This past week our university has moved to online teaching and, like much of the rest of the world, we have been told to practice social distancing as a way to slow down the spread of the coronavirus and mitigate the effects of COVID-19. I have also been in touch, by phone or Skype or other virtual means, with many of the graduate students in our program, whether current students, or those admitted for the fall of 2020. It is an odd time, it seems, to be talking about course selection and seminar papers. Students have reported feeling distracted and unable to concentrate on their studies; but they have also reported being grateful for the opportunity to immerse themselves in those studies, to read deeply, to ponder questions of interpretation and cultural narratives. For we find, to our great surprise, that it is precisely in these moments of great social upheaval and uncertainty, that literature, and the telling and studying of stories, is all the more vital.
We should not be surprised. Our own colleague, David Coley, just last year published Death and the Pearl Maiden, where he showed how Medieval poetry debated “the propriety of writing poetry in a world beset by grave physical and spiritual need,” the Black Death and other traumas represented in that very debate. We can think of other, perhaps more direct, representations: Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353), Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel The Journal of a Plague Year, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), Albert Camus’ La Peste, (1948), and of course, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003). This is not to say that the coronavirus is not a medical emergency: it is an urgent issue for scientists and testing and the logistics thereof. But it is also a human emergency, and we have often turned to narrative and the study of literature as a way to make sense of the inexplicable.
Indigenous writers seek to understand, and help us remember, Canada’s residential schools by writing novels (Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse ) and soldiers in the trenches of World War One wrote, and read poetry (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, to name but two). And, so, burrowing into an online archive, or sitting down to write literary criticism – this is not a turning away from the disaster that piles up around us, it is a way of coming to terms with it – as Fredric Jameson argued when he noted that the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs was at his most politically active when he wrote an essay on genre. Let me say it again: literature matters, the study and writing and reading of literature matters, the most in times of crisis such as we are now confronting. And this is true also in a more everyday sense: as we submit to social distancing and quarantine, perhaps now is the time to read that thousand-page Russian novel. And while English professors are more than just human algorithms (or so we tell ourselves), the social media channels of SFU’s English Department are featuring, on a daily basis, recommendations for what to read – related to plagues or not – suggested by faculty and students. Now, more than ever, literature matters.
– Clint Burnham, SFU English Graduate Program Chair