Some years ago, my colleague Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, gave me a copy of Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor. That may have been during the Great Recession, because I recall thinking, as I read it, that the collection was just what was needed. With a deadly pandemic, economic collapse, racial injustice playing out with tragic consequences, and violence erupting in cities all over the country, I think no one would quibble with calling this new period in our history among the hardest of times. The question that occurs to me is whether there is a type of reading that can help us through it.
One of the first instincts of writers is to write about what they are experiencing, and already EQMM has received several stories revolving around the pandemic. What some writers are ready to write about and what most readers are ready to read about can be different matters, however, and so far EQMM has not bought a pandemic story. For one thing, it’s my guess (an educated guess, based on many years with the magazine) that most of our readers, bombarded daily with news reports of the pandemic, have little desire to read entertainment fiction that rather than giving them a bit of respite from the situation brings it to mind yet again. Even so, I am reluctant to tell writers not to submit a story that involves the crisis. Years ago, after 9/11, I dreaded the submissions I knew we’d receive about the terrorist attacks. Two years after the towers fell, I was still resistant to reading anything that might trivialize what had happened by using it to support a clever plot or ingenious puzzle or the adventures of a popular series character—as writing entertainment fiction in such close proximity to a horrific event can sometimes do. But then a story came in entitled “A Sunday in Ordinary Time,” a story that I believe remains, all these years later, one of the best that writer Terence Faherty has produced. It depicted a shocked and devastated community in the immediate wake of the events of 9/11, but in a moving and sensitive way—a way that provided catharsis for the reader. I was glad, then, that I hadn’t decided simply to send back stories about the attacks. Now, as then, we will continue to read and give careful consideration to all stories that come in. I’d only advise those who have written about the pandemic and want to submit the work to us that it’s not a likely subject to find favor with EQMM right now.
If readers aren’t ready for stories about the calamities presently facing us, then what do they want to read? Maybe a much earlier upheaval can help answer the question. In James R. Benn’s article “The Crime Novels of WWII”, he notes how few of the big-name mystery and crime writers of the time dealt with the war, citing Agatha Christie as producing only one such book, and that single venture published early in the war; Raymond Chandler making only a passing reference to the war in The Lady in the Lake and not touching the subject again until years after the war was over; Simenon never mentioning the war at all in his several books published during its course, and Dorothy Sayers essentially ceasing to write fiction after the start of the war. It’s hard to say whether these writers found it too difficult to write about something they were so fully immersed in, impossible, perhaps, to gain the right perspective—or whether they were responding to a sense that their readers wanted to be taken out of the world of the encompassing conflict and transported to an entirely different place in imagination. It’s certainly a common belief that readers crave “escapist” fiction during times of crisis, and it would not be a big stretch to suppose that some of the popular writers of the period were catering to what they thought their readership desired.
On the other hand, no writer—no good one, at least—is immune to catastrophes in the world in which he or she lives and works. The clearest example of this may be Ellery Queen. The two cousins who wrote under that pseudonym were as in tune as any writer ever was to the marketing of their work. Yet with the advent of WWII, their work began to transform into what is considered an entirely different phase. The Ellery of the earlier novels—aloof, stiffly intellectual, somewhat affected in mannerisms—began to be noticably humanized in my favorite Queen novel, Calamity Town, published in 1942. It was as if the disaster of war on such a scale, and its atrocities, had unconsciously necessitated the creation by the authors of a more compassionate central character. They didn’t need to write about the war directly in order to reflect the changes it made to virtually everyone.
To come back to the question with which we began—Is there a type of reading that can help us through our current situation?— I incline to two possibilities. One is so-called “escapist” fiction, which doesn’t directly depict the morass we find ourselves in the midst of but may well reflect newly forming attitudes towards life and society as a result of it. The other is fiction—or poetry!—that brings the reader cathartic release from the turmoil of confused emotions we must all currently be experiencing.
I’ve brought in poetry not only because it can serve to convey and release repressed emotion, but because it is usually short enough to be taken in fully during a time when many, myself included, are finding it difficult to focus on longer reading. Recently I said to a good friend, a former editor of both fiction and nonfiction, “I suppose you are using this time in lockdown to do a lot of reading.” She replied, “I’m not reading at all, I’m not able to focus on it now.” My job at EQMM necessitates a great deal of reading, which I have continued to do, but I understood entirely what my friend meant, for with the lockdown having unexpectedly given me a little more free time, I’ve picked up a number of books that I’ve long wanted to read, only to put them down again within minutes. The one thing I have been able to focus on for reading unrelated to work is poetry. Coincidentally, this month’s EQMM podcast is a selection of EQMM poetry—mostly humorous verse, but a few “serious” pieces too. I hope you’ll listen to it.
In closing, I wanted to include here a poem from Garrison Keilor’s Good Poems for Hard Times that struck me as a propos to the circumstance many of us are experiencing in lockdown, where what surround us are not people but things. It turns out that it is not possible to reproduce the poem on this site, as we cannot get the necessary permission in time, but the Poetry Foundation has obtained the rights to present the poem online and you can find it here. It’s entitled “Things” by Lisel Mueller.
What are you reading?