Confessions of a Disease Geek

A few months back I posted about the lack of fiction about the flu pandemic of 1918; the books that followed immediately in its wake seemed to have forgotten that the whole thing happened, though as one commenter pointed out, it would start working its way into literature in the decades after. The outbreak of 2009 would appear to be sputtering out (though Laurie Garrett‘s excellent article in Newsweek assures me that a viral apocalypse is pretty much assured, eventually), yet more examples of flu fiction keep appearing; the more you say that something doesn’t exist, I suppose, the more examples that suddenly arrive proving you wrong. I recently stumbled across a mention of Thomas Mullen‘s 2006 novel, The Last Town on Earth, and today the Washington Post‘s book blog, Short Stack, has a Q&A with Mary Doria Russell, whose historical novel on the pandemic, Dreamers of the Day, came out last year. Morris, a self-declared “disease geek,” is a little cynical about reaction to the current outbreak: “In a world where lawyers decide what’s safe, everything is dangerous,” she says. And she has an interesting insight about why the 1918 flu is something of a cultural blind spot for Americans:

Well, of course, in America, we use the phrase “It’s history” when we’re dismissing something as unimportant. Part of my job as a historical novelist is to get readers to feel an intense connection with the past, but I’m swimming upstream, culturally.

That said, it’s only been in recent decades in our culture that speaking of grief and trauma and emotional distress has been tolerated, much less encouraged….

We now recognize the corrosive damage of buried emotional trauma, and try to prevent it or deal with it if it’s already occurred. We may make way too much of a big deal over a lot of trivial stuff, but we are much better than our antecedents at mitigating the harm done by life’s inevitable losses. That’s progress.