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This article was commissioned by the Goethe-Institut Belgium and first appeared on

"On the Essential Nature of Literature"

Von Isabelle Holz, Florian Rogge, Julian Schlicht - Juni 2020

And the word that Cassie came up with, the second great factor that could send us all back to the stone age, that word, […] is “flu”. Can literature predict the future? In retrospect, quite a few books and authors have been described using the sales-boosting word “prophetic.” A recent example, the source of the above quote, is Not Forgetting the Whale by British novelist John Ironmonger [2015]. In it, an investment banker develops a computer program for risk forecasting. At first, its aim is to assess tomorrow’s stock prices, but soon the program is able to make much more vital forecasts. The program is named after Cassandra from Greek mythology, whose curse was that she foresaw the future but nobody believed her predictions. 
Literature is neither a computer program nor an “oracle,” and yet again and again “classics” suddenly seem up-to-date. If we search for well-known pandemic stories in literary history, we quickly find what we’re looking for and will probably come across the origins of present-day feelings. Be it the “plague” motif, which from ancient times has run through world literature and modern films and series, to modern dystopias and zombie apocalypses, or political thrillers about biological weapons – no matter the media, all of these scenarios are deeply rooted in our individual and collective imagination. The narrative pattern of these stories is always similar, so it doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the novel The Plague, seen the film Contagion, or heard a legend about Sopona, the smallpox god of the Yoruba in Nigeria. Literary fiction not only expresses our ideas (and the limits of our imagination), but also constitutes our perception of this crisis. 
Only a few days after most countries had imposed lockdowns, closing down cultural institutions such as theatres and cinemas, the first (self-) quarantine reading lists appeared. Many of these lists, whether in Europe, Asia, West Africa, or America, were topped by Albert Camus’s novel The Plague [1947], and closely followed by The Decameron by Boccaccio [1348–1353], The Last Man by Mary Shelley [1826], or A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe [1722]. The media certainly play a major role in our outward perception of a homogeneous international response. The fact is that sales of The Plague in the UK increased by more than 1,000 per cent since February 2020, more copies were sold in Japan in March than in the past 31 years combined, and there was also a surge in demand for the novel in France, Italy, and the USA.[1] The Austrian radio station FM4 even organised a ten-hour marathon reading of the novel with numerous prominent authors.[2]
Why, in the middle of a pandemic, do people all over the world enjoy reading stories about epidemic disasters or the end of the world as we know it? And why, in an existential crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, is literature important not only for people but also for politics? 

Literature: User manual and benchmark 

 The ability to grasp complex situations and learn how comparable crises were overcome is a basic emotional and cognitive human need. Most of these books were created retrospectively of more or less long-past epidemics and pandemics, but given contemporary interpretations. We obviously feel a need to see the real crises of the present reflected in stories about the past. And perhaps the books, which at first glance seem disturbing, actually provide a certain reassurance. Because unlike the “dynamic” situation of the present-day, self-contained stories are characterised by a clearly understandable dramaturgy with a beginning, climax or turning point, and end. In this way, novels and narratives meet our need for predictability. Viral case, transmission, and death rates don’t capture the uncertainty and ambiguity of the present situation. Our usual problem-solving strategies fail due to the complexity. In a crisis, by contrast, literary fiction is akin to the qualitative data set that we can use to find our (emotional) bearings. Literary fiction frames our present and influences the perception, the attribution of causes, the interpretation, and the idea of ​​options for action. They can be used to activate or reactivate fantasies and emotions and they provide us with a common, cross-cultural framework of interpretation. 
Books always become bestsellers when they speak to prevailing moods in a society – for example, uncertainty or a sense of meaninglessness. It would be wrong to attempt to derive opinions from reading habits, but bestseller lists can be understood as collective “fever curves” that indicate which topics (and feelings) are currently virulent in a society. In contrast to clinical thermometers, which only have an indicating function, books can also influence social moods. Bestsellers – understood as books read by many people – create a common basis for perception and discussion. Under these circumstances the act of reading, often described as an individual, escapist act, proves to be a socially relevant, or, to put it in contemporary terms, an essential act. 

