Why books and films about outbreaks are surging


Iraqis check out books sold by a vendor in central Baghdad, April 22, during the coronavirus pandemic. Sabah Arar/ AFP

On April 28, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s first novel, The End of October, was published, dropping silently into my Kindle reader because it was on pre-order. There is every chance the novel, though not an especially good read, will sell well. For, it is seen as prescient in a world afflicted by Covid-19.

Set in a global pandemic caused by an unknown virus, the book depicts some of the events that are now part of daily coronavirus news bulletins around the world: infection super-spreaders; city-wide quarantines; closed borders; arrested international travel; overwhelmed health systems; shortages of protective gear and ventilators; a falling stock market; empty supermarket shelves; and the race to find a vaccine amid warnings of a coming second wave of infections.

The novel was written long before the coronavirus outbreak but has been published while the pandemic continues to take its toll. Any interest in it is of a piece with an observable trend. Ever since countries went into lockdown, there has been a spike in the consumption of books and films about plagues.

Late last month, Reading Agency, a British charity, published data highlighting the rising sales of books about the spread of viruses and disease. In early March, publishers reported booming demand for fictional stories featuring pestilence.

They make for a diverse pile. It includes Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a vivid, nearly 300-year-old account of London under siege from disease; Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, about a city hit by a mysterious epidemic of sight loss; Stephen King’s 1978 The Stand, which depicts a world decimated by a superflu; and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness, whose 1989 iteration had a “Wuhan-400” lab-engineered bioweapon that ate away at brain tissue. The “Wuhan-400” has fed conspiracy theories in the current pandemic.

Meanwhile, there is increased mention of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a 2014 post-pandemic novel about a Shakespeare troupe’s attempt to survive.

It would make sense if most people were to seek a distraction from the scourge, rather than to immerse themselves in it via various forms of entertainment

In late February, Albert Camus’ The Plague was flying off bookshelves, along with dried pasta and toilet paper, and Penguin publishers were rushing through a reprint of its English translation.

The novel’s sales tripled in Italy, bizarrely pushing it into the country’s list of top 10 bestsellers 73 years after it was first published. France registered a 300 per cent increase in sales compared to last year.

The fascination with fictionalised takes on disease seems to go beyond novels.

An eight-year-old video game, Plague Inc, about a pandemic that kills half of humanity became immensely popular in China just as it went into lockdown.

The 2011 film Contagion rose from 270th to number two on Warner Bros’ most-watched list.

Newspapers have been issuing coronavirus must-see guides for the season of self-isolation.

They include The Masque of the Red Death, the 1964 movie version of the 19th century Edgar Allan Poe story about pestilence and self-isolation; The Andromeda Strain, based on the Michael Crichton novel about an alien virus; Outbreak, about a new viral hemorrhagic disease in a small American town, and 12 Monkeys, which has Brad Pitt time-travelling to the 1990s to identify the origins of a pandemic that nearly wiped out humans.

Why is this happening? It would make sense if most people were to seek a distraction from the scourge, rather than to immerse themselves in it via various forms of entertainment.

But there has always been a certain logic in seeking out ways to engage with our deepest fears.

As the author Anthony Horowitz recently noted, “We look to fiction to try to make sense of the real world”. And perhaps nothing is more real to us than the three greatest existential threats perceived to humanity: pandemics, climate change and nuclear weapons.

All three have long been popular subjects for storytellers.

In the half-century after the Second World War, the threat of nuclear devastation and a third world war dominated a certain popular strand of fiction. When the Soviet Union collapsed, nuclear apocalypse fell off the list of marketable sci-fi and speculative fiction.

In the past two decades, climate change fiction or cli-fi started to gain ground. It is thought to have properly started with Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, which linked the boomer generation’s fear of nuclear war to its new terror of bequeathing an uninhabitable planet to its children.

From there, cli-fi had a steady progression of successes, not least an empty, flooded London in Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, to last year’s The Wall by John Lanchester, an environmental fable about rising sea levels and Britain’s carefully policed coastal structure, designed to hold back the tides and all migrants.

Cli-fi seemed to be on a roll until the coronavirus crisis and it will revert to pole position sooner rather than later. But for now, Covid-19 has reawakened the perennial fear of fatal disease and sparked interest in fictional tales about it.

According to Professor Timothy Morton, a philosophy professor who explores the intersection of object-oriented thought and ecological studies, the fascination with plague stories is partly to do with “hyperobjects”, entities and phenomena so enormous they are hard to reduce to an easily understood narrative.

Accordingly, we try and find a story that will explain some part of what is occurring.

But there is also another, more hopeful aspect of reading novels or watching films about contagion. They show that a pandemic too will end, serving as both a warning and an inspiration.

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Originally published at https://www.thenational.ae