Despite the desires of some readers, nobody should expect any good novels about Covid. This doesn’t mean that a good novel won’t be set during Covid’s peak. Nor does it mean that Covid won’t affect the story in a good novel. What it means, instead, is that Covid won’t be the driving force behind the story in any good novels, in the same way that good novels are not primarily driven by what’s political or cultural or historic.
Of course this isn’t the typical assumption. For some readers, novels are created to describe what’s communal, such as the turmoil and instability and disorder of public life, with the stories that we tell essentially political documents, closer to chronological archives than character dramas. Implicit in this preference is the desire to value literature with some external quality—whether that’s a fidelity to history, an ideological commitment, or the right sensibility. Storytelling is secondary. Characters exist to satisfy roles. And literary value follows social value.
Now there are still good novels set in turbulent and notable times: World War I directs and is necessary to understand The Return of the Soldier, The Great Depression is the condition that triggers The Grapes of Wrath, and World War II is the sole reason the characters in The Naked and the Dead even come together. Whether the subject is the Cold War or the Vietnam War, the 1980s boom on Wall Street or the Financial Crisis, we do have novels about events that we mark as historic pivots. In nearly every instance, however, the stories that we end up remembering are oriented as character dramas, where the stage has a background of warfare or statecraft or civic tragedy. That stage does redound onto the characters, it does provide a thrust to the narrative, but we don’t remember the novels that merely exhibit a setting—we remember the novels that infuse a particular setting with a personal drama.