Art, writing and disease

By Scott Bury

Poussin’s The Plague of Ashod, painted 1630-31. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Art and literature necessarily reflect the times they’re created.

During the Black Death, medieval artists decorated texts with images of devils raining arrows on sinners. In the plague of the seventeenth century, Renaissance artists painted the sufferings of masses of people to illustrate the passion of Christ. 

In our century, there has been a stream of books, films and television programs about a worldwide plague: The Walking Dead, World War Z, Contagion to name just a few. 

Former BestSelling Reads members Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman wrote a six-volume series about the aftereffects of a deadly, worldwide pandemic that ends civilization. 

Strangely enough, the 1919-20 “Spanish flu” (which more properly should be described as the American flu or the Kansas flu) has not sparked as many books. Some have attributed this to the pandemic’s proximity to the First World War, which provided a lot more drama as a setting for a general trauma than an illness which confined the afflicted to their bed. 

Even now, we can see and read different attitudes reflected in books and other media about race, religion, foreign countries and money than, say, 15 years ago.

The elephant in the room

At BestSelling Reads, we’ve tried not to post too often about the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, after dealing with it for more than a year, it’s hard to imagine that it’s not going to be reflected in books and stories that come out afterward. 

When watching TV shows or movies at home (because who can go to a theater now?), I find myself reacting in different ways when I see people closer than six feet apart. 

My own work-in-progress is my first foray into a post-apocalyptic near-future narrative. I’m trying to look at today in the rear-view mirror. Which means that the pandemic we’re in right now is going to be something in my characters’ history. 

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

One thing we can tell looking in the rear-view mirror today is how everything in our everyday lives are intertwined. The growth of the internet has affected television. Now we binge-watch shows. No more gathering in the staff room to discuss last night’s episode of Lost and speculate on just where the plot is going. 

Cars changed houses, cities, travel, work, economies, even romance—just about every aspect of life today. Ease of travel changed the food we eat. I remember getting tangerines only in December when I was growing up. (I told you I was old.)

I try to think of it as something like polio was for me as a child: a terrible affliction that was beaten, thankfully, before I was born. I got a shot that protected me from a disease that could have crippled or killed me. 

I got a lot of vaccinations, thankfully. I cannot see it anymore, but I do remember the oval mark on my upper arm, the memento of a smallpox vaccination. 

The measles shot came along just a little too late for me; I got the rash and the fever coming home one day in Grade 1. (Now you know how old I am.) What I mostly remember is three weeks at home, playing with some new toy cars and a big, multi-coloured pack of plasticine modelling clay. 

What will COVID-19 look like in 2050? How will children then think of it? 

The Black Death killed half of Europe and transformed society. Some historians say it led to the end of serfdom in western Europe and opened the way for the Renaissance. Will today’s pandemic transform major aspects of our society? 

Today in the rear-view mirror

Will it permanently alter schools? What about work: how many “knowledge workers” will be working in our own homes?

That’s a trend that began with widespread high-speed internet connections. Will the pandemic accelerate it? If it does, will our homes change, too? What about the “work-life balance”? Will work and life merge? 

Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of books about the near future. Not all of them were post-apocalyptic, but many were. His conception of the future has been described as “just like today, but worse.”

Will we learn from this pandemic? Will we repeat the same mistakes in the next pandemic? Will we make new mistakes? 

It’s a tangled exercise. It can be fun. It can be terrifying. 

One way or another, as our lives move from the windshield into the rear-view mirror, it’s going to be fascinating. 

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. First, with a a children’s story in 2011, then a paranormal short story for grown-ups.

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. Its sequel, The Children of the Seventh Son, followed in 2020.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He holds a BA from Carleton University’s School of Journalism. He has two mighty sons, two pesky cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot.

He is a recipient of Maclean Hunter’s Top 6 Award and a member of a team that won a Neal Award for business reporting.

Scott can be found:

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