Fiction and friction 

 Beyond the narrative form, what most “contagion stories” from different regions of the world have in common is that the actual catastrophe is not death, but the way societies dissolve into fake news and racism. In a crisis, emotions become contagious and multiply exponentially. In A Mass for Arras [1971], the Polish novelist Andrze Szczypiorski uses the backdrop of a medieval plague to describe how the general insecurity fuels (religious) fanaticism. The novel Blindness by José Saramago [1995] describes the scenario of a quarantine enforced by the military and the brutalisation of society during an epidemic. The novel Nemesis by the American author Philip Roth [2010], which is set during a polio epidemic in New Jersey in the summer of 1944, reveals how a deficient information policy fuels fear and feelings of powerlessness among the population. The Method by the German novelist Juli Zeh [2009] is about a health dictatorship in which people have exchanged freedom for security having been promised health and protection in return. 
The political potential of literature lies not in prophecy – there are no prophetic books and literature is not a crystal ball – but in foresight. Literature points to the friction and simulates for us what could happen. In her 2014 article “Strategists Have Forgotten the Power of Stories,” Kathleen J. McInnis, International Security Analyst for the US Congressional Research Service, explains why the need for creative thinking to address national security challenges and realities has never been so great.[3] But literature should not only be taken seriously as a scenario technique instrument, but also as a communication strategy and possible counter-narrative. This could not only have an impact on a more sensitive handling of emotions and the associated potential risks, but also create a new communication framework that also includes emotional realities. 
Dystopias also enable us to reflect on security policy measures and can critically illuminate the relationships and consequences of interventions in the social system. Hence, alongside “epidemic literature,” it is also striking that social dystopias such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley [1932] or 1984 by George Orwell [1949] are receiving attention during this time. Novels like 1984 or The Method open up a new perspective on the Covid-19 app or the immunity card. From our own point of view, the path – as dystopias show us – can lead to disaster. They also describe what all has to go wrong for it to come to this. 

Books are “essential goods”

 The shutdown was also a watershed for the cultural scene, but it didn’t take long for the first new online-based formats to emerge. Online readings and book events have been held worldwide since March. For example in the virtual Afrolit Sans Frontieres Festival, founded by South African author Zukiswa Wanner in response to the stay-at-home orders, authors from across Africa enter into dialogue. Troy Onyango, a Kenyan writer who moderated some of the Afrolit sessions, sees this cross-border conversation as an opportunity to speak transnationally about present-day developments and conflicts based on shared reading.[4] In general, and not only in Africa, the establishment of virtual communication spaces and the digitisation of books could lead to completely new inner- and trans-societal developments. 
In The Decameron, a collection of novellas, ten Florentines retreat to the countryside to self-quarantine during the plague. To battle their fear they tell each other stories; one each every day. During the lockdown in the US, a university professor decided to emulate The Decameron. Every week, students were able to give themselves a fictional identity and tell a story that was then discussed.[5]
South Africans are now hoping for reforms in the book sector – for example, the declaration of books as “essential goods” so that they, like food and clothing, would be exempt from VAT and sales tax.[6] During the first weeks of the lockdown, Michelle Obama read a children’s book every Monday on YouTube – to help parents, but also because fantasies offer a protective place and immunise children against reality a little bit. And, in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, wasn’t the plague ultimately the discursive spark that made the collective quarantine a space to tell stories to one another? 


[1] Earle, Samuel, “How Albert Camus’s The Plague became the defining book of the coronavirus crisis,” New Statesman, 27 May 2020, URL: Accessed: 10 June 2020 

[2] “Lesemarathon mit Albert Camus’ ‘Die Pest,’” Der Tagesspiegel, 10 April 2020. URL: Accessed: 4 June 2020

[3] McInnis, Kathleen J, “Strategists Have Forgotten the Power of Stories. The arts are invaluable to national security policymakers facing an ever-changing future,” Foreign Policy, 19 May 2020. URL: Accessed: 11 June 2020 

[4] Abdi Latif Dahir, “An African Literary Festival for the Age of Coronavirus,” New York Times, 14 May 2020. URL: Accessed: 10 June 2020 

[5] Benedetti, Laura, “Hoyasaxon, a modern-day Decameron: an experiment in narrative healing,” The Irish Times, 2 June 2020. URL: Accessed: 9 June 2020

[6] Powell, Anita, “South African Booksellers Open Up Sales in Defiance of Lockdown,” VOA News, 7 May 2020. URL: Accessed: 9 June 2020


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