intended "not as a literary magazine for ordinary times but a journal for an exceptional one," says Redmond.
“It seemed to happen almost overnight people were arranging Zoom meet-ups and queuing and talking about quarantine almost as a new way of living. We adapt, we humans always do in crisis. Terminal illness has the same effect. We rally round and our lives are reduced to a trodden path between home, work and hospital. Then afterwards we’re unmoored, scrambling to remember our lives before. I was sort of thinking if we don’t capture this now, we’ll forget it.”
Although run by writers, the site is avowedly not a literary endeavour, but a chance to document a moment in history as it is lived. As such it is more of a social memoir than a writer’s journal. It has featured work by John Boyne, Cat Hogan, Brian Kirk, Rachel Coventry, Nessa O’Mahony and Katherine Duffy among others but the site is open to anyone who wishes to write something about the pandemic. Since launching a few weeks ago, hundreds of people from all over the world have contributed.
For writers used to gathering to read and share work, this is a difficult time. Poet Simon Lewis and his wife Rozz were missing the sense of community offered by literary readings, and so set up The Holding Cell to allow writers to live-stream read from their living rooms.
"We were very sad and disconnected from humans, especially the literature loving types," explains Rozz Lewis. "With the Covid-19 virus only going to get worse, we are all going to need literary nourishment." Writers and poets are using Instagram, You Tube and Facebook Live to share work. Among those who have already live-streamed are William Wall, Belinda McKeon, Brian Kirk and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. The Holding Cell will be presenting Doing Time, an all-day marathon of readings this Thursday as part of Poetry Day Ireland. Poetry Ireland will also help those cocooning by having a writer telephone and read a reassuring poem.
We're great talkers as well as great readers, so it's no surprise that there is a glut of literary chat. Last week saw the Cúirt International Festival of Literature be the first literary festival to go to digital, to immense success. Rick O'Shea, whose book club has been extremely popular on Facebook for years, has launched Shelf Analysis, an online chat with a writer about the books they're reading and recommending.
We are living in an extraordinary time, but readers know that if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your Twitter feed and the endless news cycle, a good book, or a good chat about books, will help.