At the end of March, Alice Quinn, former executive director of the Poetry Society of America, e-mailed 125 poets across the United States, asking if any of them had written verses reflecting on life during a pandemic. Responses flooded in. By mid-May, Quinn had compiled a book with 85 poems about isolation, grief, boredom, longing and hope, including work by Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Jenny Xie and Matthew Zapruder.
The collection, “Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic,” will be published by Knopf as an e-book on June 9, with a hardcover edition to follow in November.
“We’re in a dramatic moment, and everybody is experiencing this drama together,” Quinn said.
The poetry collection is part of a new crop of quickly assembled books about the pandemic. Three months into the biggest public health and economic crisis of our era, authors and publishers are racing to produce timely accounts of the coronavirus outbreak, with works that range from reported narratives about the science of pandemics and autobiographical accounts of being quarantined, to spiritual guides on coping with grief and loss, to a book about the ethical and philosophical quandaries raised by the pandemic.
Several forthcoming books look at the pandemic’s dire economic consequences, including “Going Dark,” by Wall Street Journal reporter Liz Hoffman and Adam Tooze’s “Shutdown.” Publishers also have snapped up reported narratives, like New York Times researcher Emma Goldberg’s account of medical school students who graduated early to help treat coronavirus patients in overwhelmed hospitals, and personal accounts like “Quarantine! How I Survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis” by novelist Gay Courter, who was among the passengers on a cruise ship that docked off the coast of Japan while coronavirus spread among passengers and the crew.
Other upcoming books focus on the virus itself, among them “Patient Zero,” a collection of case studies and medical histories of how COVID-19 and some of the world’s other most infectious diseases spread, by physician Dr. Lydia Kang and journalist Nate Pedersen, and science writer David Quammen’s forthcoming book exploring how COVID-19 took root in human hosts and spread so quickly.
Debora MacKenzie, a science journalist who specializes in infectious diseases, sold a proposal about the pandemic in mid-March and wrote the entire book in six weeks. It was rushed out as an e-book that went on sale on this week.
Publishing books about an unfolding calamity, when the duration and outcome remain uncertain, carries obvious risks for authors and publishers. With so many unanswered questions about the virus, how it spreads and when a vaccine might arrive, works that are reported and written now risk being out of date by the time they are published.
“It’s a hard subject for writers to write, and it’s hard for publishers to buy, because you don’t know what the narrative arc is yet,” said literary agent Amanda Urban.
Additionally, there is the challenge of selling a book on a subject that’s likely to be exhaustively covered from every imaginable angle.
“The difficulty for publishers is, we know there will be a lot, and we know only a few of them will work,” said Jonathan Burnham, publisher of the HarperCollins imprint Harper.
There’s also a fear that interest in the topic could dissipate in a hurry once the crisis passes. That’s one reason Knopf decided to release its poetry anthology, “Together in a Sudden Strangeness,” on an accelerated schedule, said Deborah Garrison, the senior editor who acquired the book.
“We don’t know how long this situation will last,” she said.