And I don’t just mean because you probably have more free time now, although there is that, of course. I can think of a number of other advantages of the enforced retreat we’re all taking, some practical, some emotional, and some (dare I say it?) spiritual.
First, you’re probably less distracted. News on all topics apart from the virus is drying up. No more endless debates about issues which enrage you! No need to respond to countless messages in your social media feeds. And it’s much quieter. Last night I stepped out of my house and couldn’t hear a single car. I live in a rural area of Portugal, but even so, the silence was otherworldly. I called my wife outside and the whole countryside seemed still and peaceful. I’ve long thought that one of the reasons for the superiority of the classic novelists over those of our own age is that they could not only work in peace, but were more connected to nature, more inspired by it. As they worked, they heard birdsong, cocks crowing, the lowing of cattle, the wind in the trees. We hear machines—an alienating and grating noise. They wrote about human beings in universal predicaments; we, increasingly, write about writing, the endless (and frankly tedious) intertextuality of self-congratulatory allusion. Maybe the crisis will give us a chance to centre ourselves and listen.
Second, you’re travelling less, or should be. Far from being a limitation, you may be finding that you’re discovering and appreciating your immediate area much more. I and my family are only walking in the village, and the nearby nature reserve, a wetlands, full of water birds, otters, storks, herons, wild boar and foxes. It’s a small area, but it’s enough. The more time I spend here, the more I feel I belong to it. And isn’t all good writing rooted in place? Can you think of any great novel that isn’t? How many times have you read fiction set in ‘a typical town in the Midwest, just like everywhere else’—and how utterly boring is that? As writers we could become much more local—and yet also more universal. Writing about the West Riding of Yorkshire didn’t make the Brontës parochial. Nor did Hampshire limit Jane Austen, or the West Country limit Hardy. We all come from somewhere, although we seem to have forgotten it. Perhaps this is our chance to reconnect with place.
Third, you may find yourself reflecting on how we have been living, both as individuals and as a species, and if you’re like me, you’ll have come to the conclusion that our way of life needs changing. Most of us profess liberal beliefs, and concern for the environment, but how many practise it? How many of us run air conditioning constantly, drive SUVs, and hop on planes to see friends, for holidays, and business meetings? And even for idiotic events like writing conferences, let’s face it. You may think I’m moralising here—I suppose I am—but bear with me. Whether you decide to become a more responsible citizen or not, as a writer it ought to at least prompt you to consider different ways of life, not merely take for granted the one foisted upon us by hyper-capitalism. If you’re a writer, it’s your job to imagine people in different circumstances. Whether you’re writing historical fiction, speculative fiction, or realistic fiction set in the present, questioning the usually unquestioned way of life of our urban middle classes—to which most of you belong—can only improve your writing. What if your characters were not mere mouthpieces for the latest pious platitudes you read in the Guardian, New York Times or Huff Post, but were seriously interrogating themselves, asking what the best way to live is? Isn’t that what fiction does better than any other art?
Fourth, and most dramatically, you may be contemplating death more seriously than usual. As someone who’s over sixty and has a high-risk condition, I am. That’s a very good thing. The prospect of death is—obviously—what gives meaning to life. It sharpens the senses, as I notice on my walks. It also puts things in perspective. For a long time, like most people, I’ve been exercised about issues that annoy or outrage me. Now most of them seem petty. What matters now is survival, spending time with the people you love, appreciating every minute, focussing on the eternal rather than the ephemeral. If literature has become increasingly superficial, more and more focussed on victimhood, less and less on the ethical choices open to the individual, as I believe it has, maybe we can redirect our creative energy back to what’s essential. The word ‘spiritual’ is so over-used that it’s become almost meaningless. I’m not suggesting that we need to become religious converts, but most great writing—most great art—does connect us to what is eternal, what has lasting meaning. That’s true not only of religious writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but also, I would argue, the agnostic or atheistic ones like Shakespeare, Kafka or Conrad. Do you want to keep reading novels that are little more than fictionalised op-eds? Do you want to write them? Let your death advise you. The symbols are clamouring in your mind for attention. Listen, let them speak. Our fiction could be much deeper.
Most people are so focussed on their fears that it’s worth considering how all this might make us better people and better writers. Could we show more solidarity—both as citizens and artists? Could we show a genuine spirit of inclusion, instead of just shouting about it? That would mean reading blind to ethnicity, sexuality, gender and so on—our only concern would be quality. Could we do that? Could we live freer, more fulfilling lives? And might that not translate into less whiney writing—into stronger, nobler writing? It might, you know.
Write for your lives!