In her recent article Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic for Lit Hub, Siri Hustvedt posed the question: “if you are well and at home and have enough to eat and can concentrate on a book, do you read toward or away from your fear?” Along with reading Hustvedt, I spoke with novelist Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection and My Ex-Life, among several other acclaimed best-sellers, to gain an understanding of how different authors are processing the desire to escape into literature during these tumultuous times.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a total immersion in fear. As Hustvedt states, one can, “consume every factual tidbit available about the virus and its spread, the best mask to wear, or how to clean your groceries to avoid contamination.” She goes on to ask, “what could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Hustvedt’s answer is an escape to the fantastic. In fairy tales, she explains, “the hero or heroine is tested sorely, but in the end, he or she is rewarded with happiness.” And to the magic in fairy tales, “the laws of nature are overturned and replaced by human desires.”
However, magic is not the only way to find a respite from the fear and facts of the news. As McCauley explained, a piece of fiction can be utterly immersive and calming without the use of witches and evil stepmothers. “I find I’m not interested in reading anything either too grim or too suspenseful. [My] nerves [are] frayed enough as is,” he said, referring to the Covid-19 virus. “Since this leaves out much of contemporary fiction, I’m sticking with classics.” Having not read any Dickens in many years, McCauley has now immersed himself in Little Dorrit. “I’d forgotten what a singular pleasure it is to read Dickens,” said McCauley. “His sentences are lavishly embellished, his plots border on incomprehensibly complicated, and the cast of characters is immense. But once you ease into his style and accept his pacing, it’s spectacularly enjoyable. ‘Oh, good, here comes Flora,’ you think and then settle down for ten pages of the character behaving exactly as you know she will. It’s a thoroughly immersive experience.”