Novel Virus Idea: Let’s Not Write a Coronavirus Novel

No one wants to read your deep thoughts

Eight days that seem like eight decades ago, the New York Times published an essay by Sloane Crosley titled, “Someday, We’ll Look Back On All Of This And Write A Novel.” But will we? Living through this has been weird enough, and it’s just going to get weirder and more depressing. Why would I want to wring myself out again?

Crosley wrote: “The nature of tragedy is that it takes more than it gives, but it’s also produced some of our most iconic literature. The Great Depression brought ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ The Spanish Inquisition helped inspire ‘Don Quixote.’ Cholera gave Camus ‘The Plague’ (so to speak).”

This goes along with the annoying tweet, which appeared on literally day two of the crisis, that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while sequestered from the Black Death.

Apparently, we’re in the midst of a great flowering of the arts, not a globe-wide death march. On her Instagram, Gwyneth Paltrow suggested that we all write a novel while also learning French. But the most likely enduring cultural forms of this global health crisis will be Tik Toks of a cat playing the piano.

But even if Crosley wasn’t encouraging us to all write a masterpiece, she definitely was encouraging us to do a certain kind of writing. When she says, “let’s all write a novel,” she doesn’t mean “let’s write a fun genre novel to give our fans something to do while they’re trapped in their houses.” She means, let’s write a serious literary novel that will garner serious literary attention:

“This is now everyone’s story,” she writes. “And here we have a generation of writers, myself included, already inclined toward narrative nonfiction, who are about to spend a ton of time literally staring at the walls. Yikes.”

Yikes? That doesn’t sound so bad. Staring at the walls is the best possible scenario right now. And it also sounds like the writer’s job description. I’ve been staring at walls for a quarter-century. Only now I’m doing it while the world battles a respiratory disease that jumped to humans in a Chinese wet market. I don’t want to use my “powers of observation” to write the great Coronavirus novel. I want to watch TV shows with space lasers in them and to not get sick. I will spend time inside with my nice family, do whatever I work I can, and hopefully come out on the other side with my lungs intact and with some toilet paper.

The piece ends with Crosley crying on the streets of rich Manhattan at 7 AM on a Sunday before the bodies started piling up. She ponders the “novel” that will emerge from her well of deep empathy for the human condition: “This is the feeling we will need from the stories that come out of this crisis. The good ones will not be born of ego or competition or fear. They will slow things down. They will put the new world into sharp relief.”


In the spirit of full disclosure which must always be disclosed, I know Sloane Crosley, or at least I did years ago.  A lot of writers know one another, and everyone knows Sloane. The Observer once called her “the most popular publicist in New York.” We’re Facebook “friends,” though a quick search shows we haven’t actually exchanged messages since 2007, when we commiserated a little about being attacked by Gawker. She was a junior publicist at Random House back when I was a famous author there, and she went on to have a very successful and  fabulous career as an essayist and novelist and literary type. She is delightful and witty and beloved in the industry and that is all the publishing insider la di da you need to know.

So what would a Sloane Crosley Coronavirus novel look like? Let’s head over to Instagram to see what her life has been like in the week since her Times piece ran:

–Short video of Crosley washing some nice-looking fruit in a sink.

–Photo of kale pesto that she made using the recipe from Fanny Singer, Alice Waters’ daughter.

–(Faceless) selfie of her wearing a shirt that reads “J’Adore Dior.” “You know,” the caption goes, “I never wear this goddamn shirt out of the house because it’s vintage but deeply obnoxious, and to hell with it, I say, to hell with it!”

–Link to a review she wrote of a product called “Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish,” with accompanying photo and the caption, “The ladies on the Titanic used this same scrub. Stay clean, friends xx.”

–Photo of some blueberry/apple muffins she made.

–Photo of the shuttered restaurant Bavette with the caption “It’s only temporary.”

–Food accompanied by the caption “I know New York has an “alarming attack rate” but I just realized that salad and pasta don’t have to be separate. You can put them in the same bowl.”

The novel writes itself!

Who can begrudge Crosley her bourgeois lifestyle affectations? Not me!  I have my share. And, let’s face it, who wants to be living in New York right now? If it’s scary for you, wherever you are, imagine what it’s like at the center of the outbreak. Anything optimistic on Instagram is just a shield you’re putting up to make life seem normal, to you and to everyone else. But there’s still something very noblesse oblige about the person who asks “who will write the Coronavirus novel?” then using the post-essay time to recommend beauty products. Let them eat muffins!

If you want to know what a Coronavirus novel will really read like, I recommend trying out Jessica Lustig’s New York Times essay, making the rounds today, about trying to care for her stricken husband in a small Brooklyn apartment. It is gripping, terrifying, dark, and evil, a dreary chronicle of fear and disease. Lustig is using her powers of observation to try to keep her spouse alive. If there are novels that come out of this pandemic, they’re going to be like her piece. I hope she gets to write one if she wants. But after this crisis ends, I never want to read about Coronavirus again. And, to paraphrase the worst celebrity video that went around last week, I’m not the only one.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

2 thoughts on “Novel Virus Idea: Let’s Not Write a Coronavirus Novel

  • May 31, 2022 at 10:40 am

    Well done Neal–and full marks for being prescient so early in March 2020! I just came across this article for the first time via your latest article published on Quillette, which is also brilliant.

    Keep fighting the good fight!


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